I beg to move,
That this House expresses its continued support for HM armed forces personnel and their families; notes that over 440 service personnel have been killed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001; further notes that the armed forces have operated over the original planning assumptions for years; regrets that there has not been a Strategic Defence Review (SDR) since 1998; believes that the 1998 SDR was never fully funded and failed to provide proper equipment for the Iraq war; recognises that the Government failed to plan for post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq; further recognises the cut to the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004; is concerned about the cuts to the frigate and destroyer fleet from the 32 recommended in the 1998 SDR 23; is further concerned by the failure to provide the Royal Air Force with a modern troop transport and air-to-air refuelling fleet; believes that the Government has presided over a failed procurement process; further believes that the Government has failed properly to fund the armed forces for wartime operations; and calls on the Government to acknowledge its failure to honour the Military Covenant.
At the beginning of this debate, our thoughts and prayers are very much with the families and friends of Sergeant Paul Fox, Rifleman Martin Kinggett and Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate, who have all given their lives in the service of their country in the past week. The sadness that we share with their families is mixed—correctly—with pride in their courage and devotion to their country.
With the 1998 strategic defence review, new Labour got off to a relatively good start with the armed forces. The 1998 SDR was a well-respected document. Moreover, it used a foreign policy baseline, not a Treasury baseline, as many of its predecessors had done. That was, and is, the right way of conducting such a review. However, the failure to have a review for more than 12 years means that our armed forces—as well as Government across Whitehall, for that matter—have failed fully to adapt to the increasingly changing global security situation.
The events of 9/11 fundamentally changed the international security environment, while the aftermath of Iraq made the planning assumptions of the SDR largely obsolete. Looking back, we can also see that the review’s ambitions were never fully matched with funding. That has meant that for 12 years our armed forces have been operating well beyond what they were resourced to do. The truth is that the current Prime Minister as Chancellor was never willing fully to fund Tony Blair’s wars, and that same sad story has been retold time and time again during the Chilcot inquiry.
As the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) stated in his evidence, within the Ministry of Defence
“there was quite a strong feeling”
that the 1998 strategic defence review
“was not fully funded,”
“in the subsequent CSR programmes we asked for significantly more money than we eventually received”.
Sir Kevin Tebbit said that as permanent secretary he had to operate a permanent crisis budget. Former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Walker said that the SDR was underfunded by well into £1 billion.
In one of his many moving farewell speeches, in one of the final pieces of spin of his premiership, Tony Blair said that defence spending had remained broadly stable, at 2.5 per cent. of GDP, if we take into account Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, much of the burden of the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan was being carried by the core defence budget. The truth is that the Ministry of Defence was effectively fighting two wars on a peacetime budget.
The Treasury’s unwillingness fully to fund the MOD’s 1998 SDR meant that there were big losers across defence and a degradation of our capability. Let us look just at the Royal Navy. Time and time again since the 1998 SDR, the Navy has been blackmailed into accepting cuts to its fleet, to ensure the eventual addition of two new carriers. During the 1998 SDR process, the Navy agreed to cut its fleet of 12 attack submarines to 10, and its fleet of 35 destroyers and frigates to 32, in return for the promise of the two carriers. A decade later we find our Navy with only eight attack submarines, with a possible future reduction to only six or seven, and 22 —an astonishingly low number—of destroyers and frigates. Maritime commitments have not decreased since 1998 but have risen, at a time when our Navy has been slashed, mothballed and, in some cases, sold off. There is a similar pattern to be found across all three services, including the reserves.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will in a moment.
The Government’s failure fully to fund their SDR is only one item in a long litany of failures. The true story behind the invasion of Iraq is now being told. I am sure that the whole country is looking forward to the Prime Minister’s evidence this Friday, but what we already know is quite shocking. Not only did the Government fail to plan properly for the post-conflict period in Iraq, but it is now well known that what most of us suspected all along is true: that troops were sent into Iraq without proper equipment. We now know that during the early planning phases of the Iraq war, the then Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Boyce, was blocked by the then Defence Secretary from organising crucial logistics, in case it sent the wrong political message: that we were preparing for war. In the words of Lord Boyce,
“I was not allowed to speak, for example, to the Chief of Defence Logistics—I was prevented from doing that by the Secretary of State for Defence, because of the concern about it becoming public knowledge that we were planning for a military contribution which might…be…unhelpful in the activity…in the United Nations to secure”
a Security Council resolution.
I understand that Opposition parties have to try to point out shortcomings, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that defence, like other public expenditure, is a matter of choice, that as the world changes the choices have to change, and that if we want to spend more on things such as unmanned aerial vehicles and intelligence, we have to think about what we are going to spend less on?
That is a statement of the obvious. I will come in a moment to the economic backdrop against which future decisions will have to be made.
The point that I am making is that we now know that troops were sent into harm’s way in Iraq without the proper equipment for political reasons. Sending troops into harm’s way without the proper kit for domestic reasons is a serious breach of the military covenant.
May I go back to the point that the hon. Gentleman was making when I sought to intervene on him? He was speaking movingly about the shortfalls affecting the Navy. Is it true that the first act of a Conservative Government would be, as he said to the convenors of the shipyard unions only last week, to examine the break clauses in the aircraft carrier contract?
It would be the act of any sensible incoming Government to look at the unavoidable costs in any project that the previous Government had committed them to—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] That is a sensible thing to do. If we are going to go ahead with some of the essential projects required for the country’s military and diplomatic prowess, we will need to be able to look at what the costs are going to be across all Government programmes. That is exactly the point that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) made a moment ago.
One would have thought that the Government had learned enough, following their failures in Iraq, to ensure that we were prepared for our mission in Afghanistan, but again they failed to understand the situation and sent our forces into a hornets’ nest, without the proper resources to carry out what they were being asked to do. An Army board of inquiry into the death of Captain James Phillipson in 2006 found that there had been delays in the delivery of basic equipment, partly because
“The MOD and the Treasury were unwilling to commit funds to urgent operational requirements enhancements prior to any formal political announcement.”
The Government were sleepwalking into the early stages of our engagement in Helmand province by sending only an initial 3,500 troops. The brigade commander in 2006, Brigadier Ed Butler, has made it clear that that number of soldiers was deployed as a result of a “Treasury-imposed cap”, and not as part of an objective analysis of the situation on the ground.
The shortage of key equipment in Helmand—especially helicopters, as has been well documented—has in part led to a number of high-profile military resignations, including those of Colonel Stuart Tootal, Brigadier Ed Butler, Major Sebastian Morley and Major-General Andrew Mackay.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that the mandate to go into Iraq was secured in this House. Prior to that, no activity could take place at ministerial level, or within Government Departments, that would suggest that we were going to go into Iraq, for fear of presuming on the House. He will also know that some 23,000 items were required to be deployed as part of personnel security. Does he not understand that although the intention to deliver is there, it is sometimes not logistically possible to do so?
I simply do not accept that point. Sensible contingency planning ought to have been taking place. It was not that the equipment was unavailable or that it could not be ordered; it was specifically not ordered because that would have sent a specific political signal. That is where the moral culpability of the Government lies.
Perhaps the Government’s biggest failure in their conduct of defence is their mismanagement of the equipment programme. The defence and security of the country is increasingly being run on a wing and a prayer, and as the money has failed to materialise for the unfunded projects, they have been delayed and delayed, with the taxpayer left to foot the bill and the military left to ponder their absent capabilities. The default position should be that we spend to save, rather than that we delay to spend. Speedy procurement ultimately saves money, but the Government have too often failed to understand that.
Unfortunately, if half of what was reported in the Gray review is true, the next Government will have not only the task of balancing defence priorities between the conflict that we face today and the wars of tomorrow, but the challenge of putting the MOD’s finances back on track after a decade of mismanagement and neglect. The Labour Government came to power with a promise to introduce smart procurement, which would deliver equipment faster, better and more cheaply. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.
None of us knows exactly when the election will come; there have been rumours that it could be announced today, but personally I doubt it, because if the Prime Minister were any more of a serial bottler, he could start a factory. But whenever the election comes, the Government in office after it will find themselves with a military that is overstretched, undermanned and in possession of worn-out equipment.
We know that the equipment programme is underfunded—by exactly how much is anybody’s guess, but most estimates put it at billions of pounds. Bernard Gray, the Government’s own analyst, placed the figure at £16 billion over the next 10 years, which equates to an unfunded liability of some £4.4 million a day. The plunging value of the pound, which we have seen again today, has left an estimated £1.3 billion black hole in Britain’s defence budget.
According to the most recent figures available from the National Audit Office, the top 15 major procurement projects are £4.5 billion over budget and delayed by a total of 339 months. The A400M aircraft is £657 million over budget and will be delayed by 82 months. The Type 45 destroyer is £1.5 billion over budget and will be delayed by 38 months. The aircraft carriers are more than £1 billion over budget already, and the service entry date for the first carrier has been delayed from 2012 to 2016. The decision in 2004 to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion—in the middle of two wars—was inexcusable, irresponsible and irreconcilable with the basic duty to maximise the safety of our troops while carrying out a dangerous mission. In the words of the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Ashfield, to the Chilcot inquiry,
“had that budget been spent in the way that we thought we should spend it, then those helicopters would probably be coming into service any time now.”
Due to this failed procurement programme, billions of pounds have been needlessly wasted—money that could have gone into equipping our front-line troops.
The Ministry of Defence’s record of waste is staggering, as £2.5 billion has been spent on external consultants, but it could not find £20 million to train the Territorial Army. Furthermore, £2.3 billion was spent refurbishing the MOD, but it could not find £4 million for officer training corps training.
A further £6.6 billion was wasted on account of lost equipment, including among other things 3,938 Bowman radios and an untold number of laptops. Another £113 million was wasted on a super hangar for fast jet repair that was never used, while £118 million was wasted on armoured vehicle cancellations, £8 million was lost on cancelled training courses and almost £250,000 lost on works of art to hang on the walls of main building. How can all that be allowed to happen? It is a picture of serial incompetence and a lack of grip by Ministers on the Department.
No, I do not have those figures, but I look forward to being enlightened about them when the hon. Lady speaks.
New Labour’s deluded belief that we can all live beyond our means indefinitely has produced an economic train crash whose effects will be felt for a generation. The enduring legacy of new Labour’s brand of socialism has been to saddle us with “cradle to grave” debt. When the Government leave office, they will not only have failed in their duty to support our armed forces properly in conflict, but the economic calamity they leave in their wake will make the task of rebuilding our security in a dangerous world all the more difficult.
Put simply, Mr. Speaker, it cannot go on like this. Our armed forces cannot take another five years of Labour. The damage this Government have done to our armed forces will take years to put right, and will limit our ability to react to the unexpected for years to come. It should come as no surprise that the Government’s decade of neglect simply reflects the way in which their leadership view defence. We have had individual Defence Secretaries, including the current one, who have been both competent and committed to the armed forces, but we have had four Defence Secretaries in four years, one of whom was part-time, even though we were heavily engaged in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Besides using the armed forces as props in a photo shoot, the Prime Minister himself has never shown much interest in the armed forces. The former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, described the Prime Minister as
“the most unsympathetic Chancellor of the Exchequer, as far as defence was concerned”.
We now know that in 2004 the service chiefs came close to resigning en masse.
The Prime Minister’s instinctive lack of interest in the armed forces has been compounded by incompetent procurement and failure fully to fund the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Inevitably, that has resulted in a weakening of the military covenant, with many in the armed forces feeling undervalued. Perhaps we should have known that when, back in 2000, Lord Mandelson described the Brigade of Guards as
“a lot of chinless wonders marching round Horseguards Parade doing incomprehensible things with flags”.
Since 2001, 63 members of the Household Division have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. That senior members of the Government should even think like Lord Mandelson is chilling, and I doubt that any member of the Government Front Bench could defend those views today.
Our armed forces are, in the words of the Leader of the Opposition, “the best of British”. That is why the words of the Chief of the General Staff in his recent memorandum echo so resonantly:
“my greatest concern…is the deteriorating experience of soldiers and their families in the period between tours which, the team reports, is disaffecting attitudes, damaging morale and risks undermining our ability to sustain the campaign over the next years. We need our soldiers to be ready, mentally and physically, to endure repeated tours in Afghanistan in a harsh environment, with the real prospect of significant casualties each time. To maintain the necessary morale and cohesion they must see tangible signs between tours that they and their families are valued.”
That is it: our armed forces need to be valued.
Labour has had 13 years, and in that time has failed to understand the value, the essence and the importance of the military covenant. It is a dangerous world, and this Government are tired. The Ministry of Defence and our armed forces need a new vision and a new life, which only a new Government will have the energy to provide.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “2001” to end and add:
“pays tribute to their sacrifice; believes that the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) and the updates that followed the September 2001 attacks on the US have provided a robust policy foundation for the modernisation of Britain’s armed forces that has enabled them to take on successfully the many challenges they have faced over the past decade, including the major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; notes that the Ministry of Defence has brought into service 31 new ships, 63 new multi-role fast jets, six large transport aircraft and 171 new helicopters and provided the Army with a wide range of new equipment it has required to succeed on operations; recognises that the defence budget has grown by more than 10 per cent. in real terms since the SDR and that an additional £14 billion has been provided by the Reserve for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; and welcomes the steps that have been taken substantially to improve support, medical and welfare services for the armed forces.”
I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute, as the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) did, to those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan in recent days: Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate of II Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment, Rifleman Martin Kinggett of 4th Battalion The Rifles, and Sergeant Paul Fox of 28 Engineer Regiment. They and, indeed, all who have lost their lives in operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan or closer to home in Northern Ireland, deserve the gratitude of the entire nation. Their families and their friends are in our thoughts. I have the utmost admiration for the bravery and professionalism, and the selfless commitment to duty, of our armed forces: they show that day in and day out.
I listened closely to the hon. Gentleman. At a time when our armed forces are engaged in dangerous operations that are crucial to this country’s national security and international stability more widely, it is important for us to ensure that defence is widely debated. That is why I find it disappointing that the Conservatives want only to look backwards. Perhaps that is because of their lack of clarity on their own policies for the future.
The strategic defence review of 1998, and the updates that followed in 2002 and 2003, modernised our armed forces to enable them to take on successfully the many challenges that they have faced over the last decade. The Conservatives supported every major operation since the strategic defence review, and they were right to do so. I must say to them, however, that it is not possible to will the ends, oppose all the means and try to score political points with the benefit of hindsight without proposing anything different. That is not a responsible approach to opposition.
Let us take Afghanistan. The Conservatives agree with us about the need to be there. They agree with the military and political strategy that the Government are pursuing. They have supported each deployment of further troops. They have supported the increase in funding of equipment and support for personnel in theatre. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) disagrees, she disagrees with her party’s Front-Bench team and not with me. They agree that we can succeed. They agree that we cannot put a limit on how long this will take. Yet the hon. Member for Woodspring tries to score political points about equipment, publicly accusing the Government of betraying our troops without even checking his facts. He claimed that Ridgback armoured vehicles were stranded in Dubai for lack of airlift to take them into theatre when, in reality, those vehicles were being sent to Afghanistan ahead of schedule. False claims do not just damage the Government; they risk damaging the morale of our troops and the public, and they also risk damaging the mission. Let me set the record straight, and I challenge the Conservatives—
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. I challenge the Conservatives to say what they would do differently. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman now, if he stands up and tells us what he would do differently. Going forward—not going back—what would he do differently?
Any strategic defence review has to be fully funded. Therefore, any SDR that a future Government would decide on would be fully funded; it would be irresponsible not to do that. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether, on the Government record, it is true that the Government cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004, in the middle of two wars?
I was about to come to the Government’s record. It is a record of which the Government can be proud, and the facts are as follows. First, operations are not funded from the core defence budget. By the end of 2008-09, the Treasury reserve contributed more than £14 billion to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. We estimate that a further £4.5 billion will be provided this financial year, and we expect the reserve to contribute some £5 billion to the cost of operations in Afghanistan in the next financial year. More widely, compared with 1997, we now have armed forces that are more capable and better equipped, and successfully working together. To achieve that, we have had to invest more to get more. Since the 1998 defence budget, the budget has grown by more than 10 per cent. in real terms—that is aside from the commitment from the reserve—and there has been the longest period of sustained growth since the 1980s, which is in marked contrast to the situation in the 1990s, when, under a Conservative Government, the defence budget decreased substantially. The defence budget will be some £35.4 billion this financial year, rising to £36.9 billion in 2010-11. We have ring-fenced that increase next year, again in marked contrast to the Conservative party, which has refused to guarantee that the defence budget will be safe from the axe in their proposed autumn Budget.
It is very kind of the right hon. Gentleman to give way, but when I try to intervene it is because I want to ask him questions, not because I intend to answer any he might wish to put. The question I wish to put to him is this: does he, or does he not, accept that if any money that is forthcoming from a Treasury reserve budget in order to fight wars is added to the core budget, yet the proportion is still only 2.5 per cent. of GDP, it is no good the Secretary of State saying the Government are funding the wars separately if the overall peacetime defence budget as a proportion of GDP is remaining the same? The Secretary of State is giving with one hand and taking away with the other, and he is not fully funding the wars that he undertook.
That is not the case, and the hon. Gentleman is aware of his sleight of hand here. We are talking about a period of substantial growth, and the facts are as follows. The defence budget grew by 10 per cent. in real terms additional to the £14 billion from the reserve. He knows those facts to be true, yet he tries to suggest they are not.
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that, much to his annoyance, defence is a UK-wide activity? He would like to stop that arrangement, but I am opposed to its being stopped as I believe in the United Kingdom, and I see defence as a whole. I know that he would like to do something different and that, under any Scottish nationalist regime, defence would be slashed to the bone, at great cost to the people of Scotland.
We recognise that we also need to continue to improve how we use our resources. We are aiming to deliver efficiency savings of more than £3 billion over the current spending review period and we are also working to ensure that we get the maximum value for the resources that we spend on buying and maintaining equipment. Defence acquisition is a complex and expensive business that all nations find difficult. Despite shortcomings, our acquisition system compares favourably with those of our allies, and we have already made considerable improvements on the system that we inherited in 1997. Nevertheless, significant cost pressures on the defence budget exist, which is why the Government have examined how we can make further improvements to defence acquisition, including through regular defence reviews, improved transparency and indicative 10-year budgets.
We should not forget that over the past 12 years very substantial investment in defence has enabled us to provide the equipment and support required to conduct today’s operations overseas and to prepare for the future, and I wish to set that out. For Afghanistan, 1,700 new vehicles have been supplied since 2006; we have doubled the number of helicopters in theatre since November 2006; we have more than doubled the number of helicopter hours available to commanders; more than £100 million has been provided for the Counter-Improvised Explosive Device Task Force; there has been a doubling of the Reaper drone capability; an additional C-17 aircraft has been supplied to strengthen the air bridge and improvements have been made to the Hercules fleet; and 22 new Chinook helicopters are on order, with the first 10 set to arrive during 2012-13.
I shall give way in just a moment. The individual soldier in Afghanistan is better equipped than ever before. Our soldiers are fighting in dangerous circumstances in Helmand with great success, and few other nations can do the same. For defence as a whole, we have made significant strides forward. We have brought into service—
I hope that the hon. Gentleman would like to hear the list. We have brought into service more than 170 new helicopters, including the hugely impressive Apache attack helicopter; six new giant transport aircraft; 63 multi-role Typhoon aircraft; and 31 new warships. The first of the six new Type 45 destroyers will enter service later this year and will provide a step change in capability.
I will give way in a moment. Looking forward, we have taken steps to maintain the armed forces at the forefront of air power with our commitment to the joint strike fighter. Work on the two new aircraft carriers is proceeding well. I challenge the hon. Member for Woodspring to set out his party’s position on the carriers so as to provide clarity—he can do so now if he wishes; let us hear what his party’s position is on those. Has the shadow Chancellor prevented him from doing so?
I am intervening on the Afghanistan point that the Secretary of State has just made. Given the enormous commitment of material and money to Afghanistan that he has just outlined, is it not an extraordinary example of the fundamental misjudgment that the Government made on the seriousness of the commitment that they sent in 3,300 troops in 2006 and the Secretary of State of the day stated that he hoped they would get in and out without firing a shot? The Government completely misread the strategic task that they were undertaking.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the record, because I was sitting in the House at the time when those comments were made. The then Secretary of State sent 16 Air Assault Brigade south—people do not send 16 Air Assault Brigade south without some serious intent. My right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State knew that southern Helmand was a dangerous area.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He is a reasonable man. Does he agree with me that it is completely unacceptable when troops are returning from the front line in Afghanistan that they should be delayed unnecessarily, not because of bad weather but because of problems with ageing, old airframes delayed in Cyprus? That time is taken away from time at home with their loved ones. I have had a constituent this week in tears, saying, “I want my husband home and he is delayed in Cyprus.” It is not good enough.
We have, from time to time, problems with the air bridge. There is no doubt about that. We do everything that we can to minimise those problems and the RAF seeks, all the time, to make the air bridge as robust as possible, but delays are caused and they cause distress. We have invested in new aircraft to try to minimise those delays, such as the new C-17 that I ordered in December, which will give a new added robustness to the air bridge for Afghanistan.
May I take my right hon. Friend back to the question of commitment and remind him that the tooth fairy does not deliver equipment—it has to be manufactured and, we hope, manufactured in this country? As a defence worker during the late ’80s and ’90s, I well recall the thousands of people who were made redundant by the Conservatives. They cut projects and cut orders and thousands of people lost their jobs. My right hon. Friend would be well advised not to take advice on cuts from the Opposition.
Patience is its own reward. We have always made very clear our arguments about seaborne air power projection. It would be perfectly reasonable to expect the carrier programme to continue under another Government, unless there were strong reasons in a strategic defence review for it not to do so. It is therefore impossible to exempt any programme. Now that I have clarified our position, will the Secretary of State tell us for the sake of clarity whether the Government will exempt the carrier programme from their proposed SDR?
I am sorry to disrupt the dialogue, which should obviously be encouraged—the Secretary of State is taking a justifiably pugnacious approach—but may I ask this question? Obviously, extra equipment improves morale, but could morale also be improved if Ministers attended when fallen heroes return to this country?
If the hon. Gentleman means the ceremonies at Wootton Bassett, I have to say to him that I find myself in as difficult a position as anybody. If we attend one, how many do we attend? We are also repeatedly advised, as Ministers, that these are military occasions and that we should confine ourselves to attending proper commemorative occasions when they are called—there have been a few and there should be as many as required—for our services as a whole. I do not see how we can go to one and then not another. I get grief about this all the time—people misunderstand the reasons why we are not constantly at Wootton Bassett watching the coffins return. We simply cannot play politics with a very serious, solemn occasion that is there to provide the families, overwhelmingly, with an opportunity to accept their lost loved one back into their arms.
I am most grateful. I think I must be having a bit of difficulty, because I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) ask whether the carriers would be exempted from the strategic defence review. The Secretary of State has been demanding clarity from my hon. Friend; I think that it is only fair for him to give the same to us.
The right hon. Gentleman will also have heard the hon. Member for Woodspring say that he had provided clarity, but when the right hon. Gentleman looks at the record, he will see that clarity came there none. Instead, there has been a mealy-mouthed response. The Opposition are attempting to look backwards because they are frightened to say what the consequences of their proposals would be, looking forward.
I shall not give way because I would like to make some progress. I shall try to give way a little later.
I want to move on to welfare, because the hon. Member for Woodspring has talked about the military covenant. It is not only in relation to equipment that we have modernised. We have improved defence for our people as well. The service personnel Command Paper of 2008 put in place the first cross-government strategy to support our armed forces with a network of champions across central and local government. We have put in place a tax-free lump sum operational bonus worth £2,360 for those fighting in Afghanistan. We have allocated more free phone calls and internet access and free wi-fi for our troops in Afghanistan. We have doubled the welfare grant for the families of those on operations. We have created top-class medical care in theatre, at Selly Oak and at Headley court. We have provided comprehensive in-service occupational mental health care. We have established a compensation scheme—
Let me complete the list, which is quite extensive.
We have established for the first time, in contrast to what applied when the Conservative party was in power, a compensation scheme that allows injured men and women to receive compensation while they remain in the armed forces. We have doubled the tax-free lump sums for the most serious injuries, and we are committed to increasing all other levels of the award.
We have delivered 38,000 new or improved single living bed spaces, and we have upgraded more than 14,000 family homes, despite having been saddled with the dreadful sale and leaseback agreements that were made by the Conservative party when it was in power.
Let me complete the list.
Basic pay has gone up in line with the recommendations of the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body, in full and on time, in each of the past 11 years. The largest percentage increases have quite rightly been targeted at the junior ranks. The 2009-10 award means that, for the third year running, the increase for the armed forces will be among the highest in the public sector.
Of course, we have delivered changes not just for serving personnel and their families but for leavers and veterans too. They include grants to adapt housing for disabled veterans; the retention of places on the NHS waiting list when people move between areas; help for spouses to find work when they move; priority places in state boarding schools for forces children; fairer treatment when people apply for social housing; free further or higher education for service leavers; and help with getting on the housing ladder. That is the list of measures that the Government have introduced on the welfare side.
All the studies show that veterans are at an increased risk of suicide. What are the Government doing specifically regarding the rising number of those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from Iraq and Afghanistan, given that the Royal British Legion, for example, believes that the Government are not doing enough to reach out to those veterans?
Extensive work is being done on mental health issues, some of which will not come to light for many years to come. We are working with the Royal British Legion, and it is not true to say that we are doing anything other than that. We are working with it to try to ensure that proper structures are in place to deal with mental health—to monitor it, to ensure that support is there when the symptoms show themselves and to ensure that compensation is available. If the hon. Gentleman looks at some of the improvements that Lord Boyce has proposed, and that we intend to introduce, to ensure that mental health is covered adequately in the compensation scheme, he will see the commitment that the Government are making.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Conservatives accuse us of not honouring the military covenant, but then they produce a document that mimics almost exactly the proposals the Government are already bringing into force. It is a case of saying something without any justification.
To prepare our forces for the future, I have announced a formal strategic defence review and delivered a Green Paper setting out the emerging thinking on the future security environment and other key issues facing defence ahead of the review. The work set out in the Green Paper is being taken forward by the Ministry of Defence. The Government can be proud of their record. It is misleading and inaccurate to suggest that the defence budget is being cut or that operations are not properly funded from the reserve. The Government have increased defence spending and, in addition, we have paid for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet Opposition Members continue to push those lines because they do not want anyone to focus on what they would do.
Opposition Members will have all afternoon to answer. Will they take this opportunity to set the record straight? Can they confirm today in the House whether they will maintain, let alone increase, defence spending? George Osborne—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor has said there will be cuts from day one if the Conservatives win the next election. Would the hon. Member for Woodspring like to take this opportunity to confirm whether he will stick to his pledge of an extra three battalions for the Army? That pledge was made by his party leader as well. Is it a pledge he is sticking to or a pledge that has been quietly dropped? Will he tell the House what his party’s position is? Finally, would he like to confirm now whether a Conservative Government would commit to building the new aircraft carriers?
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman and I am thoroughly disappointed by his efforts, belittling the achievements of the past 13 years. His constant undermining of the UK’s huge contribution to making the world a safer world is regrettable. Why does he want to run down the UK in that way? Why does he twist the facts and misrepresent the truth, suggesting that our armed forces have inferior equipment—inferior kit—and are not properly supported? Our armed forces are among the most capable in the world. They are the best. They deserve the best and that is what we shall strive to give them in the years ahead.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to take this opportunity to apologise to the House. I have written to the Secretary of State and to you, Mr. Speaker, to say that unfortunately I may be unable to attend the winding-up speeches, and I would not like the House to think I had intended any discourtesy by not mentioning it to the House.
I share in the tributes made on both sides of the House to those who have fallen during the past week. The pain and anxiety felt by their families and friends at this time is unimaginable, and it cannot adequately be addressed by a few words in the Chamber. That is why whenever the House makes a decision on defence matters, it is vital that we remember those who have fallen. That is the ultimate consequence of any decisions we take here.
I, too, want to start on a note of consensus. I agreed with the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) when he said that the strategic defence review should have a foreign affairs baseline—as the one held in 1998 did—not a Treasury baseline, that 12 years is too long before repeating the SDR and that the original SDR was not fully funded. I also agreed with the Defence Secretary when he identified that the Conservatives agreed with the Government every inch of the way. They were joined at the hip throughout the past 12 or 13 years. To pretend that things were different is incorrect, because they were together throughout that period. The Government now wish to point out their differences with the Government’s record, but it is worth remembering that they were together, joined at the hip, during that time and that we were not. [Interruption.] I will return.
The competition among the Labour Government’s failures is pretty tough—climate change, the mediocre education system and the huge recession—but defence must be up there as one of the biggest failures; it is the hot favourite to win that competition. That is perhaps why numerous changes in the ministerial team have occurred almost annually. Perhaps that reflects the enormity of their task, as they see it, and the Government’s failure to support their team in defence.
Let us take housing as an example—something that the Conservatives, perhaps not surprisingly given the Defence Secretary’s comments, failed to mention in the motion. Indeed, the speech made by the hon. Member for Woodspring contained not one word about housing. However, the Government should not be complacent about housing: a third of families moving into service properties complained that their new homes were filthy; two in five of them said that they were unhappy with the general condition of the property; and there were a massive 234,000 repair call-outs for 45,000 properties in the year to November 2009. That works out at five call-outs per property—an enormous number—and reveals the state of the accommodation.
I do not know whether the Defence Secretary has a different definition of the word “urgent”, but it took 23 days for the repair to be made after at least one of those call-outs, and it took two months for the repair to be made after a routine call-out. It is no surprise that service families are extremely disappointed with the accommodation that has been provided. Progress has been made—Ministers have pointed out that there have been improvements to the housing stock—but at the current rate, it will take another 20 years before we can get the accommodation up to condition 1. That is simply not good enough.
Meanwhile, we are spending an absolute fortune— £67 million—on substitute family and single accommodation, while other properties remain empty. I appreciate that some of those properties are in different parts of the country, but 8,000 of them are empty at any one time. More than 2,000 of them remain empty for more than a year, while the top brass are living the life of Riley. One property—a mansion—has been rented for £7,000 a month for a general. That costs £84,000 a year, which is enough to pay for five privates. I have asked Defence Ministers a series of questions, and we have found out that about 11 members of the top brass are renting properties at more than £2,000 a month. How can that be justified? Has any action been taken since those figures were made public? Are the removal vans moving in already? Have we got them booked to move those people out? Paying £7,000 a month is an absolute outrage. Some might say that that is a drop in the ocean, but it is significant. If our top brass are behaving in that way, what does it reveal about the rest of the system? Surely, action must be taken.
Before the Tories get too smug about these matters, they must remember the Annington Homes fiasco. The Defence Secretary is absolutely right about the scandalous decision taken back in 1996. Since then, Annington Homes has received about £1.5 billion in rental income from properties. To make matters worse, Annington Homes does not have to foot the bill for the repair of the properties. That amounts to another £300 million for the same period—a total of £1.8 billion directly into the pockets of Annington Homes at the stroke of a Conservative blue pen. That is an outrage. The Conservatives should be embarrassed about it, and perhaps they are. That may be why there is no reference to that matter in the Conservative motion today.
The hon. Lady makes a sensible point. If the company had a conscience about these matters, it would repay a contribution. The state of some of the accommodation leaves a lot to be desired, and a contribution would be appropriate, as she suggests.
I shall move to a slightly more consensual topic, health, where there have been some improvements. The Selly Oak facility is recognised as first class. Bringing the best of the military together with the best of the NHS means that soldiers who, in the past, would probably have died in the front line on the battlefield now have modern medicine available to them. Despite the pain that the Government went through in making a decision to move to that model of care, it probably is the right one.
May I offer an example of a positive response from the NHS? In my local area, it has been very willing to work with the Royal British Legion on a special centre for those returning with combat stress. Officials at Mayday Healthcare NHS Trust made a great effort to respond quickly and positively to the need.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable contribution, but I am afraid the response is rather piecemeal across the country. Some work has shown that not all health boards and health authorities are responding in the same way. Among GPs, awareness of veterans care is not as it should be. I shall return to that shortly. However, there have been some examples of good care, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Headley Court is another good example of the partnership between charity and the Ministry of Defence in treating those who, I say again, might have passed away on the front line in the past. Miracles have been performed at Headley Court with some of those people. When I visited, I was extremely impressed by the work that has been done. The ethos is to get people not just back to good health, but in some cases back to work. That employment discipline at the facility is first class.
The hon. Gentleman mentions miracles, and he will know that the chaplaincy of all three armed services plays a very important part in the delivery of the health care system. Will he put on record for the House and for those outside a tribute to the chaplains who do so much work on the front line and behind the scenes?
We underestimate the contribution that the ministry makes to general health care in the military and to the social well-being of individuals who are in hospital. We should recognise and praise that. We sometimes dismiss things that have been there for some time; we take them for granted, and we should not do so. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.
There is a centre at Chilwell for the Territorials who have returned from conflict. The stress and trauma that they underwent in previous conflicts was not recognised, but now that they are an integral part of the armed forces, it is vital that they have that service, so that when they return from conflict, they can get the support that the rest of the armed forces receive.
There are concerns, however, and an awful lot more needs to be done for veterans. The six pilot projects are making good progress, and good work is being done. However, some 2,500 ex-servicemen make up about 3 per cent. of the prison population, and the suicide rate among veterans is high, so it is absolutely vital that we advance the progress on support for veterans, who feel ignored and rejected by society. They feel very proud to be in the armed forces, and rightly so, but that recognition does not necessarily exist when they return home. Many health authorities—and about one in three GPs—are simply unaware of priority treatment status in the health service, and it is vital that we overcome that inadequacy and advance the work of the pilot projects.
Moving on to procurement, I believe—I can see the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) getting excited; I think that he lives on an aircraft carrier—that we need to begin by acknowledging the sheer enormity of the public debt. Even before the current downturn, the MOD had massive debt, and Bernard Gray, in his report last October, noted the gap of about £35 billion between our commitments and the resources that are available to fulfil them. Some analysts estimate that the annual shortfall is as much as £10 billion, and that is out of a total budget of about £37 billion. The figures vary and estimates come and go, but in reality there is an enormous gap between our commitments and our resources. That is Labour’s legacy—a budget that is out of control and a programme that is years late.
The Eurofighter is beset by overruns, delays and technical problems. It is now expensive and unnecessary, and its capabilities are inappropriate. The future rapid effect system was committed to in 1998, but it will not be completed until 2017, and perhaps even later. The aircraft carriers—
The hon. Gentleman is paying attention. The Government committed back in 1998 to construct the aircraft carriers, but the deal was signed only in 2008. Embarrassingly, only months later the project was delayed by another two years, costing the taxpayer an additional £1 billion. The hon. Member for Woodspring stole my line—the “spend now to save later” principle has been changed to “save now to spend an awful lot more later”.
We have made considerable progress with the Eurofighter contract, but we are referring to tranche 3, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, because I am sure that he has studied these matters.
The MOD spent £259 million buying eight Chinook Mk 3 helicopters for the Special Air Service, but the cost to the MOD is now £500 million and those helicopters are still not in the air.
I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to say more about the aircraft carriers. Does he agree with his colleague the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who, when he met the convenors of the shipyard unions last week, indicated that the aircraft carriers were safe with the Liberals, and that they supported the building of the aircraft carriers, irrespective of a defence review? That went some way to lift the workers’ mood, compared with hearing from the Conservatives that on day one of any future Conservative Government they would examine the break clauses. The Liberals did not say anything like that, and the unions very much welcomed their position.
I am relieved to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said, because I have not spoken to him since his visit. That shows the Conservatives’ position on the matter—they are not committed to the aircraft carriers. Revealingly, however, the Defence Secretary also refused to answer the relevant question, and I was a bit puzzled by that, so I hope that he will take this opportunity to contribute.
I can help out the hon. Gentleman, because last Thursday I, like the Secretary of State for Defence, had the pleasure of going to Portsmouth to attend the steel-cutting ceremony for the first of the aircraft carriers. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State, who said that the Government were committed to the aircraft carriers—I think that I am using his words correctly—unless there were to be some very radical recommendations from the defence review. I took that to mean that the Government’s position is that they are not exempting the aircraft carriers from the defence review, even though they believe that they will probably be confirmed by it. That is a sensible position for the Secretary of State, and indeed for us, to take.
I thank the hon. Gentleman—that was very helpful.
The cost of the three Astute class submarines has risen from £2.5 billion to £3.8 billion, and the Type 45 destroyers are costing £1 billion each—£1.5 billion over budget in total—and are two years late. There has been a whole plethora of mismanaged projects over the years. That is the background against which we move forward to the next strategic defence review. It is essential that that SDR is not just a crude hacking job—there has to be some strategy around it.
The Tories seem to have perpetuated the myth that Britain can act alone. The last time we did that was in the Falklands, and even then we relied on intelligence from the United States. They seem to think that Britain has not changed, and that the world has not changed, in the past 50 years, and that we can carry on as we are. We need to share and to work with others. That does not mean working only with the United States but—I know this will make the hair stand up on the back of their necks—with our colleagues in Europe. The record of co-operation with some European nations has not been great, but it is one of the few options open to us—they need to work with us and we need to work with them. I believe that we can achieve an awful lot by working together and that, over time, the situation will improve.
There were no references to Trident in both speeches made by Front Benchers. Given that we have the non-proliferation treaty negotiations coming up very soon, that is a very disappointing development. This does not seem to be the priority that the Prime Minister led us to believe that it was going to be. It is simply misguided to continue with a full-blooded, gold-plated nuclear weapons system. The Government’s attitude to the defence of the nation is stalled in a cold war mentality that is hopelessly anachronistic against the threats of sub-national terrorists and insurgents. President Obama has given us an awful lot more hope. Perhaps the shine has come off his presidency, but he is still prepared to discuss this with others—others to whom his predecessor would not even have picked up the phone. That is a welcome development that we must grab with both hands.
We must take forward the opportunity presented by the NPT. We opposed the decision back in 2007 prematurely to decide to go ahead with the new nuclear deterrent. That decision was premature, and we should not have made it at that time. In effect, it sent a message to the rest of the world that Britain was carrying on as normal and that we intended to renew Trident.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be proposing an alternative nuclear deterrent to Trident—what is it? Is it an existing system or would it have to be designed and created, how much would it cost, and what would be the timing of its introduction?
These are excellent questions, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will pose them to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who is sitting behind me and who is carrying out a review on this important matter, which must be considered to ensure that we get the right system. I am sure that we will have a discussion later, when the hon. Gentleman can feed in his views about what that system should be.
It was misguided to make the decision in advance of the NPT talks that will take place later this year; we should have waited. The main gate decision was due to be made in 2014, but we decided to make it way in advance of that, and there was no need to do so.
I think I remember correctly that the hon. Gentleman served on the Select Committee on Defence when we examined the various reports on the matter, and I ask him two things. First, what is his assessment of the maintenance of the nuclear skills base in the context that he is setting out? Secondly, did he not look at all the alternatives set out in the White Paper? What alternatives that were not considered or that were dismissed in it is the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) likely to come forward with? The hon. Gentleman must have some idea, having looked into the matter in detail.
I have answered the second question, and the hon. Lady knows the answer to the first—we have been over it before. The skills base would not have been affected if we had made the decision at the beginning. We did not need to make all the decisions then, and the main gate decision was the important one. Britain said that Trident would go ahead no matter what the 2010 non-proliferation treaty said, which was simply misguided.
I am sure that my hon. Friend has not forgotten the important issue of continuous at-sea deterrence and whether four submarines are necessary. Has he noticed that the Prime Minister has floated the idea of having three instead? That rather suggests that the unqualified enthusiasm for the project on the Labour Benches may not be mirrored in No. 10 Downing street.
I had not mentioned that, because I did not want to steal my right hon. and learned Friend’s thunder. He is right that we should consider a whole range of matters, and I will read his report with interest when it comes out. It will be a great contribution to the debate.
I hope that I will not bore you too much, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I read out part of the NPT, which mentions the desire
“to further the easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States in order to facilitate the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery pursuant to a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.
I am therefore puzzled by the position of the Government and the Opposition Front Benchers.
Not yet; the hon. Gentleman will get his chance.
The Defence Secretary recently said:
“But we have got to balance that against the uncertain world that we face. The threat changes. If one looks back, its changed hugely over time and no-one can be certain that that won’t happen again.”
Wait, because the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Woodspring, has said:
“The only thing you can predict with any certainty is that we will not be good at predicting the future.”
In short, Labour and the Conservatives will never, ever disarm. With their words, they dismiss the treaty. The inability absolutely to predict events means that according to them, there should always be a nuclear deterrent. Irrespective of the threats, the cost and the treaty’s aim to ease international tension and strengthen trust, they will always retain the full-blooded, gold-plated system. That directly contradicts the disarmament aims in the treaty.
Does the hon. Gentleman understand the meaning of the phrase “general and complete disarmament”, which was in the part of the treaty that he read out? It means an arms-free world. When we get to the stage at which we can safely have an arms-free world, we can safely have a nuclear-free world. If we have a nuclear-free world when countries are still at each other’s throats and armed to the teeth with conventional weapons, we will make the world safe only for world war three. As long as other countries have nuclear weapons in a world such as we live in today, my party will want to have a nuclear deterrent.
That is the cold war mentality—it has never moved on. There is always an idea that because we cannot predict the future, nothing must happen. That is a pessimistic view of the world, and the Conservative Front Benchers have absolutely no hope on these issues.
Moving on to Iraq, surely the Government’s biggest failure has been sending our troops to war on a false prospectus, ill prepared, ill equipped and then overstretched, tarnishing our reputation throughout the world and, worst of all, costing the lives of thousands. That stored up problems in Afghanistan, too—we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan by failing to maintain sufficient troops when we kicked in the door in Iraq. This part of my speech will be short, because it needs the least justification. It is plain and simple. The Government’s character and judgment were tested and found wanting. Labour and its backers in the Conservative party will be haunted by that decision, which will live with them for years.
Order. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. I give advance warning that that length of time may have to be reduced to allow time for Front Benchers to wind up.
May I start by paying tribute to the great sacrifice that has been made by our troops when they have been deployed in recent years—in fact, in the 23 years that I have been in Parliament? I saw the courage, motivation, commitment and professionalism of those troops during my period as a Defence Minister, and I have continued to see those qualities displayed as the current chairman of the European Security and Defence Assembly. I have been to some of the war zones recently, including Afghanistan, and seen what has happened there.
I am extremely grateful that I managed to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is said that there is always a great queue to make a maiden speech and that one has to wait one’s turn, but I rather fear that in this Parliament, there is going to be something of a queue to make a last, valedictory speech. I do not know whether this will be my last speech, but it may well be—I am very much in the hands of both the Prime Minister and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and your judgment on who should be called. That being so, I should like to say that it was a privilege to make my maiden speech and to contribute to the House since, and to catch your eye today in such an important debate.
I should like briefly to say something about the European Security and Defence Assembly before I address what has been said by the Front-Bench speakers so far. When we discussed the Lisbon treaty in the House, we disagreed about many things, but we all agreed that European security and defence policy was an intergovernmental matter and that it should stay that way, and that the European Parliament had no locus whatever over it. We also agreed that it was important that defence policy was subject to scrutiny at international level. That should be the case for European security and defence policy. I hope that Front Benchers acknowledge the importance of continuing European-level scrutiny, and support a reformed European Security and Defence Assembly as the most appropriate body for that. I hope everyone agrees that it would be absolutely wrong for defence to become a responsibility of the European Parliament.
On the main debate, it pains me a little when party politics becomes involved in crucial issues for the nation. When I was a young man—this is my memory of recent political history—a minimal amount of party politics was involved in issues central to the defence of the nation. One damaging feature of more recent political history is that there is an increasing desire on the part of political parties—I am not blaming any one party for this—to make short-term capital out of issues that I believe, as I have always believed, are fundamental to the security of the nation.
I disagree with the Conservative motion because I do not think it was proposed in the context of what is right for the nation and for Conservative thinking about its future. When I look at the motion, I see an Opposition motion, pinpointing one or two faults that may or may not have been the responsibility of the Labour Government. I am not saying that everything in the motion is wrong, but my main argument with it is that it is a party-political motion that tries to nitpick faults, but does not deal with the real issues that affect the security of this nation.
The motion does not deal with the threat, and in a debate on defence it is pointless to discuss anything else without a vision of the threat. Defence policy, by its very nature is best-guesswork to some extent. We cannot foresee the future. Winston Churchill said in 1922 that he could not envisage a situation in which Britain would be at war with Japan. I am sure that he said that with the best intentions, but he was very wrong, because he was not taking a long view. The lesson for us all is that it is very difficult to predict exactly the shape or the nature of the world ahead. I would have hoped that the motion today would have considered the threat.
We may all agree about what we see immediately before us. We know that there is a threat in Afghanistan from failed states and terrorist organisations that would destroy democracy, given the chance, throughout the rest of the world, using areas such as Afghanistan, parts of Africa and, indeed, other areas in Asia, to develop bases, interfere in the education of the people and begin terrorist activities. We also recognise that there are problems in the middle east. We do not know exactly how they will play out, but they are a major threat.
One of my arguments with the Liberal Democrats is that they are so party political in appeasing and appealing to people who think that war will not exist in the world because people will be good, that they fail to consider the security of the nation. They cannot answer the question about future arguments between states. At the moment, defence may be about protecting oneself from terrorism, but there are no guarantees—remember Winston Churchill—that in the future there will not be conflicts between states, sometimes with different terrorist organisations being part of those interstate conflicts. In my view—and I have held this view for a long time—it would be extreme folly for Britain to give away its nuclear deterrent given that possible political situation in the future. There is no purpose in having second-level deterrents: we have to have top-level deterrents if we are to protect the interests of the nation. That is the issue to which the Liberal Democrats and some other parties have to face up.
I would be interested to know the Conservative Front Benchers’ position on this issue. I know the views of some Conservative Members, but what is the position of Front Benchers on the nuclear deterrent?
If that is an absolute guarantee, I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman was able to give it, and I hope that it will be given prominence in Conservative thinking on defence policy. I did not expect the Conservative party to come up with an all-embracing outline of what an SDR should eventually produce today, but I did expect some thrust about where it saw the threat coming from in the future. Apart from those threats that I have mentioned so far, does it see a threat from cyberwarfare? Does the Conservative party think that there is a threat from the impact of climate change on, for example, food prices or the availability of food or water? If the Conservative party thinks that those are threats, surely we should have heard something about that from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, but there was nothing about that at all. My view is that cyberterrorism is a real threat and could be a major part of any war front in future. It has to be countered, and the resources have to be found to do that.
I return to the point that I made in my intervention on the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). Does the Conservative party accept that there are choices? Opposition parties do not really have to identify choices, but in the run-up to the general election, the public want to know what the different parties are saying about the nation’s defence. They want to know whether the parties have accepted that, in the real world, there are choices. We cannot have everything: that is the nature of things. Expenditure has to be allocated. Therefore, the starting point is the threat. Once the threat has been identified, then the question is: how much of the nation’s resources are we prepared to spend on it? We still spend more, I think, than nearly every other European Union country.
Yes, we are second. We therefore spend a significant amount already, but is public opinion going to wear a greater amount of our gross domestic product being spent on defence? Those on my Front Bench raised that issue with those on the Conservative Front Bench in earlier exchanges, but I am not yet clear whether the Conservative party will guarantee the existing percentage of the nation’s resources being spent on defence, should they win a general election. That will be a key point in the election, and I will be watching what the Conservatives say on that very carefully. Indeed, I would have liked to hear something about it in today’s debate, because our armed forces will be listening to and watching this debate. They will want to know what the future is for them, and whether they will be properly resourced, regardless of who forms the Government after the next general election. Cost is a factor; one cannot get away from cost.
Another thing that has to be dealt with—I will have to précis this point because of the time—is that we cannot have everything to defend our nation, even if we could face the cost. We have to decide what the core provision is—that is, what is there in case we need it at any time—and then we have to know how much flexibility there is, so that we can have additional provision to meet any exigencies that arise along the way. That is an important issue, and it has a huge amount to do with the procurement budget. I am trying not to be party political about this point, but again, I did not hear from the Conservatives whether they believed that movement across the sea required the building of two new carriers and whether that would be sustained, regardless of anything else that was decided in a strategic review. That is another question that will be asked.
However, the important question is: what is the core provision? Core provision is usually straightforward, and includes, for instance, intelligence, which will be crucial in future, and an Army that is at least the same size as what we have now—or perhaps bigger—and deployable. That is crucial core provision. Drones and various other unmanned aerial vehicles appear to be an essential part of core provision in the future; therefore, choices have to be made. Do we spend our air budget on drones and other intelligence-gathering equipment? Or, do we spend it on aircraft that can precision-attack, even in bad weather—at the moment it is questionable whether some of our aircraft can do that—or on air-to-air combat aircraft? Except for in a small way in the Falkland Islands, we have not been involved in air-to-air combat on any significant scale since the Korean war—that is, if my memory is accurate. I am happy to be corrected on that, but the last time was certainly a long time ago. Yet as a nation we still order air-to-air combat aircraft. Is the aircraft priority the defence of our naval capacity?
Those big issues have to be faced. They are all about choice, and some are about additional choice. We need to have the core provision, but there must be a capability beyond that, which will allow us to augment, depending on the situation that we face. Lift is another matter that the strategic defence review needs to consider. We cannot have deployable troops without the necessary lift capacity. We also need to ask whether we envisage ever again having a major conflict in areas furth of where we are, as we say in Scotland. Could Britain ever again engage on her own in a conflict à la the Falklands, or will we always be involved in an international intervention, with NATO, the European Union or another coalition of the willing? If we envisage the vast majority of our future deployments involving such coalitions, we need to think much more carefully about how we co-operate with the others who are deploying, and to what extent interoperability exists regarding our equipment. That, too, is a key issue that must be dealt with.
Many defence issues relating to the security of the nation need to be debated. The Conservatives could have done much better in their motion today. They could have looked at the big issues and explained how they intended to approach them in a strategic review, were they to be in government. They could have identified areas of consensus with the present Government on policies that they believe should be pursued in the interests of the nation. Those are the issues that should have been in their motion. They are not, however, and I will vote against it tonight.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). His speech illustrates one of the problems that the Government have had over the years: they have had too many Defence Ministers. He might recall that when he was a Minister and I was his shadow, he took me to Slovenia on a sensitive and difficult mission to convince an emerging democracy of the importance of the Opposition being joined at the hip with the Government on defence policy. That important mission symbolised something very important, which the hon. Gentleman has talked about. Our discussions this afternoon should not detract from the position that everyone in this House, from whatever political party, supports Her Majesty’s forces up to the hilt, and that whatever the politicians ask them to do, we back them as they do it, even though we might disagree with it politically.
That does not, however, mean that the Opposition can renege on their duty to hold the Government to account—through the Select Committee, through challenging them in debates such as these, or in any other way—on the ways in which they have or have not fulfilled their support for the armed forces. I hope that this debate will not become too party political, but it is an inevitable part of the strength of our military position that we hold the Government to account for the decisions that they take, without in any way departing from the vital principle that we in the House support Her Majesty’s forces, even if we argue about the ways and means. Similarly, we never have a vote in the Select Committee on Defence; I cannot remember there ever being such a vote.
I agree completely with the motion. It makes some very constructive points, particularly about the next strategic defence review. I remember criticising the Government in 1998 for not saying that they would have a review in four or five years. I remember arguing that we should adopt the American or Australian system of having a regular review every four or five years. It is nonsense to say, “Oh, well, we’ve had some updates since then,” as the Government’s amendment seems to suggest. A rolling programme of defence reviews every four years would have avoided some of the difficulties that we have had—for example, in moving from Iraq to Afghanistan, and in the flexible approach needed in assessing risk these days.
I think, too, that the motion is entirely justified in pointing out the muddle, post-Iraq war, in post-conflict resolution. It is perfectly obvious that we did not work it out then, and that there was no joined-up government—it may have had something to do with the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), who was then Secretary of State for International Development, and her particular view of the Iraq war—but NATO and the allies made a big mistake in not settling down properly to study what was going to happen after the war.
If we are to have a new system of defence reviews on a regular basis—I hope we do—we have to be prepared to stand back even further and perhaps give a new role to voices such as that of the Defence Academy of the UK at Shrivenham, which does a great deal of thinking about these issues; I salute the academy for that.
The motion is also quite correct in pointing out what nonsense the cut in the helicopter budget of £1.4 billion in 2004 was. It was indeed folly; there is no ducking that. The deficiencies in the procurement of the A400M and the air-to-air refuelling capability have been a major blight on military planning ever since. The cuts in the frigate and destroyer fleets of the Royal Navy were a great mistake, as was slippage on the carriers. The provision of aircraft for the aircraft carriers is also looking difficult, in view of where the joint strike fighter is in terms of planning and production.
The motion is also correct to point out the deficiencies in the military covenant, particularly housing. That is true in my constituency, as it is true, I am sure, in those of many other hon. Members who have military garrisons or quarters in their constituencies; they will be familiar with the sort of problems that arise. Only last month I visited some married quarters in Netheravon in my constituency, where I found some tired old 1950s housing. To be perfectly honest, it should be bulldozed and started again. It has been patched and repatched, but there are still holes in the roof, leaking walls, rising damp and so forth. In this day and age, this is not the sort of accommodation that we should expect our forces or their families to be placed in.
Because Project Allenby is happening close to my constituency, and in it, I know that the Ministry of Defence is engaged in the biggest single building programme it has ever carried out. It includes many upgrades of existing houses as well as the construction of new married quarters and single person service accommodation. It was astonishing when the Ministry of Defence recently cut £14 million from the housing budget, hitting the upgrading of married quarters for 4,000 families—and at the stroke of a pen up the road there in the Ministry of Defence! That is having a huge impact on the lives of 4,000 service personnel. That was another great mistake—whatever one may say, looking back in history, about what happened with Addington Homes and so forth, which seemed such a good idea at the time. We should beware of failing to take the issue of military housing seriously.
The Government amendment has plenty in it with which I can agree, but it is rather over the top in talking about “31 new ships”, as it is probably true that those were all ordered by the Conservative Government; certainly most of them were. The amendment also refers to improved medical services. Of course that is true. What happened at Selly Oak is controversial but very good; what is happening in Headley Court is very good; support for combat stress is very good. It is also true to say, however, that the military depend to a substantial extent on the national health service. The demise of the old military hospitals was the right decision to take, and NHS consultants are now heavily involved both on the front line, on secondment from their NHS hospitals as in the case of the Salisbury district hospital, and through the specialties they can provide, such as plastics, burns units, rehabilitation facilities and so forth in NHS hospitals, which are widely used by the services—and quite right, too.
Something has, however, gone wrong with welfare services. My constituency has seen cuts in the Army welfare services, which I greatly regret, because they put a bigger burden on local authority services. My local authority currently spends about 500,000 pounds a year on looking after servicemen and their families.
Where would our military welfare be if it were not for Help for Heroes, an organisation that has really caught the imagination of the British public? We know that the British public have the greatest admiration for all our armed forces in all three services, but is it not astonishing that they are putting their hands in their pockets—to the tune of about £8 million a year—to support Help for Heroes, which in turn supports organisations such as Headley Court, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, and the Selly Oak patient welfare fund? Where, indeed, would Help for Heroes be without my constituents Bryn and Emma Parry, who founded it? We are all deeply grateful to them.
Where in all this, I have to ask, is the Royal British Legion? It seems to have lost the plot. You and I know, Madam Deputy Speaker, and everyone else in the House knows, that the Royal British Legion provides services for current servicemen and servicewomen and their families as well as for veterans, but that is not the public image. At the weekend I talked to some 30-year-olds who clearly thought that the RBL was all about poppy day and parading around the town once a year. I enlightened them, of course, but nevertheless that is the image, and that is why Help for Heroes and a number of other charities have become so popular.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman to an extent about the perception of the Royal British Legion, but does he share my welcome for the support that it is giving to Citizens Advice, which it is helping to fund a national network of advice on matters that service families, service personnel and veterans need to know about?
Of course I welcome that hugely. I also welcome the RBL’s support for people who are leaving the forces, which is really important. However, I hope that the RBL will raise its game and help the public to understand the work that it does, every day of the week and every week of the year, not just for veterans but for young men and women who come out of the forces with either a physical or a mental difficulty.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North mentioned new threats. Of course he is right about cyberwarfare, which I have been going on about relentlessly in the Defence Committee ever since I visited Estonia, that doughty partner of British forces in Afghanistan. I visited its cyberdefence college. Estonia has a NATO-sponsored college, in which Britain plays a modest role. It is the only NATO nation that has been subject to cyberthreat and cyberattack, and it has a lot to teach us.
I also agree with the hon. Gentleman about climate change. When the Select Committee was preparing a report on the future of NATO two or three years ago, I was struck by a visit that I paid to Denmark. We heard that the Danes were way ahead of the curve in assessing the impact of climate change on strategic sea routes around the northern hemisphere. It was to the Danes’ advantage to ensure that they were on top of defence strategy, because Greenland was suffering from a retreating ice sheet which was opening up opportunities not just for fossil fuel exploration and development, but for the strategic defence of new northern trade routes around the whole of the north American continent. When the Committee went to Moscow, I pursued that point with the Russians. They too have that new opportunity, all around the northern shores of the Russian Federation, with the possibility of new trade routes throughout the world.
That is another reason why it is utter folly to talk of abandoning the Royal Navy aircraft carrier project. Britain must continue to have global reach. We need the Royal Navy, and we will need it even more in the next 10 to 20 years. We must not forget that. Given that more than 90 per cent. of Britain’s trade depends on sea routes, our seaports—the great ports of Plymouth and Portsmouth, for instance—will depend on the Royal Navy for the preservation, conservation and growth of the nation’s prosperity. New threats will need new solutions, therefore, and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North is right about the importance of intelligence, such as that from unmanned aerial vehicles, in various phases.
It is in the interests of the nation for the Ministry of Defence to do all it can to improve the quality of its equipment and its people, and to help the families who support our servicemen and all those who follow the flag. I will no longer be a Member of this House when future defence debates take place, so I will not be able to contribute to them; this will be my last defence speech, after almost 27 years and an awful lot of defence speeches. My message has always been the same, however: we should spend more of our GDP on defence. It is folly not to do so.
It was, of course, right that we rolled back our defence spending at the end of the cold war, but the peace dividend was, in my view, entirely illusory, because new threats replaced the old threats. That will always be the case. In respect of defence policy, unpredictability is the only thing that is predictable. We should never forget that. We should never drop our guard; we should always be right at the forefront, as my constituents are every day, at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, for example, and at the Health Protection Agency’s Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response. All the defence scientists and all the people who are prepared to lay down their lives for this country deserve the undying support, recognition and affection of our constituents and of every Member of this House.
First, may I share in the expressions of support for our armed services and of regret for the loss of life, and pay tribute to all those who have made that sacrifice?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on the occasion of his final defence speech. He has been consistent in his support for the armed services, in speaking up for more money for defence, and in taking a balanced approach to the scrutiny of defence issues. One might wish that he had been the Conservative Member introducing the motion at the beginning of the debate—although he will not be surprised to learn that I cannot agree with him about supporting the motion—because the opening speech from the Conservative Front Bench Spokesman was far too pugnacious, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) has suggested.
It has been a pleasure to serve alongside the hon. Member for Salisbury on the Defence Committee in this Parliament. It has been my first term as a member of the Committee, and I think we have provided constructive scrutiny, based on in-depth inquiries, on the subjects of deployments, health and welfare packages, and procurement. There has been plenty for us to get our teeth into, and I have to say that the Government responses to our reports have been a little mixed. On the whole, however, their responses have been positive, particularly on health, education and welfare issues.
The welfare issue is one subject on which I cannot possibly agree with the motion. It states that we have failed to “honour the Military Covenant”. Far from it: the responses to the many Select Committee reports on education, health and the welfare package have been comprehensive. The Royal British Legion has also played a considerable part in lobbying on those issues, of course. I welcomed the summer 2008 personnel Command Paper and the establishment of the external reference group, which was set up to make sure the issues raised were followed through. On compensation, housing, travel and education, we have gone rather further than was proposed in the Conservative-commissioned paper on those matters. Compensation for the most serious injuries doubled, to £570,000, and the 2010 review included further improvements, such as a 30 per cent. uplift in guaranteed income payments for young servicemen with life-changing injuries, recognising that they might well have had a military career ahead of them that would have enhanced their income over time.
Conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been sustained over what will soon be a decade. Tory complaints that they have not been funded ignore—when this is looked at in the round—not just the 10 per cent. real-terms increase, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned in his opening statement, and the funding from the reserve for the deployments, but the significant contribution that cumulative savings in the defence budget have made in each comprehensive spending review period. They have enabled either cost pressures to be relieved—those have not gone away—or more to be spent on defence priorities.
On 16 December 2009, at column 1210W, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out in answer to a written question that in the CSR period 1998-99 to 2001-02 the cumulative savings in cash and resources were slightly more than £2 billion, that in 2004-05 to 2006-07—in the three-year period of the Gershon review—the cumulative saving was £3 billion against the 2004 baseline, and the figure for the first year of the 2007-08 to 2010-11 CSR period against the 2008 baseline was £600 million.
I was surprised by that, and by the whole nature of the contribution made by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), given that he gave a sensible speech to the Royal United Services Institute. Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that it did not differ a great deal from what is set out in the Green Paper, except that it perhaps put rather more emphasis on a capacity to act alone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North said, such an approach is decreasingly likely to be taken.
It is a sign of a confident Minister and Ministry that they are willing to engage with and respond to scrutiny. The evidence shows that that has been demonstrated not only in relation to the Command Paper, but in other respects, notably on the Gray review. One would sometimes think that it was not the Government who had commissioned that review, in order to take seriously the pressures and issues that have arisen, but they did and they were ready with a response to it—and on the Defence strategy for acquisition reform, which was published alongside the Green Paper.
The Gray report said:
“the UK’s allies are by and large complimentary and in some cases envious about what the UK has done to drive reform in this area.”
Indeed, table 10-3, on page 215, suggests that the UK compares favourably with the United States and Australia. The Defence Equipment and Support agency features in the top quartile of the Human Systems Ltd benchmarking of UK and international organisations managing complex projects. It is therefore not exactly the basket case alluded to in the motion.
On urgent operational requirements—examples include the Jackal, which is procured in my constituency, and built in Devonport dockyard, and the L129A1 Sharpshooter rifle, deliveries of which were made in January 2010, just two months after the order had been placed—the contrast with the Conservative Administration could not have been greater.
I commend to the House, and to any Member who was not present at the time and who has not heard reference made to it, the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) on 28 February 2000, in which he set out an A to Z of Conservative failures during his period of service on the Select Committee on Defence. That covered everything from the infamous Annington Homes deal, which has been mentioned on a number of occasions, Apache, Bowman, the cancelled common new generation frigate and the Eurofighter—the consequent problems still beset us—to, going on to the end of the alphabet, the Tornado F3 upgrade, the Upholder class submarine, Westland, Yarrow, of course, which saw the beginnings of its demise under the Conservative Government, and Zircon, the satellite about which information was withheld.
I think that our service personnel and the people who work so hard in the United Kingdom to support them expect more than cheap shallow politicking, which we heard not so much in the motion but in the rather pugnacious speech that was made at the beginning of the debate. I hope that the Opposition spokesman who sums up will, as well as giving us some insight into what Conservative policies will consist of, be a little more balanced and generous. Our troops deserve better than such politicking.
May I begin by paying tribute to all our serving armed forces and their families? We remember, in particular, those who have lost their lives recently or who have been injured in the service of their country.
This could well be my last contribution to a defence debate as a Member of this House and I am grateful to Her Majesty’s Opposition for securing the debate and for giving me the opportunity to make a brief speech.
Over the life of this Parliament, I have tried to focus on three areas of defence: the personal safety of our troops; the correct equipment for the conflict; and appropriate expenditure to match the threat. I was once referred to, in a Westminster Hall debate that I had instigated, as an armchair general by no less than the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who sadly is not in his place today. He said that he imagined me playing with my toys at the kitchen table. I was a little cross at the time, but I did not take him to task about it. Even in that capacity it was not difficult to predict, as I did in 2006, the future deadly use of improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan based on the military’s previous experience in Iraq and to realise how unprepared we were for that type of warfare.
Some military thinking is, thankfully, changing at long last. I was delighted to read the address made by the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir David Richards, to the International Institute for Strategic Studies on 18 January this year, to which I will refer later. There is no doubt that the infantry, in particular, has changed beyond all recognition over the last decade in its provision of body armour, weaponry and vision and night sights. Those who have contributed to that advancement deserve all credit. However, there are still areas in which constructive criticism can be made, especially those concerning mine route clearing vehicles. That was an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and I raised in oral Defence questions last week. To quote the Secretary of State, the big task that our troops need to undertake is to
“tackle the IED networks, through the increased use of intelligence, so that we can be proactive in taking apart the networks that seek to target our troops.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2010; Vol. 506, c. 5.]
I should be grateful if the Minister could update the House on how the Talisman project is performing, although I am still at a loss to know why we entered into the Iraq and Afghan conflicts virtually unprepared when we had appropriate equipment in Bosnia in the form of Chubby sets.
The House will know that I have, in modern parlance, “banged on” about vehicles being designed from scratch for blast deflection rather than blast absorption. On that basis, I have been critical of certain vehicles—none more so than the Jackal. It is a superb vehicle for special forces but not for general patrol duties. The entry of the company Supacat with its SPV400 into the light protected patrol vehicle programme vindicates the strong case that I made initially in the face of hostility and criticism, with the vehicle being designed around a V-shaped hull. The managing director of Supacat has been quoted as saying that the new design was developed as a result of the experience of the Jackal. It has, of course, been developed not just because of the fundamental flaws of the Jackal but because of competition from Force Protection, a company that was years ahead of the game, which, in relation to the Rhodesian and South African experiences, took a leaf out of that book. Force Protection must be credited with having saved the lives of thousands of service personnel in the British, American and Canadian armies in contrast to those that were playing catch-up. We have made progress in that area, but there are still those who think that those vehicles are at the lower end of the military pecking order. I believe that they are wrong, for without those vehicles the UK does not stand a chance in low-tech conflicts. Without them, the Army would probably be defeated. I believe that those vehicles will be used continuously in the future, not least because their design allows greater freedom and scope for different strategies and tactics to prevail.
My one regret is that little or no progress has been made on aircraft that use single or twin propellers, which is very disappointing. As soon as I mention that, the fast jet brigade try to shoot me down, although those aircraft are very difficult to shoot down. However, I see that I now have an ally in General Richards himself, who has recognised the advantages of aircraft such as the Super Tucano. In a recent speech, he said:
“If one equips more for this type of conflict while significantly reducing investment in higher-end war-fighting capability, suddenly one can buy an impressive amount of ‘kit’. Whilst, as you will hear, I am emphatically not advocating getting rid of all such equipment, one can buy a lot of UAVs or Tucano aircraft for the cost of a few JSF and heavy tanks.”
In the same speech, he asked:
“Can we take the risk? Well we have to take risk somewhere or run the far greater one of trying with inadequate resources to be all things to all conflicts and failing to succeed in any.”
Other nations’ air forces are rapidly increasing numbers of those aircraft, not to displace fast jets, but to work in tandem with them. There are considerable advantages to using such aircraft, especially in counter-insurgency operations. It is surely a great error of judgment that that area appears not to have been more thoroughly explored.
Helicopters are another area in which there was no need to go overboard with such expensive, over-technical aircraft, however great they may be. We have had massive expenditure on the Danish Merlins, Chinooks that did not work, and all our helicopters have had to be upgraded to make them fit for Afghanistan, many with Carson blades, but we could have had a fleet of twin-bladed Bell 212s, known as Hueys, or the four-bladed version, the Bell 412. The UK could have had sufficient numbers of aircraft that were perfectly adequate for purpose and considerably better value for money. Some tasks could have been undertaken more efficiently with fixed-wing aircraft such as the Pilatus Porter, which has a payload of just over a tonne. I fear that some minds are still set in the state-on-state conventional war scenario, harking back to the past, rather than facing up to the present, decidedly murky character of counter-insurgency. I see that what I am saying is amusing the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) greatly.
I meant no discourtesy to the hon. Lady, but I have heard her making similar comments before, and I was merely smiling in recognition of her strong commitment to her case.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. In this House, it is necessary to make one’s case not just once, but 250 times, before common sense eventually prevails, so I do not apologise in any way for making the same case for as long as I am here.
What was refreshing about General Richards’s speech was his understanding of expenditure. The military sometimes appear to think they have an open cheque book—a situation possibly exacerbated by cross-service rivalry. It is obvious that they do not, and more so now.
From a recent parliamentary answer, I was relieved to learn that the use of mortars is still strong. They are a very effective weapon and considerably cheaper to use than Javelin missiles and guided multiple-launch rocket systems. Guided multiple-launch rockets cost £68,000 each and Javelins cost approximately £49,000 each. We can compare that with the cost of mortars. The cost of a 51 mm mortar ranges from approximately £80 to £160; a 60 mm mortar ranges from approximately £185 to £640 and an 81 mm mortar from approximately £190 to £890, depending on the variant fired. We could get a hell of a lot of mortars for the cost of some of the other equipment.
It must be recognised that in a low-tech conflict, cheaper, less complicated equipment is often more effective and reliable than its high-tech short-lived cousins. That is not to say that technology does not greatly assist; it certainly does, as has been seen in the enhanced capability provided to the infantry, which I mentioned earlier, and in many other areas. Technology is not always the answer to every problem and it needs to be used intelligently.
As we move nearer to the future strategic defence review, I hope the three areas I have highlighted—safety for our troops, appropriate equipment for the task and expenditure, including affordability—will not be overlooked, but will be fully explored. The UK could then confidently face the future with defence forces cutting their coat according to the cloth of our finances, strategy and responsibilities as an independent nation—at least while we still have a vestige of independence.
The European Union poses the greatest threat to that independence, as the United Kingdom is no longer master of its destiny and the European Union does not have—as this country has had throughout its history—alliances, interests, influence and direct involvement with countries throughout the world. Nor does it have the common purpose that has been the strength of the military covenant between those who put their lives at risk on behalf of us all and those who wholeheartedly support United Kingdom forces both in peacetime and at war.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), I pay tribute to the armed forces and to those who have fallen and those who are injured in the course of operations.
I shall not be drawn on my hon. Friend’s last-minute foray into European policy, except to remark on the speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). He gave a dire warning that the European Parliament should not meddle in matters of defence, which should remain intergovernmental. I simply point out that plenty of us on the Opposition Benches warned that the Lisbon treaty would lead the European Parliament in exactly that direction, and further. He was warned, so if he did not want that to happen he should not have voted for the Lisbon treaty.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the commendable freshness with which she always approaches such debates. She has a terrier-like determination to advance her argument, which she always does coherently and cogently. Indeed, the degree of detail on specifications and prices that she gives is far beyond what most Members bring to these debates. It is a reminder of what much defence policy is actually about.
However, I warn my hon. Friend about the sweeping judgments on the nature of future conflict that I fear she was making. She referred to outdated notions of state-on-state warfare, and said that we must be ready for the much murkier and more complex issues of counter-insurgency warfare, but the joke, as Churchill used to say, is that the War Office is always trying to fight the last war.
I hesitate to bracket the Chief of the General Staff within such a mistake, but it is inevitable that the defence chiefs will tend to defend what they are doing and argue for more equipment so that they can do what they do, rather than doing the more difficult horizon scanning about being prepared for things that we do not expect, such as the possibility that the next war might be fought on a coastal area, where we need sea and air power. The two land-locked wars that we have been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan may well prove to be the exception. Incidentally, I point out that we had the characteristics of state-on-state warfare in Kosovo and certainly in both Gulf wars and that much of the combat with the Taliban has elements of state-on-state conflict that would be common to both types of warfare.
I want to concentrate on the key failures of Government policy since 1997. I commend the Opposition motion, but it tells only of the symptoms of failure, not its root cause—symptoms such as funding shortfalls, a failed procurement process, shrinking manpower assets and endemic overstretch. But the root cause is far more fundamental and relates to the failure of the UK’s grand strategy. Bluntly, it seems that the UK no longer does strategy. We no longer seek to influence world events from our own agenda; we have been forced into reacting to them.
Foreign and defence policy since the SDR has been characterised by three words—drift, waste and overstretch —and they all stem from the failure of strategy. Yes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, the SDR was based on what we call a foreign policy baseline, but as I shall point out, foreign policy tends to be more about process than about strategy and has proved a deficient basis for defence policy. There is a real danger that the 2010 SDR will be about the confirmation and re-examination of what we have been doing, rather than about being prepared for what we do not expect.
The key to a successful 2010 SDR will be a new UK strategic concept, which must embrace the whole panoply of policy—economic stability and trade policy, the future of the EU, NATO and the national security strategy, energy security, climate change and cyber-warfare. It is from those considerations that foreign policy and the SDR must flow. The UK has never institutionalised strategy in that way, but other countries, such as the US, France and Israel do so. It is time that we did so, too.
The outcome of 13 years of Labour drift in foreign and defence policy has resulted in the UK’s global stock falling, as it did in the 1960s and ’70s. Once again, we have to question our whole global role, as the UK is more exposed to external threats and global events than at any time since world war two. It has become a cliché to say that the 1998 SDR was a great piece of work, undermined only by a failure to fund it, but its failures are wider and deeper. In the light of Gulf war one, the theory of “go first, go fast, go home” enshrined in the SDR had some merits, but even by 1998, the experience of the Balkans was showing that such easy wins were the exception, not the rule.
The SDR had the right process, but it produced the wrong result. NATO went into Bosnia in December 1995 with 60,000 troops. By the time the NATO mission ended in 2004, there were still 7,000 troops. Even now, 15 years after the original deployment, there are still more than 2,000 EU troops. The SDR did not anticipate 9/11, the rise of militant Islamists or the types of counter-insurgency campaign that we have seen in countries that are much larger, much more hostile and a lot less developed than Bosnia. We should have moved on further and faster, but the Government remained wedded to the failed strategic assumptions behind the SDR.
The new chapter and the 2004 White Paper, to which the Secretary of State referred, merely tinkered at the edges. They shied away from addressing the changed strategic environment, largely for financial reasons. Unless we learn from the mistakes of the SDR, we will be condemned to repeat its failures.
One of the key foundations of the SDR was Labour’s so-called ethical foreign policy. Actually, the Foreign Office turned that into a foreign policy with an ethical dimension, because it realised that the term “ethical foreign policy” is nonsense.
Tony Blair set out this ethical dimension in his Chicago speech in 1999 justifying the intervention in Kosovo on humanitarian grounds. That was, he argued,
“a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values”.
“In the end values and interests merge.”
Shortly before leaving office, Mr. Blair argued that his experience of foreign affairs and defence since Kosovo had left him
“more persuaded that the distinction between a foreign policy driven by values and one driven by interests is wrong. Globalisation begets interdependence. Interdependence begets the necessity of a common value system to make it work. Idealism becomes realpolitik.”
What does that mean? What does it mean for a Prime Minister who has to make a decision in a crisis? Does it mean anything in the real world? Look at how Russia and China approach the question of Iran to see how some countries deal with their values and interests. They do not regard the Iranian bomb as a threat to themselves, so they are happy to use the west’s disquiet as a tool to further their own interests, regardless of values.
This is the problem for defence with Mr. Blair’s
“doctrine of the international community”,
and with the present Prime Minister’s preoccupation with strengthening international institutions. International institutions must not become an end in themselves. They can be only a means to an end. The United Nations is, by definition, less than the sum of its parts. It can only ever act according to the lowest common factor of its members. Where the international community fails to accept our values, must we become a hostage to the interests of the hostile states that are blocking decisions in the UN?
If we can only act with a UN resolution, do we not simply give Russia and China a veto over our foreign policy and our defence policy? Would it not have been better for Tony Blair to have worried less about a second resolution on Iraq and more about the challenge of post-invasion planning?
What does this mean for defence? The doctrine of internationalism cannot any longer govern our defence policy. It leads to the very incoherence in foreign policy and in military action that we saw played out on the streets of Basra. Why did we stake our reputation on supporting the war in Iraq, but lack the political will to follow through in Basra to prevent the city from falling into the hands of the militias? Why did we intervene in Helmand with far too few troops? Four years later, we have ended up with 9,500 troops on a tiny part of the footprint that we originally went in with, and with only the beginnings of a workable strategy.
Why did we condemn the illegal election victory of Mr. Ahmadinejad, yet send the British ambassador to attend his inauguration? Labour’s foreign policy has ended up compromising values and interests, and our defence as well. Messianic rhetoric has ended in debilitating drift.
Domestic policy has been characterised by waste, and we face an economic situation that leads us once again to question whether we can afford our global role. If we are to end defence and foreign policy drift, we must ask the real question: who holds the UK’s strategic concept? Where is it written down? Who will redraft it before we embark on the defence review, if we are to make it a success? Before the end of the cold war, the UK’s foreign and defence policy objectives had been broadly the same for five centuries: to maintain the balance of power in Europe leaving us free to develop our interests as a global trading power. In the post-cold war world, what is the modern equivalent of that as the basis for defence policy?
Throughout history, we have relied on extraordinary people in extraordinary times to frame UK strategy—men such as the elder and younger Pitt, Wellington, First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher and Winston Churchill. The end of the cold war may not have been the end of history, but it may have been the end of Europe as the principal theatre of global affairs. We have failed to develop a new grand strategy to engage with the new reality, where the stage is no longer one continent, but is the whole world.
The Foreign Office’s latest strategic assessment is surprisingly old—its new strategic framework of January 2008. It has three elements:
“i) Providing a flexible global network serving the Government as a whole.
ii) Delivering essential services to the British public and business.
iii) Shaping and delivering HMG’s foreign policy.”
The Government’s foreign policy is defined in four ways—countering terrorism; reducing and preventing conflict, which are both defensive; promoting a low-carbon, high-growth economy, which is so vague as to be almost meaningless in terms of the activity that it envisages; and developing international institutions, especially the UN and the EU. Yes, that internationalism again.
That is not strategy. It is process. Where is trade? Where is energy security? Where are our alliances, particularly NATO, which the Government claim is still the cornerstone of our security? It is remarkable that the advanced research and assessment group at Shrivenham put the danger of a global financial collapse into the draft national security strategy, but were told to take it out, presumably for political reasons, before it occurred.
I am extremely concerned. I shall come to that in my closing remarks.
If we do not have the courage to recognise strategic threats, we will never be able to face them. A new UK strategic concept must be the first paper that the Prime Minister commissions after the general election. Without it, how can the defence review decide what forces we need to tackle the threats of today and the uncertainties of tomorrow? The Prime Minister of the day must lead it, but it needs an institutional backing, as my right hon. Friend suggests, as it has in France, the US and Israel, as I said earlier. It needs to draw on advice from beyond Whitehall and particularly from a newly constructed, beefed-up ARAG, perhaps based at Shrivenham, but answerable to, and funded by, the Cabinet Office. It must provide clear-sighted strategic advice for whoever is Prime Minister.
The objective for the SDR 2010 must not be to try to rediscover some new consensus. That is where the danger lies. It must define a new direction for our nation. That may be controversial, but it must be coherent. The SDR must recognise that stabilising the Government’s finances will be the main effort in the new Parliament, but it must also define the interests and objectives which must not be compromised, despite that. It must conclude that a UK global role remains indispensable to our national interest and to the interests of global security. We must strive to maintain our position of power and influence in the long term, and we must end the era of drift, waste and overstretch.
Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. The debate so far has contained some grand themes, none more so than those from my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). His speech was superb. It is the sort of thing that I have come to expect from him on the Defence Committee.
I pay tribute to the Defence Committee and to the right hon. and hon. Members who, over time, have served on it. My hon. Friend’s contribution has been outstanding. The Committee will enormously miss the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), who has been on it since before most of us were born, and whose contribution has been utterly outstanding. He even questioned me back in the dim and distant past when I was a member of the Government, and it was a difficult thing to deal with.
I also pay tribute, if I may, to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), because her contributions over the years to defence debates have been extremely cogent, effective and influential in what they have brought about in defence thinking in the country.
With such grand themes going through the debate, I want to concentrate on one small matter and speak for not very long. It may seem a small matter to many people, but it encapsulates an extremely important issue. In my constituency there is an excellent local newspaper called the Basingstoke Gazette, and it has picked up a campaign that has been running since 1994 in relation to the pilots of the Chinook that crashed on the Mull of Kintyre.
I want to talk about that, because the rules at the time of the crash stated that
“only in cases in which there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever should deceased air crew be found negligent”.
I take that to mean that all other possible causes of a crash should be eliminated before negligence can be found, and it is necessary to remember that it is essential to eliminate those causes in relation to both pilots. So if one of the pilots might have been negligent but the other not, and one could not tell which, it would be essential, under the rule that applied at the time, to clear both pilots.
In Defence questions on 11 January, I therefore asked the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), to whom these remarks are addressed, this question:
“As both pilots were found grossly negligent, how does the Minister know with absolutely no doubt whatever that both pilots agreed with the route and the course of action being taken?”
The Minister replied:
“Let me make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman, who I know has taken a detailed interest in this matter, that in all the publicity surrounding this case—and certainly that produced by the BBC in recent weeks—there has never been any evidence of technical failure.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 399.]
That is an interesting and, I suggest, incorrect answer to a question that I had not actually posed. The question that I asked was: how do we know that both pilots agreed? If one pilot disagreed with the route or with the course of action, surely that pilot was not negligent. There was no cockpit voice recorder, there was no black box and we do not know the conversation between the pilots at the time. I have written to the Minister since Defence questions in January, and if he is able to answer that question now, I will be, of course, more than happy to give way to him. If he is able to answer it in his winding-up speech, of course that will be good, too.
But another possibility is that one of the pilots was not in the best of health in the final seconds of that flight. One might have had a heart attack. The fact that there was no evidence that either pilot had had a heart attack does not mean that there was evidence of an absence of a heart attack. I can say that, because the pathologist has written to me to point out that of course he cannot say that, with absolutely no doubt whatsoever, neither pilot had a heart attack. That is not the way in which doctors work.
Then there is the issue of technical malfunction. So many inquiries have taken place on this issue, but I shall quote one of them by the House of Lords Select Committee on Chinook ZD 756, which stated:
“Although no trace of any mechanical fault, other than a defective radar altimeter, was found by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch inspector, he was unable to dismiss the possibility of an undemanded flight control movement, an engine run up or a control jam having occurred. Any of these events could have had a serious effect upon the crew’s ability to control the aircraft.”
The fact that there was no evidence of that happening does not mean that there was evidence of it not happening.
All those things add up to one thing, and that is doubt. Therefore, I am grateful to Conservative Front Benchers for saying that, in the event of a Conservative election victory, there will be a review. I am grateful also to the Minister for saying that he is happy to meet me and the parents of the pilots at the end of this month, and I shall look forward to that.
My right hon. Friend’s persistence on this matter is exemplary. Does he recall that ZD 756, the Chinook in the Mull of Kintyre crash, was refused flight clearance by engineers in my constituency at Boscombe Down, and that it was forcibly removed from his constituency at Odiham to Boscombe Down and, again without the consent of the controllers, from Boscombe Down to Northern Ireland in order to pick up the crew? That adds another huge layer of doubt about the decision to declare the two pilots negligent.
Indeed so. It seems to me a bit unfortunate that the informed views of Boscombe Down should be dismissed in the way that some later commentators within the Ministry of Defence have dismissed them. Suggestions that the software was positively dangerous, which have come out since that date, are not suggestions that I rely on as being true. I simply rely on those suggestions as giving rise to doubt, and only in those cases where there is no absolutely no doubt whatever can deceased air crew be found negligent.
I just wanted to place on the public record the fact that as shadow Secretary of State for Defence in, I think, 2002, I suggested to the Government a process for trying to resolve the matter. That process involved setting up an inquiry with a retired judge, a retired military officer from one of the other services and a suitably technically qualified person to review the decision in order to allow the Government in a dignified manner to come to a conclusion about these issues, which cannot be resolved in the House. Why does my right hon. Friend think that the Government have refused to take such a course of action?
Yes, my hon. Friend did make that suggestion. I do not know the answer to his question. I do not know why, essentially, senior Air Force officers have dug their heels in, but I hope that the Minister, when he comes to the meeting, will approach it with an open mind, because this is an issue of the greatest importance. It is an issue of fairness for those who have died in the service of their country, and there can be no more important matter for a Minister to deal with than that.
Defence is one of the most important areas of politics, and it ought to be debated fiercely, so I am astonished that the Opposition seem to have run out of steam. There seems to be no passion, fire, drive or urge for government, and we are only—what?—two months away from an election, so is today’s debate an indication that the Opposition are preparing for another term of opposition? It certainly seems like that to me.
I shall take my theme from the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), who earlier said that she believed that repetition is a good line to pursue. This may come as a surprise to some Members, but I want to raise the question of the aircraft carriers to try to establish the exact position of the relevant parties. In ascertaining the official Opposition’s position, I have to take cognisance of what happened last week.
A group of convenors—shop stewards—from the country’s shipyards came to the House to meet representatives of the two main Opposition parties. They met the Liberals, and normally I would tell people that there is no point meeting them, because they do not matter very much. There is talk of a hung Parliament, however, so on that occasion I thought that such a meeting might be appropriate. In the event that a coalition comes to pass, or there is a hung Parliament in which individual issues are voted on, Liberal support in those circumstances would be important, and the convenors went away gratified that the Liberals had made their position absolutely clear. They were supportive of the aircraft carrier; they would be prepared to support it in the event of a hung Parliament; and the convenors very much welcomed that support.
However, the convenors were greatly depressed when they went to meet the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who, speaking on behalf of the official Opposition, made it clear that the action that a Conservative Government would take on day one would be to examine the break clauses in the contract. Had he said to them, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything because it will take us six months to set up a review, and then a year to have the review, and then maybe a couple of weeks at the end of that to decide on it, so it will be 18 months or so before we can come a decision”, they would not have been happy with that, but they could have understood it, because that had been a relatively consistent position; indeed, it was the Liberals’ position until they accepted the strength of the convenors’ arguments. But no, the Conservatives said that on day one they would examine the break clauses—no one examines the break clauses on day one unless the intention might be to apply them on day two.
We are therefore absolutely certain that the Royal Navy and the aircraft carriers are safe with Labour or the Liberals but sunk with the Conservatives, or, indeed, with the nationalists, who would not build any aircraft carriers on their own.
That was my next point, because I want to consider the Government’s position.
Unlike the Opposition, when we look to the crystal ball, with the Government we can read the book and see what they have done. If the Government intended to cancel the aircraft carriers, they would have done so before now. They proceeded to order the carriers, and they have restructured the contract for the carriers. That was most helpful to the shipyards involved because, admittedly at additional cost, that decision has spun out the work over a longer period, which means that they will have no gap—no precipice—at the end of the aircraft carrier contract before further contracts arrive. As a result, there is no fear of the work force being dispersed or of enormous lay-offs and the like—lay-offs that would be almost impossible to reverse later on by trying to pull workers back. I recognise that the Government go through the motions in saying that everything is up for discussion in the defence review; none the less, it is perfectly clear from reading the book that they are committed to the carriers.
Let me make the Government’s position absolutely clear. We are contractually, morally and politically committed to the aircraft carriers. On Friday, the Secretary of State took part in a steel-cutting process in Portsmouth, and I took part in a steel-cutting process at the A&P Tyne shipyard in Newcastle, to demonstrate our commitment to the carriers. I do not think it is possible for a Government to make their position plainer than that.
I thank the Minister—that was very clear. Even the Liberals would agree that it was clear, because we find ourselves in agreement with them on this matter in seeking coalition support, and there is no point in trying to find arguments where none exist. We are therefore in a position whereby two parties are unequivocally supporting the aircraft carrier and one major party is not prepared to come off the fence.
I cannot help but think that the Tories do not really have their heart in this. This debate has been extremely lacklustre on the Conservative side of the House. There has been no fire or passion, and no indication at all that they are preparing for Government. The collapse in the polls is echoed by the collapse in Conservative morale and commitment to this cause. I can understand that some Conservative Members who are making their valedictory speeches may not wish to express enthusiasm, because there is not a great deal to be enthusiastic about on the Benches that they are departing from. However, the most noticeable aspect of this defence debate is that this is an Opposition who have run out of steam long before the general election—and long may that continue.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) may not have given an enthusiastic speech, but what I am enthusiastic about is our courageous armed forces who are fighting in Afghanistan as we speak. I would like to pay tribute to them, particularly all those who come from Shropshire, including regular and reserve forces. On this St. David’s day, I pay particular tribute to all the fallen sons and fathers from Wales—many have given their lives in serving Her Majesty’s armed forces. Part of the strength of the armed forces of the United Kingdom is that they represent all the regions, despite the best efforts of the current Government to dismantle regiments from different parts of the United Kingdom. That strength lies in the fact that many of these people come from different parts of our great nation.
I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) for her long and distinguished service in this House and her championing of our armed forces, particularly for their protection through improved fighting vehicles. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) for his long and distinguished service in this House, including on the Defence Committee. Their contributions to these debates, which have always been enthusiastic, will be sorely missed. Perhaps what the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West said might be a little more credible if we occasionally saw more Labour Back-Bench Members contributing to these debates. As ever, there is absolutely nobody on the Labour Back Benches, and we certainly see no Liberal Democrats—no surprise there.
Afghanistan is an important mission. It is important that the Government continue to make the case, with cross-party consensus, for this war. If we withdraw prematurely, it is absolutely certain that al-Qaeda and its affiliates and associates will regroup, set up their training camps, and bring their fight to the streets of Britain. Despite our being in this phoney election period, I wholeheartedly support the Prime Minister’s comments on this war, because it is not a party political issue: it is a question of nation before party and national security before party politics. I endorse the Prime Minister’s stance on that issue, as do our Conservative Front Benchers. It is important that we win in Afghanistan, whatever the definition of winning is—we will have to wait and see. Of course, there will eventually be a political settlement, but that cannot come until we weaken our enemies further, so we need to stay the course.
We also need to stay the course because it is important that NATO holds together. NATO is an imperfect military alliance, but it is the best alliance that we have. It has served us, pretty much, fairly well over the past 60 years, and we need to ensure that it is not undermined, as it would be if we withdrew prematurely from Afghanistan.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. We all want to see in Afghanistan a stable, democratic Government who represent all the different tribal and ethnic groups within the country. That is the only way in which that Government will be sustainable in the long term.
We need to stay the course in Afghanistan, because if we do not, that will be a huge morale boost to jihadists and extremists across the world. We need to be resolute, firm and determined. We also need to recognise that wars are not run on an hourly news basis or according to a 24-hour news cycle. Every loss is a personal tragedy for the families involved; indeed, it is a national tragedy. However, there has never been a bloodless war, and it is absolutely wrong for some parts of the media to suggest, when we are losing men and women on the front line, that we are being defeated, or that we should withdraw, or that we should surrender. War is bloody, ugly, dirty and unpleasant, but the sacrifices that have been made in Afghanistan are a sign of the courage and resoluteness of our armed forces, and more importantly of their progress there, rather than anything to the contrary.
I pay tribute to armed forces from other parts of the world, such as those from Canada, which has suffered huge losses. I pay tribute to our Commonwealth cousins and hope that the people of Canada will similarly recognise the importance of staying the course in Afghanistan. I hope that the new Government of Prime Minister Harper will be able to make the case for ensuring that the troops remain beyond 2011.
Similarly, I pay tribute to those from the Netherlands who have fallen. The Netherlands is a close European partner and ally, and I hope that its Government will soon be reconstituted and that, more importantly, the case will be made for the importance of staying the course in Afghanistan. The troops from the Netherlands are professional and some of the best in the world, and we need them in Afghanistan. I hope that the people of the Netherlands will recognise that.
Mention has been made of improvised explosive devices. I hope that the Chinese Government will do far more to intervene with arms manufacturers that use the Chinese parts that form some IEDs, and to ensure that the border between Afghanistan and China is secure. It is a small border by comparison with those with other countries, but it nevertheless needs to be secure. We would not expect any help from Iran, of course, but we know that there is a direct link between Iranian parts and manufacturing and some of the IEDs that are being used. The use of such devices is cowardly, and it is another sign of the conventional victories of our armed forces over the past months and years.
I mentioned rest and recuperation earlier and stressed the need for the Government to work harder to ensure that air transport and air bridge movements are far more easily available to our armed forces. I know that weather plays a key part in some delays, but as I said, constituents have contacted me to say that many of them are caused by the age of the airframes. It is important that people on R and R can go back to their homes in the UK as quickly as possible rather than be stuck in Cyprus or elsewhere. The Secretary of State, who is not in his place at the moment, mentioned the deployment of the new C-17. I am sure that he got a bit confused earlier and knows that that is a cargo configuration rather than a troop transport configuration.
I wish briefly to mention Northern Ireland. The peace dividend for the whole UK and the whole island of Ireland has been huge, and we all want peace to continue and democracy and inward investment to thrive in Northern Ireland. I hope that neither the Government nor Her Majesty’s Opposition, who are hopefully the future Government, will forget in the strategic defence review the importance of maintaining troops in Northern Ireland to support the excellent work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend is ranging far and wide, and I commend what he is saying and find no reason to disagree with any of it. Will he perhaps mention a subject that has not been fully mentioned in the debate—the defence of the Falkland Islands? There is increased tension in the south Atlantic, and it is important that the sovereignty of those islands and the principle of self-determination are maintained.
As always, my hon. Friend makes an excellent intervention. I commend his work over many years as chairman of the all-party group on the Falkland Islands. He is absolutely right, and it is disappointing that despite pressure at business questions last week, the Government have still not agreed to a debate on the Falkland Islands in Government time, which would send a clear signal to the struggling and failing Government of President Kirchner in Argentina. There also needs to be clarity about what new military commitment there may be to the Falkland Islands, again to send a strong signal to the Government of Argentina.
I will be disappointed if it is true that the White House and President Obama’s Administration have taken a position of neutrality on the Falkland Islands—so much for the special relationship. It is a good job that the UK and the great people of this fine country have not taken a neutral position on issues on which America has called upon the UK to help. I hope that America will review its position. I also find it disappointing that some of our Caribbean partners and allies, and indeed Commonwealth cousins, have joined Latin American countries in suggesting that the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands and, most importantly, the self-determination of its people, are in question.
I am greatly honoured and privileged to have one of the Combat Stress units at Audley Court in my constituency, and I pay tribute to all the staff who do such a great job there. I am concerned, though, that there is potentially a mental health ticking time bomb in the armed forces unless the Government do more. I have been there many times and met people from conflicts going back to the Falklands war, and from Iraq I, Iraq II, Afghanistan and other conflicts. There is no doubt that unless there is early intervention, post-traumatic stress readily turns into post-traumatic stress disorder. The Government need to consider that, and they need to ensure that when they include the national health service in the future treatment of armed forces personnel and veterans, they do not somehow pass the buck. Yes, there needs to be partnership, but it needs to be partnership that works.
I have heard absolutely nothing from Defence Ministers about the Korean war, which is disappointing. They will know that this year is the 60th anniversary of its start, and that UK armed forces personnel fell in it. I had the great privilege of going to the 38th parallel two years ago, and I understand that there may well be a new memorial to commemorate the war. I hope that Ministers might be able to confirm that and underscore what this nation will do to recognise the Korean war veterans who did so much.
On that point, I hope that the Government will set out their view of how the nation’s war memorials are to be cared for and looked after. I pay tribute to Shropshire council and Telford and Wrekin council, which have set out on their own to ensure that war memorials are looked after, but the Government—perhaps through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—need to do far more, such as considering how national lottery and other funds can be used to ensure that our war memorials are keep in decent order to honour those who have fallen in the past.
The Government got it wrong on the Army Base Repair Organisation. Ministers wanted to lay off 900 people in my constituency. I intervened and said that the attrition of vehicles in Afghanistan and Iraq made it completely inappropriate to shut the organisation. It has remained open, and I am glad about that, but I am concerned that the operational efficiency programme set out in the pre-Budget report may raise question marks about not only ABRO but the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency, which is also in my constituency. Both organisations have excellent personnel who are committed and loyal, and I hope that the Government will not betray that loyalty and commitment.
Similarly, there is much concern among civilian and military personnel at RAF Cosford, in my constituency, that whoever wins the election, the deal has already been done with regard to the defence training review. It is a privatisation too far, but there is concern that it cannot be unravelled or reversed, and that armed forces personnel will suffer as a result.
I wish briefly to mention to Japan, which is a fine and wealthy nation, and we are grateful for its latest contribution of £5 billion to Afghanistan. However, we talk about emerging global threats, and it would be wonderful if there were a new debate in Japan about changing its constitution and perhaps playing a greater role in the security of the Asia-Pacific region. The case is similar with Australia. Australia’s forces do a great job, and I pay tribute to Australian special forces and the country’s fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in an ideal world, Australia would do more than it does, and might even have its own aircraft carrier, despite its small population and relatively small armed forces. However, we pay tribute to our Australian allies.
On cybersecurity, which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) mentioned, I invite him to join the new all-party cybersecurity group, of which I have the honour to be chairman.
Finally, when our armed forces are fighting on the front line and showing courage, commitment and bravery in Afghanistan, and doing so much to ensure that democracy in that country continues, I hope they will not be denied their democratic right to vote in this year’s general election.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) suggested that this had been a lacklustre debate. I take issue with him, because the opening exchanges between my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)—as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he has apologised because he is unable to be here for the winding-up speeches—and the Defence Secretary were spirited and feisty. In addition, of course, we have had five splendid contributions from Conservatives, none of which lacked any lustre whatever. Indeed, they were characterised by two splendid valedictories.
The first valedictory was from my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), who, as was pointed out, has given superb service to the Defence Committee, and indeed, once occupied my position as Opposition Defence spokesman at the Dispatch Box. I have been able to learn from him, although any mistakes are entirely my own. The second was from my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), whom my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) described as bringing a “freshness” to the debate. That is not entirely how I see it—she made her case with a stiletto-like performance on the need for armoured vehicle designs that are more likely to save lives than lose them, as she has done so effectively in the past, as has been acknowledged. Everyone in the official Opposition will miss my hon. Friends—although of course we will be in government by then—but we will look forward to their contributions from further afield. I am sure they will not hesitate to continue to give us advice.
There were three valedictories from the Government Benches, including one from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), who is a regular in defence debates. In my experience, he always produces some interesting comments and is a great contributor. If I may say so, in a spirit of cross-party unison, the whole House will miss his contributions to such debates.
Not a single Liberal Democrat Back Bencher made a contribution, but that is par for the course. They do not turn up for these debates. Presumably they are busy with pavement politics around the country. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) did his best to hold the flag aloft, and was joined for a very short time by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). He generally contributes to such debates, and we are sorry that we did not hear from him today.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North suggested that such debates should not be too partisan. I am sorry, but I think they need occasionally to be partisan. The idea that the Government have not been partisan is rather wide of the mark. I have a rather interesting leaflet, which I gather is circulating in South Ribble. It has the very non-partisan title of , “Vote Conservative And Destroy The Defence Industry.” I can tell the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who is looking at me smugly from the Government Front Bench—before he makes his own valedictory and disappears—that that is a scurrilous leaflet. It says that:
“it is a bit worrying that the Conservatives, should they get elected, are looking to scrap a number of Defence Projects.”
We are not looking to scrap a number of defence projects. We are looking to build a vibrant defence-industrial base in this country. However, we will have a proper defence review, from which nothing but the Trident successor will be exempted. The electors of South Ribble have a fantastic candidate in Lorraine Fullbrook, who I am sure will make a splendid job of representing them. Putting out lies on behalf of the Labour party will not help the Government’s cause.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am afraid I will not give way to the Under-Secretary: he has not been here for the whole debate.
This debate is about the Government’s record on defence, but some say that we are making a mistake in raising that aspect, and I must begin on a positive note. I readily accept that the Government have spent substantial sums on urgent operational requirements, with the result that there is at last some impressive equipment to support operations in Afghanistan. All who have had the privilege of going to Afghanistan have seen the Mastiff, the Ridgback and other items of equipment in theatre. However, I am bound to say that some of that equipment is belated. I raised the question of protective vehicles with a former Secretary of State. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton pointed out, the Government were slow in recognising the kind of equipment that was needed by our armed forces in the field.
In addition, there are some superb facilities at Camp Bastion. I want to put on the record—on behalf of all hon. Members, I hope—that the hospital at Camp Bastion is unquestionably one of the finest medical facilities anywhere in the world. It is a great morale boost to our armed forces to know that if they are injured, that equipment will be available to them and that that is where they will be treated. That is a good confidence-building measure.
However, that is not the complete picture. For the benefit of the record and the country, let me set out that complete picture. This is what has happened on the Government’s watch: the number of frigates and destroyers has been cut from the 32 recommended in their own strategic defence review of 1998 to 23, and we have one ship patrolling the whole Atlantic ocean—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), asks what I would do, but the fact is that I am describing what we are likely to inherit. It is as well that the public should recognise the way in which this Government have run down our armed forces while fighting two wars. The public need to understand that that is what the incoming Government will inherit, and I am going to help them understand it.
One ship patrols the entire Atlantic ocean, and we have seen the effect of piracy in our sea lanes; attack submarines have been cut from 12 to eight; we are down to two aircraft carriers, with one effectively mothballed—it will not be restored to service for at least 18 months; and four infantry battalions have been cut, resulting in the overstretch with which all hon. Members are familiar. Cuts in TA training were reinstated only following pressure from the Opposition Benches: the Government were forced to change their mind and restore TA training.
As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring, £1.4 billion was cut from the helicopter programme in 2004 by the current Prime Minister, against all the advice—[Interruption.] It is fine the Secretary of State saying, “We’re about to order new Chinooks.” That is very welcome, but if that £1.4 billion had not been cut from the helicopter budget in 2004, those helicopters would be in service in Afghanistan today, supporting our armed forces.
I will not at the moment, but I will try to do so later, time permitting.
Manpower shortages across all three services amount to 2,500. Vital defence research expenditure has been cut by 23 per cent. in the past three years. Future equipment depends on today’s investment, and that investment is not there. Essential Nimrod reconnaissance capability will be progressively abandoned from next month. There is a £6 billion black hole in the procurement budget, thanks to a process described by the Government’s own adviser, Bernard Gray, as
“sclerotic and resistant to change”.
Severely wounded soldiers are having to go to court to secure proper compensation. So much for honouring the military covenant. I could go on, but I refer those who wish me to do so to successive reports from the Defence Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office.
The hon. Gentleman and I have talked about these issues outside the House for many years, and we did so a few weeks ago. As he knows, the audience, comprising industrialists in the defence industry from Britain and Europe, made it clear that they did not believe that the Conservatives would increase defence expenditure. The audience asked the very question that has been asked in the House today of the Conservatives. If they do not like these cuts and would reinstate them, what other cuts would they make?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we are going to have a defence review, and I will talk about that in a moment.
Above all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring said, the Government failed, in the years of plenty, to fund their own SDR fully, creating a spending bow-wave of tsunami proportions. It is all very well the Secretary of State saying that the war has been funded by the reserve. That is not what he told this House on 15 December. He said:
“My decision to fund these enhancements”
the enhancements in Afghanistan—
“from the core defence programme reflects our determination to ensure that the Ministry of Defence is supporting the current campaign”.—[Official Report, 15 December 2009; Vol. 502, c. 802.]
It is not true to say that the Government are funding this campaign out of the reserves. They are resorting to the core programme, which was never intended to be the case.
On any analysis, this country faces lean years. The cupboard is bare and our capacity to meet the unexpected almost non-existent. Military capabilities that we have regarded as essential are being wilfully surrendered. With a public sector borrowing requirement—or national overdraft—of £178,000 million, five times the current defence budget and 20 times the overdraft inherited by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, restoring the health of the public finances will be, and must be, our first priority.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North said that it was difficult to predict the threat that we face, and he is right. Admiral Lord Boyce said in December 2008:
“The Government’s hand-to-mouth, barely adequate servicing of today’s wars pays no attention to the need to future-proof responsibility for tomorrow’s conflicts—which are as unpredictable as all have been for the past 30 years.”
The hon. Gentleman challenged me to set out our vision, so let me do so. The world is becoming a more unstable place, with known knowns—to use the language of Donald Rumsfeld—in Iran and North Korea; known unknowns in Russia and China, and possibly in the Falkland Islands, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) pointed out; and unknown unknowns in terms of energy security, population growth, climate change and, of course, the inexorable rise of violent Islamic fundamentalism. There is also, as has been mentioned, the threat of cyberwarfare. Against this international backdrop of unprecedented threats, what do the Government do? They bequeath their successor a broken society, a bankrupt economy, overstretched armed forces and a gaping black hole in the defence equipment programme. In the last dying days of this decaying Government, the Minister with responsibility for defence equipment and support is haring around the country signing up orders for major items of equipment just weeks ahead of a defence review which is intended by both sides to undertake a root-and-branch review of policy and force structures. Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex that we need that review to establish the strategic concept of which he speaks.
Through all this gloom stands out one shining light, a beacon of success that rightly commands the universal respect of the people across the land and beyond our shores. It is called Her Majesty’s armed forces. It is sustained in large part by Britain’s world-class defence industry, which has to be maintained in order to secure operational sovereignty. For the benefit of the Porton Down constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, as well as my own constituents at QinetiQ, can say that I add them to that hall of fame.
If the United Kingdom wishes to retain the power to exercise influence in this uncertain world, we sacrifice those assets at our peril. For the UK to surrender its role in the world would have disastrous consequences—military, political and economic. Recovery of that role would take at least a generation, if it could ever be done. That implies exercising choice, and that is something that we shall have to decide once we have the findings of our SDR.
The current catastrophic state of affairs is the poisoned chalice about to be handed by this Government to the next. The Prime Minister stands condemned as the man who since 1997 has squandered a rich inheritance from the Conservative Party, and a man who has systematically starved the armed forces of the resources they require to do the job. No last-ditch attempt by him to pose as the soldier’s friend will undo the damage that he has wilfully inflicted on this country. He has to go. And for the sake of the country, of our beleaguered armed forces and of their families, he should go now.
In large part, we have had a good and constructive debate, and despite the political hyperbole, there is a greater consensus on defence than is sometimes apparent. I wish to start, as did the Secretary of State, by paying tribute to our brave servicemen who have lost their lives in Afghanistan in recent days. They are Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate of II Squadron RAF Regiment, Rifleman Martin Kinggett of 4th Battalion The Rifles, and Sergeant Paul Fox of 28 Engineer Regiment. We are enormously in their debt for their bravery, their dedication and their professionalism, and they are fundamentally serving our national interest.
The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) started the debate by saying that 9/11 had fundamentally changed the security environment in which we live, work and operate, and I agreed with him on that, but I did not agree with much else of what he said. He made the erroneous allegation that the Government have not matched those changes with funding. I could go through the record, including the 10 per cent. real-terms increase that the Government have delivered to defence over the past 12 and a half to 13 years, but for the Opposition’s critique to carry conviction and credibility, they need to face up to the challenge that they are not committed to spending one penny extra on defence compared to this Government—
That is the truth. If the Opposition are committed to the same expenditure level, they could set out with clarity and conviction how they would spend the budget differently. Again, there is a deafening silence. As we observe the 26 per cent. poll lead that the Conservatives have mislaid, we see an underlying theme in defence and many other issues: their position does not add up. The general public want politicians who will deliver criticism, but they also want a credible alternative. We have not had that from the Conservatives in defence or in many other areas.
There was not one word of critique of, or engagement with, the Green Paper that we launched a few weeks ago in the run up to the SDR. It covered the need to defend beyond the home front, the need for a comprehensive approach, the need for partnership with both the United States and the European Union, and the need for more flexible and adaptable armed forces. But on those critically important issues, which will inform the SDR in the early part of the next Parliament, we heard not a word of engagement from the shadow Secretary of State. To me, that suggests that we have not had a serious contribution towards that Green Paper and the SDR process.
I might have missed this while I was out of the Chamber, but does my hon. Friend agree that on neither side of the House has anyone mentioned the role of civilians, such as cleaners, cooks, firefighters and logisticians? Will they, too, receive consideration in the Green Paper for the important role that they play and the important contribution that they have already made to the efficiency savings that I mentioned?
I wholeheartedly agree. There have been some frankly quite disgraceful attacks on the role and work of civilians in the Ministry of Defence over recent months. It is important that we place on record the belief of those in the military that they could not do the job that they do without the support of the civilians.
We then had an interesting debate, generated and led by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), who reported on the discussions between the shadow Secretary of State and the trade unions last week. What my hon. Friend said about the lack of clarity or detail from the Opposition about their commitment to the carriers was extremely forthcoming. Let me be clear that we expect the carriers to continue to be a tool that we need. That is why we have signed the contract and cut the steel. That is quite different from the hon. Member for Woodspring, who in this very debate offered no such reassurance and did not deny that he had discussed with union shop stewards his willingness to look at the break clauses on the first day of a Conservative Government.
I am sorry, but the Government’s position has now been clarified: they expect the carriers to be part of the programme. That is what we have said as well—that, on current plans and projections, we expect that to be the case—but unlike the Government, we are clear that there is no point in having a strategic defence review unless we are prepared to look at everything and put it all on the table. Are the Government now saying that the carriers will be exempt from their own review?
I have made the Government’s position on the carriers very clear, but what the hon. Gentleman outlines is not consistent with what the shadow Secretary of State said to the trade unions last week: that on day one of a Conservative Government, they would start examining the break clauses, item by item. That is a very different position.
I will make some progress, then I will give way.
The shadow Secretary of State also referred to the leaked report from the Chief of the General Staff, but he did not highlight the fact that, in that report, the Chief of the General Staff rightly said that
“soldiers feel increasingly well supported and resourced on operations,”
and praised the
“medical care in-theatre and in the UK”.
The Chief of the General Staff rightly highlighted the challenge of supporting personnel between tours, but it is important that we look at those issues in their full context. To sum up the shadow Secretary of State’s contribution, it was General Dannatt who, when he was appointed to the Conservative Front Bench, explained that he had been asked to contribute to defence matters because the Leader of the Opposition had told him that the defence team lacked expertise. Having listened to the shadow Secretary of State’s speech, I can say that that expertise still seems sadly to be lacking.
The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), who leads for the Scottish nationalists, asked why the MOD had spent £4.3 billion less than the population-based apportionment of defence spending to Scotland over the past five years. I have to say—he and I have debated this before—that his analysis fundamentally misunderstands how defence operates. We operate on a United Kingdom basis—that is the most effective way to do it—not on a country-by-country basis.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who leads for the Liberal Democrats, made several comments about the state of accommodation. Let me be clear—the Government have consistently been clear—that for decades there has been under-investment in the defence accommodation estate. This Government, through their commitments, are putting that right. Over the past two years we have upgraded the condition of 1,800 properties to the highest of the four standards. We are committed to upgrading a further 800 in this financial year, and 800 a year thereafter. This is not a Government who are speaking; this is a Government who are acting to improve the support to our military.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about Trident and nuclear disarmament. He gave scant credit to this Government’s record on disarmament. We have reduced the explosive capability of our nuclear arsenal by 75 per cent. We have led the way internationally. We are rightly and objectively recognised as the most forward-leaning nuclear weapons state. To ignore that reality—the hon. Gentleman shakes his head—does not do him or his arguments any credit.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) said that his speech in this debate might be his last. I pay tribute to the work that he has done, having occupied my post in the past, and to the significant contribution that he has made to defence matters. He rightly highlighted the dangers of an overtly party political and partisan approach to defence matters. Indeed, if we look at Afghanistan, the reality is that if the Conservatives had been in government since 2001, they would have acted little differently from how this party has acted, faced with that challenge. To suggest otherwise—to accentuate the difference, rather than highlighting common ground—risks undermining our mission in Afghanistan.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) for his dedicated commitment to defence over many years. Nevertheless, he criticised our stewardship of the military covenant. That was unjustified and wrong, if one looks at the service Command Paper, the doubling of compensation to the most seriously injured personnel and the improvements in accommodation, and at the free further and higher education. Those are not the actions of a Government who are resiling from their responsibilities and their commitment towards the armed forces.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who has wide defence expertise and understanding, articulately outlined the improvements in the welfare package to service personnel that we have delivered, and for which I know she has argued.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) asked about the Talisman system. Talisman is a route clearance system, and part of our solution to the problem of improvised explosive devices. It is being used in Afghanistan now and is at full operating capability, including in Operation Moshtarak. It is important to make that clear.
The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) made an interesting and well-thought-out contribution, but I disagreed with him when he allied it with the hon. Lady’s contribution, making the accusation that the Lisbon treaty would bring about a European Union army. That is absolutely not true; indeed, nothing could be further from the truth. The treaty makes it clear that defence provision will
“not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States”.
It makes no more sense to talk about the common security and defence policy as a European army than it does to talk about NATO as a transatlantic army or the European Union as a world army.
We have made our commitment to the carriers abundantly clear, most particularly through the signing and the starting of the contracts last week.
Let me answer the serious question that the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) asked—he knows that I am committed to meeting him and his constituents—about whether we could be sure that both pilots involved in the Chinook crashes agreed on the route and the course of action taken. It is clear that those pilots took over the route that was programmed and planned, and took responsibility. Once they were in flight, the critical factor in determining whether they continued to be of that view was the action of making the waypoint change on the navigation system. That demonstrates that they were fully in control of the aircraft at that point. The issue is serious, and I understand his concerns. I look forward to discussing it with him and his constituents at that meeting in the near future.
We have had a good debate. As I said, there is more that unites us on defence than divides us. We are doing the right thing, and this Government have a strong record on defence. We have made unparalleled investment, and we should take that forward and support our armed forces.
Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
Question agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this House expresses its continued support for HM armed forces personnel and their families; notes that over 440 service personnel have been killed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001; pays tribute to their sacrifice; believes that the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) and the updates that followed the September 2001 attacks on the US have provided a robust policy foundation for the modernisation of Britain’s armed forces that has enabled them to take on successfully the many challenges they have faced over the past decade, including the major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; notes that the Ministry of Defence has brought into service 31 new ships, 63 new multi-role fast jets, six large transport aircraft and 171 new helicopters and provided the Army with a wide range of new equipment it has required to succeed on operations; recognises that the defence budget has grown by more than 10 per cent. in real terms since the SDR and that an additional £14 billion has been provided by the Reserve for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; and welcomes the steps that have been taken substantially to improve support, medical and welfare services for the armed forces.’.