[Relevant document: The First Report from the Defence Committee, Strategic Defence and Security Review, HC 345.]
A large number of Back Benchers want to take part in the debate. I understand that the Select Committee on Defence wishes there to be Front-Bench speeches early in the debate and winding-up speeches at the end. There will be a 10-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches. On this occasion, I am not going to impose the 20-minute time limit on Front-Bench speeches, but I urge brevity from Front-Bench Members in what is essentially a Back-Bench debate.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House has considered the matter of the Strategic Defence and Security Review and future of the UK’s armed forces.—(Alison Seabeck.)
I am extremely grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for securing a debate on the strategic defence and security review at a time when we have not yet seen the results of either the comprehensive spending review or the SDSR—yet when has ignorance ever prevented a politician from talking about anything? This is our opportunity to present some arguments that may help to influence both those reviews, and the debate is valuable for that reason.
The coalition Government are in a very difficult position; we recognise that. If we delay the SDSR and allow more time for wider conversation and consultation to take place, we will end up making strategic defence and security decisions based on a monetary bottom line already allocated by the Treasury rather than on the actual threat. On the other hand, if we delay the CSR until the SDSR has taken place, we will hold all other Government Departments hostage and delay the reduction of the deficit. But we are where we are.
This week’s Defence Committee report has been written against the backdrop of the Committee being fully aware of the importance of a sound economy. We say that one of the main weapons that a country can have in its own defence is a strong economy. However, we are also aware—indeed the Committee warned about this in the last Parliament—of the fact that the defence budget itself is appallingly over-committed, and that is before we even begin to consider the economic circumstances of the country as a whole, so some hard decisions will have to be taken.
In respect of the SDSR, does the Chairman of the Select Committee agree that what is really important is that Ministers and Government have some idea of where we all want to end up? Without wishing to be disrespectful to a long-standing ally, we would not want to end up being a sort of Belgium with nukes.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because one of the major advantages our country has is the number of alliances in which we play such an effective part. We are a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and an extraordinarily prominent member of the Commonwealth, and we are also a member of the G20 and all the other Gs. We seem to be able to reinforce that by our strong defence posture, which is itself hugely based on the training and quality of the men and women who make up our armed forces. We must remain proud of that, and we must do whatever we can to ensure that we keep that influence and that strength. While I would not go along with the way my hon. Friend illustrates his point, I do think we need to bear in mind where we want to end up as a country and work out the best way of getting there.
In the Select Committee report, we express strong criticisms of the process the Government are now pursuing. We welcome the creation of the National Security Council and the expansion of the review to include security issues because it is increasingly impossible and unwise to try to draw the distinctions between defence and security that might have been appropriate in previous times. The world has become smaller. The threats we face are trans-national and the solutions must be comprehensive and cross-governmental. However, we now have a review that is being conducted by a body—the National Security Council—that until a few months ago did not exist, and at extraordinary speed. Our major concern, therefore, is lack of time. In practice, the timetable has been about five months.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his measured comments yesterday on his report, which he is rehearsing again today. He says the world is a smaller place. That is because there is greater mobility. In order for us to contribute fully to the international forces, we too need to have greater mobility. At the core of that are aircraft carriers and the RAF. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the RAF plays a vital role not only in our combat operations but in our strategic role around the world, and that the RAF as an institution should be preserved?
It would be quite wrong of me to fail to pay tribute to the RAF. It achieves extraordinary things with a very small force—they are few in number. The same can, of course, be said of our Royal Navy and Army. I certainly share in the hon. Gentleman’s tribute to the RAF; it is well deserved.
As I said, the timetable for this review has been about five months. Most of the work has already been completed, about six weeks before the issue of the review. Even as I stand here, it is being finalised by the Treasury and the NSC. That means that the review has taken much less than half the time of the defence review of 1997-98, even though it is arguably even more important than that earlier review. Also, the current review should be based on an identification of the UK’s defence and security needs and what the threats are to us as a country and our interests, but it appears that it will end up being driven by the need for financial cuts and by little else.
The haste with which the review is being pursued has had some obvious consequences. Some 40 or so work streams fed into it, which is too few, and their analyses and costings cannot be as robust as they otherwise might have been, which threatens to weaken the review’s conclusions, possibly seriously.
Am I right in thinking that somewhere in the report, the Committee comments on the unfortunate consequences that might arise if defence estates were closed down because of the review without proper thought being given to the effects on the local economy and community, such as those that would occur if RAF Lyneham in my constituency were closed?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct to say that the Committee comments in its report on the need for the MOD to work out with other Departments the consequences of changes to the defence estates. We did not mention the words “RAF Lyneham”, but had we thought of him, I am sure we would have.
The right hon. Gentleman makes quite a devastating critique of the process, but may I push him in a slightly different direction to another part of the review, namely St Athan? The process of developing the contract has gone on for a long time—I would argue that it has gone on too long—and we need to resolve the issue. Otherwise, the increased costs of delay will bear heavily on the budget. In the end, we must ensure that we provide the very best technical training in a modern world to our armed forces. We will do that either in 14 different places in England, or in one place in Wales. Does that not require a slightly different process from the one that has been adopted?
The hon. Gentleman is rapidly taking on the mantle of our former colleague, John Smith, who made regular speeches on St Athan, and I pay tribute to him on that account and on many others. Training must be at the heart of maintaining the extraordinary quality of our armed forces. I hope that the process of getting to a proper result on defence training will be concluded at the end of the strategic defence and security review, because we need a degree of certainty, but so far we have had too much delay. My constituency used to contain a base at Bordon, which was seriously affected by the change to St Athan. We ought to leave the result on St Athan to the SDSR.
There has been insufficient consultation with the public at large, armed forces personnel, the defence industry and parliamentarians. With regard to the last of those, the review was initiated before the new Parliament properly began its business. There was a need for some speed in the review and it took six weeks to establish the Defence Committee, and I accept that neither was the fault of the MOD. However, only one debate has been held in the House, during which I was not fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr Speaker. Much of the work of the review has happened during the parliamentary recess and the results will be announced shortly after the conference recess. I can best describe that as a sub-optimal process.
Our concerns include the startling speed with which the review is taking place; the influence of current operations on future capabilities; the lack of future ring-fencing for the Defence budget; the lack of public engagement with the process; the uncertainty over the future funding position of Trident; the MOD’s postponement of discussions on the potential savings that future procurement and defence reform could bring; the insufficient consultation with the defence industry; the lack of a proper review of the future of reservists; and a lack of symbiosis between structural change in the MOD and the MOD’s future direction. We ask whether operations will be funded in future by the contingency reserve. We are also concerned about the retirement within three weeks of senior people in the MOD who were deeply involved with the SDSR, and therefore that the implementation of the SDSR will be led by people who did not lead in its creation. Quite frankly, the report is a cacophony of anxiety boiled down to 23 pages.
That, of course, is the role of our hon. Friend the Minister, who will make his speech in due course. However, we need to recognise the need for speed. In discussions yesterday with the Defence Committee, some senior academics and senior retired military people suggested that delaying things would not necessarily produce better decisions.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene a second time. I posed the question in my first intervention because I wished to be helpful to him. I agree entirely with the points he is making and I wish him and his Committee well, because the review is a rushed job.
That, of course, is also what the Committee thinks.
One of the Committee’s principal objections is that the lack of general consultation may create a greater sense of disconnection between the Government’s decisions and the understanding of the people at large on defence issues. With regard to the public view of defence, there is a gap between what politicians say and what the public believe. In relation to Iraq, the British people became, towards the end of our engagement there, broadly opposed, mostly because of the very poor planning on what to do after we had won the war. There is a great degree of scepticism about the purpose of our deployment in Afghanistan. In my view, our people would support our deployment to Afghanistan if they thought we had a good strategy for winning, but at the moment they do not think that.
That gap between the public view and the country’s policy is both very important and deeply worrying. The SDSR was an opportunity to narrow the gap, but because of the speed with which it is being carried out, that opportunity has been missed. We in the defence community must therefore do all we can, not only in the UK but across Europe, to explain defence policy and our defence needs to the public. Without such communication, notwithstanding the country’s general support for the armed forces, defence will suffer.
That contrasts with the 1997-98 defence review, which was announced during the Queen’s Speech in May 1997 and reported, later than originally expected, just over 13 months later in July 1998. There was a good deal of consultation during the preparation of that review. The Defence Committee of the day played its part in that, holding 12 evidence sessions while the review was in preparation and eight more afterwards. It also produced a weighty three-volume report on the review—I do not know whether anybody read it, but at least somebody had the time to write it. It was a good review, but I would make two points about it. First, it ended up being underfunded, because it was overtaken by events. Secondly, I would caution the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the shadow Defence Secretary, because it was held at a time when the British economy was strong, the Labour Government having received one of the best economic legacies in the history of this country. Before the shadow Secretary of State makes too much of his suggestion that this one is a cost-cutting farce—
If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will just make this one comment, while I am in full flow, to the shadow Secretary of State. Before he makes too much of his suggestion that this review is a cost-cutting farce, he should reflect with an appropriate amount of humility on who got us into our current economic mess and on why the defence budget is such a shambles.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only was that review not funded, but there was clearly a determination that it should not be funded, given that when these matters were discussed in the House, those on both sides agreed that the review would work only if it was properly funded and they signed up to it on that basis?
My hon. Friend is entirely right; the problem was that the then Chancellor was not naturally enthusiastic about the issue of defence as a whole, and we saw the same thing when the defence industrial strategy was produced. Again, that was an extremely useful document, which was signed up to by the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He subsequently became the Secretary of State for Defence and discovered that he actually did not have the money to put that strategy into effect, any more than we had earlier had the money to put into proper effect an excellent 1998 defence review.
So now that I have antagonised absolutely everyone, I shall end by saying what I hope to see from the review. I hope and expect that its end result will be a changed Ministry of Defence, which is focused more on the threats of the present and the future than on the old cold war structures of the past. I hope to see an element of coherence, so that our future looks significantly better than our present. I hope and expect that the improvements that could be made to the way in which we buy our defence equipment will be far-reaching and helpful. I hope and believe that the result of the reductions in Government spending will be to strengthen the economy of the United Kingdom in such a way as to give us the chance to renew our defence industry. I hope, but fear I may not see it, that we can reverse, as we should, the reductions in our spending on research and technology. I also hope, although I am not at all confident, that enough of our defence structure will remain to take full advantage of the economic revival.
May I just say a word on the process? I know that the Backbench Business Committee debates are a new procedure, but we need to settle into having some predictability and consistency in their organisation. Last week, there were no wind-ups, but this week there are to be some. Last week, we spoke after the Minister, but this week we are to speak before the Minister. Hon. Members need to know where they stand. I understand that this arrangement is new and I understand, therefore, why some of these issues are arising, but we need those things to be sorted out.
The strategic defence and security review will define our armed forces for the foreseeable future, and the Government will have to take fundamental decisions about their shape, size and capabilities. The report published this week by the Select Committee on Defence raised serious concerns about the speed of, and the consultation process adopted by, the review. Many of those conclusions did not come as a surprise to me, and I agree wholeheartedly with much of what the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) said and what is contained in his report. It has been clear for a while now that the Chancellor is firmly in the driving seat, carrying out this review at breakneck speed and potentially sacrificing our long-term strategic priorities to the need to cut costs. That is an incredibly short-sighted approach, for which the country will pay a heavy price, and somebody needs to put the brakes on. Perhaps it will be the Minister. Before the election, he said:
“We know that whoever wins the election, the Treasury will make life difficult for the Ministry of Defence, especially in the light of the public deficit. All of us in the defence community within the political sphere will have to kick up rough to help to keep the Treasury at bay.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 643.]
He is now Minister for the Armed Forces and if he does not know how to kick up rough, he has a fair few people at his disposal who have the first-class ability to do so. He seems to need a few lessons in self-defence, and he has people at his disposal who can teach him if he does not know how.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making his point. Does he not recognise that we would not be having this discussion about a rushed strategic defence review if his Government of the past 13 years had had timely and thorough defence reviews throughout that period?
I would not have given way to the hon. Gentleman if I had known that his intervention was going to be a boring repetition of things that are said repeatedly. I will come to the substantive point that the Chair of the Defence Committee raises in a while. I do not underestimate the difficulties that the Government face and the hard choices that need to be made, but they are not going about this in the way that will capture the support of the country, of the armed forces and of Parliament as a whole, and that will enable them to do as good a job as they can in the circumstances. If Government Members were to stop and reflect on that, they would know that what I am saying is true.
The Government will need to address the failure to consult the public and the broader defence community, as identified by the Defence Committee’s report. The failure to consult industry properly will have a serious impact on the ability to supply equipment to our armed forces. The Government appear to have stopped their work on acquisition reform, and will publish their industry and technology policy only next year. They cannot treat procurement and industrial capability as an afterthought; it must be an integral part of the strategic defence and security review.
The Defence Secretary has undergone a remarkable transformation since being in government. He has gone from being Oliver asking for more to being the Artful Dodger, ducking responsibility for his decisions. As entertaining as that spectacle has been, I would prefer to have a Government who acted like a Government. Before the election, the Conservatives called for an extra three battalions for the Army and more helicopters—how many times did they demand more helicopters? They also called for more vehicles and more ships. They now claim that they did not know what the financial position was, but that simply does not stand up.
I say to the Chair of the Defence Committee that we all knew that there were pressures on the defence budget. That is why we commissioned the Gray report and why I took the tough decisions I did last December. I decided not only to prioritise equipment for Afghanistan, but to reduce, ahead of the strategic defence review and to the degree that could be done outside an SDR, the pressures on the defence budget. What was the response of Conservative Members? They howled their disapproval at the cuts that were being made. They knew the situation, they knew the general financial framework of the world markets and what that had done to the British economy, and they knew that there was overheating within the defence budget, yet they continued to howl for more. As a result of what they said and did in the run-up to the election, there is not a member of the armed forces—not one—who would have believed that a Tory Government would not have brought extra funding. The Conservatives told people that efficiency savings would be all that was needed to deal with the budget.
Now the tune has changed but the methods are really quite worrying. Every week in the Sunday papers—rapidly, it is becoming each day—we are treated to more and more briefings dripping out of Whitehall. Will the carriers go? Will the Royal Marines be brought under Army command? What is the future of the joint strike fighter? What about the Tornado? It is government by leak and spin despite all the noble talk.
Nobody is laying out the options. Nobody is explaining the dilemmas to the country, to industry or to the armed forces. Nobody is pulling together and presenting a coherent plan. That is not the way to conduct a strategic defence and security review.
The shadow Secretary of State is right to compliment the Defence Committee Chairman’s outlining of the fears that cutting too quickly will hurt even more. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that one effect of the leaks and stories before the announcement is that they are damaging morale, particularly among those people who are training for the long-term future and who will be posted overseas into combat? Morale has been affected hugely, and any hasty cut could also end up costing the country more money in the long run.
Before Mr Ainsworth replies, may I say to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn that we must try to have short interventions? A lot of people want to speak and there is a lot of interest in the debate, so I appeal to all Members to make sure that interventions are short.
I would say to my hon. Friend that the people in our armed forces are pretty robust and they can put up with an awful lot. I do not overly worry, having got to know them over a three-year period, about their morale. However, they are worried and they do not believe that they are consulted, and that goes for every rank and for every level of the armed forces. They do not believe that this process is being carried out in anything like a reasonable way. They do not believe that they are having an input, and that goes for industry too. Anyone who talks to the defence industry will know that it is worried about the sequential way in which the Government are going about this, instead of the holistic way that is necessary if they are going to take the right decisions and to capture all the complexity of the process.
On our nuclear deterrent and the latest piece of spin, I do not believe that the BBC is wrong. I do not believe, either, that some special adviser is responsible. I believe that somebody high up in the Government is casting the bread on the water and is thinking about delaying the replacement in the way that is being reported.
Let us be clear about the consequences, which were so well laid out by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) on the radio this morning: short-term savings, massive long-term costs—one might ask what the Conservatives have been complaining about, yet here they are talking and thinking about such things—industrial interruption, safety risks and a very real risk to our ability to maintain a continuous at-sea deterrent. In short, it makes no sense operationally, industrially or financially. As the hon. Gentleman said, one can decide to have a deterrent and one can decide not to, but delay makes absolutely no sense at all.
I very much support the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex on the radio this morning, but I feel that the shadow Secretary of State’s comments would have far more gravity if he had pushed forward with the review of Trident rather than waiting until after the election.
The hon. Gentleman was not here in the last Parliament. He will know if he looks at the record that we took decisions on Trident in a timely way in 2006 and that we put work strands in place. Those work strands cannot be significantly disrupted without massive industrial consequences. We have a skill base that is pretty unique and capable of building those submarines. We lost it before and we had to rebuild it. If we lose it again, we will have to rebuild it again, but perhaps the Government do not want to do that. Perhaps they are seriously trying to get rid of our nuclear deterrent without a debate. I do not know, but all I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that the person who cast the bread on the water this morning is either a total fool for proposing the delay in the way that they are, or there is some other agenda. The other agenda must be either to get rid of or to reduce massively our deterrent. Perhaps that is a debate that we should have, but I do not understand the common sense—neither does anybody else who knows anything about it—behind the trailing, spinning and leaking that has gone on.
May I seek to reassure hon. Members on both sides of the House who are firmly committed to the continuation of the nuclear deterrent, given that I was my party’s spokesman on this issue for many years, that both I and the Secretary of State for Defence came into politics primarily to ensure that this country would always have nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them? I cannot answer directly for the Secretary of State for Defence, but I would be amazed if he remained Secretary of State for Defence if a decision of the sort that was aired on the BBC were to be taken in defiance of all the pledges given to the electorate and given to Conservative MPs by our leadership when we were asked to join the coalition.
Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that I do not believe that the current Secretary of State is the person who is responsible for casting the bread on the water and doing the spinning this morning. The problem that we have is the same problem that we have in dealing with the strategic defence review—not only are the Government not talking to industry, the armed forces and the country, but their members are not talking to each other. I asked the Secretary of State on Monday if he would repeat his unequivocal support for the Trident replacement. Not only did he do that, he absolutely leapt at the chance. However, within the hour, the Government’s position was being clarified and now we have the situation that we are in today.
To coin a phrase, we can’t go on like this. We need the Minister to have a Government position—not a Liberal Democrat position—and to give that position to the House so that we know exactly where the Government stand. Let us stop hearing all this nonsense through the BBC and from leaks, spins and so on.
We had a manifesto that I helped to write. The Conservatives had a manifesto and the Liberal Democrats had a manifesto, which was the only one that caused confusion. I think that that confusion was deliberate—they were trailing their coats to those who use the unilateralist argument on the one hand while trying to reassure other people that they were doing no such thing on the other. Their proposed alternative does not appear to me to make any sense whatsoever. What I am saying to the Government is that if they are changing their position because of the financial circumstances, they ought to have the decency to share it with us.
The right hon. Gentleman is obviously right to raise what could be a very serious issue. The suggestions in the press, none of which have been confirmed, are that the decision to place the major contracts on Trident could be delayed until the next Parliament, which is presumably due to begin in 2015. As the major contracts at the moment are only expected to be signed in 2014, I hope he would agree that a 12-month delay would not be that serious and might allow the decision to be taken in a more favourable economic climate. If, on the other hand, the Government were contemplating a five-year delay beyond 2014, we would be in a very different situation.
Or even in a more favourable political climate. One of the difficulties is that people accept the reasonableness of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said and do not think it is a very significant decision. He needs to research this matter because, when it comes to building submarines, we have slowed the drum beat down so much that our ability to slow it down further simply does not exist. There is already a gap and we will lose the capability, which we will have to recreate—if we want to do so—at considerable expense to the taxpayer. That will not be for years to come—it will not be in the next two or three years—but down the line the expense will be massive and the kind of overheating in the defence budget that the Chairman of the Defence Committee complains about will have been hugely exacerbated.
Does my right hon. Friend agree not only that we must seek to learn the lessons of history, after the Vanguard was not replaced quickly enough with the Astute programme order, but that if the same mistake were repeated, the dangers would be even greater given the civil nuclear programme that we hope will be carried out in parts of Cumbria and across the UK, and given the greater danger of drawing skills away from the Trident successor programme?
My hon. Friend understands that issue in greater detail than I do, but I think he is absolutely right.
I know there is a lobby within the armed forces for such a decision. The Treasury’s decision to transfer the cost of the deterrent to the MOD budget has been described by some as game-changing. If that decision is being taken, it cannot be taken in a hole in the corner; there has to be proper debate. The Government cannot do their business in that way. If they are seriously thinking about changing our posture, that is a profound decision for Great Britain to take and they will not get away with doing it in secret. We created our nuclear capability in secrecy, but we are not going to abandon it in secrecy because that is not the way of the world nowadays. Nobody is going to be allowed to do that. It will need to be done openly and properly, if it is to be done at all. I am worried that there is quite a lobby for it, which I can understand because people are worried about their ability to maintain other capabilities in the circumstances in which the armed forces find themselves, but we come back to the process and what the Chairman of the Defence Committee said: the Government need to do things in an open, embracing and proper manner, and not in the way in which they are doing things now.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that my views are rather different from his, but I applaud his call for an open debate. On whether the funding should come from the defence budget as presently constituted or from some other source in Government, which does he believe to be the correct course?
I have said to members of the armed forces that to some degree that is academic because it all comes from the same pot at the end of the day. The understanding has always been, and the structure of the defence budget is, that the defence budget pays for the running costs of the deterrent and the Treasury pays for the capital costs of replacing the deterrent. If the budget were transferred without a dowry of some description to offset the costs, the issues would be pretty profound for the rest of defence capability. Which pot the money comes from is a matter of Government accounting. What I am saying is that if these pretty profound decisions are being seriously considered—if they are just about delay they do not make sense, but if they are about something else they are core to Government policy—then they ought to be discussed openly and not attempted through any sleight of hand.
I have gone on for too long and many hon. Members wish to speak. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] With the discomfort that there is on the Government Benches, I see that people want me to move on, so let me address one final issue—the welfare of our armed forces. As well as it being the duty of any Government to repay and honour the sacrifices of our armed forces, it is also essential to retain world-class forces. No matter how many fast jets, tanks or other equipment we have, they are nothing without the incredible people who operate them. We introduced many reforms when we were in government, including a sustained investment in accommodation, the doubling of compensation for the most serious injuries and the provision of greater access to education, housing and health care. As a Government, we were determined to honour our duty to those fighting on the front line and as a party we will support the Government in building on those achievements. That is why I am glad that they have adopted our election proposal of enshrining the rights of our service personnel in law, but so far we have seen no detail. When will the Minister present his Bill and what will it include?
I know that many Conservatives are concerned about what the coalition’s cuts will do to those in the most need of support. Does the Minister have the same concerns about the impact of those cuts on our armed forces? His party, and he personally, promised to increase the pay of the lowest paid in the armed forces so that nobody would be paid less than £23,000 a year—I am sure he will remember that—but the Government’s pay freeze will hit all those who earn above £21,000. It seems that not only the Defence Secretary is undergoing a transformation.
The review will be pivotal for the future of our nation and for our armed forces. It must be carried out in the right way, for the right reasons, as determined by our long-term strategic needs. No matter what the Defence Committee Chairman says, I know that he agrees that it must not become simply a cost-cutting exercise in which the Treasury calls all the shots. Sadly, the signs are not promising.
I commend the Backbench Business Committee for choosing this topic for debate today. After Afghanistan, which we debated last week, there is no more pressing business for the Ministry of Defence than preparing our armed forces for the future as part of the cross-departmental strategic defence and security review. As we debate today, we should keep foremost in our minds the 9,500 men and women of our armed forces currently operating at the sharp end in Afghanistan. Our armed forces are professionals who are fully aware of the risks of their job and they accept those risks to protect our country and its citizens. They do not choose where they are sent or what they are asked to do on our behalf. That is what makes their dedication and commitment awesome in the true sense of the word.
We should also keep in our minds those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, including those who have recently died as a result of serving in Afghanistan, as set out by the Prime Minister in the House. Neither should we forget those who have been injured both in mind and body. I pay tribute to all those who are currently serving and those veterans who have served in the past; they do and have done so much to keep us safe and ask so little in return. That is why we in the House have a responsibility to ensure that when we take decisions on the future shape of our armed forces, we do so not only to ensure the safety of the country but to honour the commitment of our armed forces.
I want to ensure that hon. and right hon. Members have as much opportunity as possible to contribute to the debate, so I shall take Mr Speaker’s injunction to keep my remarks necessarily brief. We are at a crucial stage of the SDSR and although no final decisions have been taken, the tough choices that are required are now imminent. The Government will publish their findings from the SDSR later this autumn, in co-ordination with the outcome of the cross-governmental spending review. I am sure that Members will understand that I shall not be able to answer specific questions on equipment or force levels today, but this is an opportunity for those Members with concerns, whether they relate to a constituency or other interest, to articulate them in time for them still to be considered.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He drew attention to Afghanistan. This debate takes place as soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade from Colchester garrison are being deployed to Afghanistan for the fourth time. The second recommendation in paragraph 11 of the Defence Committee’s report goes thus:
“The capacity of the country even to sustain current in-use capabilities and therefore current operations could well be put at risk by the proposed cuts of between 10% and 20%.”
Would he care to respond to that comment from the Select Committee, please?
I understand the concern that the Select Committee flags up and the reasons why my hon. Friend raises that point here today, but whatever else happens in the SDSR, the Government are absolutely committed to the priority for Afghanistan, and nothing will be done to undermine the efforts of our front-line troops there, nor the way in which they are equipped or supported. That is our paramount, top priority; it remains defence’s main effort and, whatever decisions are taken for the long term, none will be taken that will undermine in the short term the work that we are performing on the front line.
In a recent interview with The Press and Journal, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that the social and economic consequences of any base closures or rundowns would be taken into account. Will the Government publish those assessments?
The Government—the Treasury in particular, but all Departments—will take seriously the economic consequences of all the decisions that are taken in the comprehensive spending review. If there are consequences that need to be addressed, every possible effort will be made to put in place remedial measures. How precisely the Government Departments that are responsible for such measures will approach the matter will be explained in due course. It is not predominantly an issue for the Ministry of Defence. All the decisions that are made across all Departments will have consequences, and the Government as a whole will do their utmost to address those consequences.
The Minister will know that I am very concerned about Lyneham. While I, of course, accept what he says and understand that Departments are answerable for their decisions, does he accept that the communities that live around bases have given their wholehearted support to their base, so it is only reasonable that the Ministry of Defence—not other Departments—should be ready to say what it believes the economic consequences of a base closure will be and what it will do to support the communities thereafter?
My hon. Friend is allowing himself to go into the realms of speculation. We will have to await the decisions. He has known what is in the pipeline for RAF Lyneham for some time and of course any decisions that are taken will have economic consequences. My hon. Friend must keep his powder dry and see what exactly is decided about Lyneham, as other hon. Members will have to do about those bases or industrial issues that they hold most dear. Hon. Members have an opportunity to make these points today. We will listen; we will take them into account. However, despite the speculation in newspapers or elsewhere, it would be absurd for a Minister part way through a process to enter into some sort of running commentary on every twist or turn.
My hon. Friend said a few moments ago that we were all entitled to have our input into this process. On behalf of my constituents who are likely to be affected by the review I should like to know whether there is a cut-off date for our input into the process.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Let me say that a vast number of representations—almost 7,000—have been made by members of the public and the armed forces, industry, academics, Members of Parliament and others. There is a cut-off point, and it is the end of next week, so if he or his constituents have any further points that they wish to make, I urge them to do so in that time frame.
I recognise that many in the House have strong views about our armed forces, deep attachments and a pressing need to represent the best interests of their constituents, from reserves to regiments, from equipment to the industrial base. This is the strength of our parliamentary system—every citizen has someone here to fight for them. So we will take into account everything that hon. Members have to say. There will be a broad range of views, and they will be considered as decisions are made on how to deliver the future strategy for national security as effectively and efficiently as possible. Even at this late stage, we are still listening, and all the issues that are raised in the debate today will be given the consideration that they require.
The Foreign Secretary has set out in this House and in a speech yesterday the distinctive British foreign policy that the coalition Government will pursue. He set out our assessment of the nature of the world in which we now live. It is a networked world in which power balances are shifting, with new rising economies and new forms of diplomacy that are eroding the traditional influence that Britain has enjoyed in world affairs. This is happening at a time when the potential threats to our security are grave. So in particular we need to recognise that multilateral operation with allies and partners, underpinned by the rule of law and the pursuit of human rights, is the best way to achieve British interests. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said:
“our interests depend on a world system based on law. We need states not to proliferate nuclear weapons, to respect the sovereignty of others, to abide by international treaties and to support legal sanctions by the international community.”
So we will look to enhance relations as well as develop new partnerships with others across all aspects of national security and areas that are of strategic importance to the UK. This is also at a time of serious constraints on our national resources. We have to work even harder as a nation to maintain the position of the UK economy. It is our economy that provides the prosperity of our citizens and in turn provides the resources for the pursuit of our national security.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He mentioned the role of reservists. Will he confirm that the review will look at strengthening the Territorial Army, especially after the budget cuts under the previous Government and the closure of the TA base in Harlow?
I have made it clear that I do not intend to be drawn into speculation about the outcome of the review, but let me state for the record that the Government attach the greatest significance to the contribution made by our reserves. They are an absolutely vital part of our capability and will continue to be so for decades to come. We are determined that they should be able to do that from a position of maximum effectiveness.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and for those rousing words. In deciding what future there is and how much defence capability should be put into reserves, two things are crucial. The first is that we recognise how much cheaper they are and the second, equally important, thing is that it depends on the offer to the officers and NCOs. It has to be an attractive, interesting job if we want to get the right quality of leaders.
I need to make a bit of progress, and I have a suspicion that my hon. Friend will want to come in a bit later.
The economic context of this security review is one that we cannot ignore. Next year the interest bill alone for the debt that Labour has left the nation will be more than £46 billion—more than the entire defence budget for the UK. Unfortunately, defence cannot be immune from the fiscal challenge that we face, especially when other Departments face strict cost management. As the shadow team knows, the specific challenges in defence are immense, and that is in no small part due to the fact that it bequeathed a forward defence programme with a £38 billion black hole between its commitments and the budget put in place to pay for them. They sat there making future commitments in a manner that resembled a child writing a Christmas wish list to Santa, and they had absolutely no idea how they were going to pay for it all. So on top of the deplorable economic legacy that the previous Government have left, specifically in defence they left a £38 billion black hole—a gap between their forward programme and the forward budget, and that is the size of the challenge facing the new Government.
No, I am not, and I am also not going to allow the hon. Gentleman to con the British public into thinking that that £38 billion is a debt that is there to be paid today. I find this a bit rich coming from the Conservatives, who in opposition, right up until the general election, were calling for a larger Army, a larger Navy, and extra expenditure. Will he be truthful with the British public and say that the figure he is quoting is actually spread over the next 10 years?
The figure is certainly spread over the 10-year period of this review. The gap between the commitments that the Labour Government made and the budget that was in place to pay for it is £38 billion. Before the election, both Opposition parties charged the Government with doing just this. We did not know the scale of it, and it turns out to be even worse than we had charged. We therefore have no choice but to face the gravity of that legacy and set about the task of trying to build future defences that are coherent and effective, but doing so against that budget background. We hear that different Government Departments are being asked to indicate what it would entail to make reductions in their budgets of a different size. Let me explain to the House that if the defence budget were to be cut by 10% in real terms, the defence programme would have to be cut by 19% in real terms in order to achieve that. That is the meaning of the black hole that we were left by the previous Government, and that is the scale of the task that the current Government are facing.
The Chairman of the Defence Committee summed up the situation very well at the beginning of his speech when he talked about speed and the issues that have to be determined about how the process is taking place. Let me make this perfectly clear. As I have said in interviews this week, the time scale of the review is a great deal brisker than we would have chosen in an ideal world, but this is not an ideal world—it is a world in which we have been bequeathed the financial situation that I have described, and that needs tackling as a matter of urgency. We have to ensure that the decisions that we take in the next few weeks in the SDSR are sustainable not only over the short and medium term but over the long term, and they have to proceed in parallel with the Government’s spending review. The alternative would have been just to sit back and allow the Treasury to dictate a spending envelope in which a strategic defence review that we might have conducted at a more leisurely pace would be obliged to fit itself, whereas by doing the work at the same time as the comprehensive spending review, we are able to fight our corner within the spending round having done the work involved.
The right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) said that everybody involved in defence in the political community—he quoted my words from before the election—should kick up rough. My sense is that that is exactly what everybody is doing, and I am sure that he is happy to play his part in that process.
Everybody apart from the hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State, perhaps.
The hon. Gentleman is aware that my predecessor as Secretary of State ordered the Gray report, that I published it, and that National Audit Office reports were published before that. He knew what the situation was. When did he or his Conservative now-friends call for cuts in defence to deal with it? When, prior to the election, did he ever do that? Did he ever do anything other than ask for more?
Every time there was a defence debate in this House in the two or three years before the election, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members repeatedly quizzed Ministers about the apparent gap between the promises they were making, the plans they were laying down and the funds that they appeared to have at their disposal in order to fulfil them. Time and again, they stood there pretending that it all added up, and the fact of the matter is that it did not.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to the Gray report. That very telling report specifically identified the true situation on the procurement side. However, that was only half the story, because the black hole existed not only in the procurement budget but across the whole defence budget, and that is the scale of the challenge that now faces us.
Although I have great respect for the shadow Secretary of State and the work that he did in the Department, I think that my hon. Friend is equally entitled to ask him when he ever admitted to the scale of the crisis that his Department was facing—although he did have the honesty to come to the House and admit that he had started the process of raiding future capability in order to sustain current operations, which showed that our commitments had got wildly ahead of the resources that the Government had made available.
My hon. Friend is quite right. That was precisely the significance of the measures that the right hon. Gentleman had to take hastily—last December, I think—in order to make this year’s budget wash its face. That is a graphic illustration of the problem that had been allowed to grow up and which we are now having to tackle.
Of course, we could tackle this simply by cutting a bit off everything—the equal-pain option across the services—but that would not distinguish capabilities or assess real risk, and it would not reform our forces for the strategic challenges ahead. We cannot just fossilise what we currently do, and again fail the strategic test. Instead, we must look ahead to the end of this 10-year period and decide what we want our armed forces to look like at that time based on the foreign policy goals we have set, our assessment of the future character of conflict, and our anticipation of the changes in technology that we will need to incorporate.
The National Security Council has agreed that the overarching strategic posture should be to address the most immediate threats to our national security while maintaining the ability to identify and deal with emerging ones before they become bigger threats to the UK. This flexible, adaptable posture will maintain the ability to safeguard international peace and security, to deter and contain those who threaten the UK and its interests, and, where necessary, to conduct a number of different operations concurrently. It will also, crucially, keep our options open for a future in which we can expect our highest priorities to change over a period of time.
In order to set the record straight, does my hon. Friend remember that although the shadow Secretary of State takes credit for publishing the Gray report, that happened only after four months of the then Prime Minister trying to prevent it from being published, and only after I had put in a freedom of information request to demand that it should be published?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having winkled that out of Labour Members; I am very glad that I gave way to him. I knew that the report had sat on their desks for a long time, but I was not aware that that was precisely how it came out, so I take my hat off to him for doing that.
For all the financial constraints, this means that we have to take strategic decisions for the long term and invest in programmes that we will require to put defence on a sound footing for the years ahead.
The right hon. Member for Coventry North East raised the matter of Trident. He rightly pointed out that it had been subject to speculation and tittle-tattle, and then devoted about 10 minutes of his speech to responding to it as though it were all absolute gospel truth deserving of the most serious attention. Let me make it clear to the House. A decision on Trident has been taken. The position was set out in the coalition agreement, which makes it clear that we will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent and, in due course, replace it. The coalition agreement also makes it clear, however, that the successor programme should be scrutinised for value for money, and that is what is happening. However, I am not aware of any suggestion to delay either any decisions or, indeed, the procurement. The value-for-money study has yet to be undertaken at the National Security Council, and I cannot pre-empt any decision that it might make. It is perfectly possible that, in pursuing value for money, the council might look at the expenditure profile, but the key decisions and the timetable have already been decided, and nothing has changed that in any sense.
The right hon. Gentleman, the shadow Defence Secretary, will be aware that the initial gate decision was due last autumn, and that essentially technical phase has been delayed for largely technical reasons. We will reach it as planned, probably at the tail end of this year but, if not, in the very early part of next, and the timetable that pans out is as understood and as has been set out. I cannot pre-empt or speculate on what the value-for-money study will conclude, but there is no intention fundamentally to alter the programme that has been laid out.
The in-principle debate about whether to embark on the programme was held in 2007, and the final opportunity for the public, Parliament or anybody else to debate whether we pass the point of no return, as it were, on the successor programme is at main gate, and of course there will be debate about that. In terms of what is going on this autumn, the value-for-money study will feed into the SDR and the comprehensive spending review, and, if it is possible to get better value for money out of the programme, it is only right and proper that we do so.
I see the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness rising, and, in terms of the impact that the process might have, I must say that the points that have already been made about the impact on the industrial base, if there were to be an interruption, are well understood. They would be not only of industrial significance, but of military significance, so Members should not give way to the temptation to speculate on the basis of tittle-tattle in the press.
The Minister has just said that the decisions on the timetable have been taken and will not change, and that is very significant. If that statement is true, it will be very welcome in Barrow and Furness. However, is he aware that, as I understand it, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, at his Lobby briefing this morning, gave a very different impression?
Let me say this again: the decision on Trident has been taken. It was laid out in the coalition agreement, which made it perfectly clear:
“We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent”
and, in due course, replace it. The value-for-money study, which is currently taking place but has yet to arrive at any decisions, may well consider the expenditure profile, and the order in which we programme different parts of the work, but I cannot speculate on that. However, the initial gate decision is on course to be made later this year or, at the latest, in the early part of next. We know that under the timetable, main gate will be at the tail end of 2014 or, possibly, in the early part of 2015; that is already known and understood. But, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) pertinently pointed out in his intervention, if main gate happened to shift a few months, it would not make any difference in terms of either finance or, frankly, the impact on the industrial base. So, the issue involves complete speculation and does not have the significance that one or two people have suggested it might.
I welcome the Minister’s extremely reassuring remarks. In that context, I note the intensive press reports stating that the Treasury has pressed for the capital costs of Trident to be met from—presumably—the existing core budget of the Ministry of Defence. Is that the case, and, if we are to have both a conventional military and the independent nuclear deterrent, is it possible?
I rather agreed with the right hon. Member for Coventry North East, who said that that point is largely academic: the cost all comes out of the Treasury as a whole, and the particular line on which it is accounted is neither here nor there. We would want to be clear that the funds for Trident were on a separate line from that of the core defence budget. That is what the White Paper said, and as I understand it, that is still the position. However, where precisely it is accounted is neither here nor there; it is a completely semantic and academic point.
And the Minister has done so very graciously. He is doing his best at damage limitation. What would reassure me even more would be to know from him that no one employed by the Government was responsible for the extremely damaging story that was leaked to the BBC last night.
I have absolutely no grounds whatever to think or believe that it was, and to the extent that I am able, I am happy to offer that reassurance. Obviously, I cannot account for every employee anywhere in government, which is rather a large thing, but I do not believe that that is what happened or think that there is any point in the House dwelling on any speculation about what happened.
If that is the case and we are meant to discount the story, will the Minister just confirm one thing? When he talks about possible decisions about main gate in the context of value for money, does he accept that no interpretation of a value-for-money assessment could result in a decision that the Trident replacement should not go ahead at all?
I do not think that that is within the scope of the study under consideration; the study is about how we might improve the existing programme’s value for money and delivery. Again, I cannot pre-empt the decisions that the National Security Council will arrive at shortly, when it addresses the value-for-money report, but my hon. Friend’s point is considerably wide of its scope.
The coalition agreement also said:
“Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives,”
and the Liberal Democrats will. I shall continue to argue that in government; my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) will continue to argue the case for alternatives outwith government. But, the Government are proceeding with the programme, and that is the point that I wish to make clear today. The arrangements that the right hon. Member for Coventry North East left in place are those which the value-for-money report is studying, and to the extent that any better value for money can be squeezed out of the programme, that is the objective of the exercise.
When giving way, there is always a trade-off between allowing people to intervene and eating up the time that they could otherwise use to make their own contributions.
So, by way of conclusion, I simply say that the point has been made that we have not liaised adequately with industry. Industry has a regular dialogue with the Government, and we understand the industrial challenges and issues. We want and need a resilient defence-industrial base, and having a strong defence industry is a formidable strategic asset. It is a key part of our international security relationships, it obviously provides jobs, tax revenues and an improved balance of payments and its long-term prosperity rests also on offering good value for money to the British taxpayer.
We have difficult choices ahead of us, and the SDSR is a highly complex undertaking with many issues interwoven. As we pull the threads together and try to weave a better whole, we have to ensure that we get the balance right not only in defence but in other security services, foreign policy and international development. We must balance those matters with domestic concerns and investment in public services. I cannot say that the final decisions on defence will be pain-free, but that is the same across all Departments. I can say that we will strive to take those decisions based on what is right for the country and for defence as a whole, in the strategic and financial conditions in which we find ourselves.
I, too, congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on selecting this subject for debate. May I observe that I am beginning to get used to a particular quality in the speeches delivered by Liberal Democrat Ministers? There is an almost monastic high moral tone attached to their annunciations. That probably comes from not having had to take any responsibility for the past 100 years, so I do not think it will last very long. They will develop a sense of the reality that whether one is in government or in opposition, things are occasionally more complicated than they appear at first sight.
I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), whose speech was excellent. As a member of that Committee I know that the report he mentioned is excellent, and I have to say that his speech left little for other members of the Committee to add. I shall simply deepen some of his points.
I wish to focus particularly on public involvement in reaching a consensus on security and defence. In a few weeks’ time, the funding for the Department of Health and the Department for International Development will be ring-fenced but pretty big decisions will have to be made on how much money is spent on defence in the light of other public sector cuts. I am not convinced that either the previous Government or the current one have sufficiently explained in recent years why this country needs the armed forces, what they do and what they are engaged in. Are they there to keep the peace, or to go to war occasionally?
A generational gap is opening up. Knowing that my 25-year-old daughter-in-law was going to start work yesterday, I said to her, “Oh, that is Battle of Britain day”. She looked at me and asked, “What’s that?” Not only did she not know, I had the distinct impression that she was not particularly concerned. There is a generation that is unable to relate not only to world war two, which in many ways still determines our sense of what is needed for defence and the armed forces, but to the cold war. The generation born after the fall of the Berlin wall has a very different sense of nuclear deterrence, which for the pre-1989 generation was an obvious need. We need to do a little more to explain that need.
That change is happening all over Europe. One reason why I cannot stay for the whole debate is that I am going off to the 60th Königswinter conference, which is an annual meeting of German and British politicians. Tomorrow evening, the German Defence Minister, zu Guttenberg, will be speaking. If the press reports today and yesterday are to be believed, he has virtually reached political agreement for Germany to move to a professional army, with a moratorium on conscription. That is a huge shift in the country’s attitude to defence, and such shifts are happening all over Europe.
That, quite apart from the economic circumstances, is why the current defence review is hugely important. It is about how Britain defines its role in the world and its relationship with the rest of Europe, but it is also about how the intergenerational covenant between the armed forces and the Government will be conducted. I believe that there is a change not just because of changing generations but because of our ethnically diverse nation. Increasingly, we like to have an Army not to go to war but to keep the peace, which may occasionally involve going to war.
We need a much more open relationship with people in explaining why we deploy our troops and why we spend money on them. That requires a debate not about the type of aircraft carriers, tanks and equipment we have, but about our national security and defence. That might involve attacks from the air, which is why we need a Royal Air Force, but in the historical context that is probably no longer a key element and is less of a priority. We are a trading nation that needs to keep its trade routes open, so we probably need to explain a little more to the population at large why the Navy is so incredibly important not just for military purposes but for the security of food and energy supplies.
In the case of the Army, we often talk about those who have given their lives in the interests of the country, but we now have an increasing number of young men who, while they have not given their life, have given their limbs. They are severely injured, and we have a huge responsibility to look after them not just today or tomorrow but for decades to come. We cannot flinch from that.
We must also engage the public on a different type of security, which could conveniently be called cyber-security. A NATO unit in Estonia is working on it, and the Estonian people know exactly what it is, because the Russians brought their country to a standstill for three days. Commercial operations also know about it. Much more work needs to be done on cyber-security in the defence review, but may I caution that that work should not be kept within the MOD too much? After world war two a lot of our computer and decoding equipment was kept secure by the MOD at Bletchley, whereas America was much more open in making such equipment available to the industrial sector. The industrial trade-off was not used so early in the UK. Similarly, in cyber-security we have to work much more with industry, in a way that will allow the military to use the technology without confining its commercial exploitation.
My final observation is about the National Security Council. I happen to think that it is a good thing to have set up, but when the Defence Committee took evidence from our witnesses yesterday they made the interesting point that if the word “security” is in a name, other Departments such as DFID and the Foreign Office can sometimes feel that they do not have much buy-in. A strategic defence and security review should involve not just the MOD but those other Departments. If the Treasury is still carrying out bilateral negotiations on where the money will come from, as it appears to be doing, there can be one-on-one combat between Departments instead of their collectively standing up for what they need. I hope that the NSC, by bringing the Departments together at ministerial level under the Prime Minister, will not allow the Treasury to take a divide-and-rule approach.
I look forward to what we will hear at the end of October, and I hope I am correct in the impression that I have gained from the Minister that all the BBC’s reports about Trident today were complete and utter nonsense. Nobody seems to know quite where they came from or to want to take any responsibility for them. [Interruption] Well, those of us who have been around know that whenever Front Benchers become excited about telling us what complete and utter nonsense something is, and that they have no idea where on earth the story came from, it usually means that in a few weeks’ time they will say, “Funny that, you know—the BBC was right after all.” I hope that on this occasion my cynicism is completely unwarranted. I wish the review well and hope that the Defence Committee will be able to return to the House and say that the Government have done the right thing.
I apologise to the House and to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence for not being present when the debate began. I was taken aback by the speed with which the previous business was completed.
I hope that I do not sound too censorious when I say that any member of the armed forces on active service watching our debate so far might feel compelled to say, “How we got here is less important than what we’re going to do now we are here.” To use the old cliché, we are where we are. People in the armed services want to know how we will provide a review that produces a coherent and cohesive outcome and allows them to have total confidence that they will always be fully equipped, well led and subject to mature and sensible political direction.
My views on Trident are well known, and, in the time available, I will not burden the House with them again, other than to the limited extent of saying that the attitude of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, publicly expressed by him and confirmed by the Chief Secretary, implies that Trident has de facto become part of the defence review.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I make a little progress first.
I listened to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, who, with characteristic elegance, endeavoured to say that it was simply a matter of accounting. It is not a matter of accounting for the budget holder of a Department, out of whose budget the money must come, who knows that a request of the Chief Secretary for more is likely to be refused. When there are difficult decisions to make, such as the closure of bases, whether a particular capability should be maintained or whether infantry battalions should be disbanded, and one is aware of an obligation to find some £20 billion in the next period, it seems inevitable that the decisions about the conventional elements of defence are bound to be affected. To put it colloquially, four Trident submarines would be four elephants in the room.
In this country, we lack a proper review of nuclear policy. I cannot recall in the 23 years that I have been a Member a review conducted other than on the basis that we have always had four submarines since Harold Macmillan went to the Bahamas and persuaded Jack Kennedy that we should have access to Poseidon. It is argued that, therefore, we should have four submarines and the maximum number of warheads—at least potentially. I remember the days when the argument in the House was not about having a deterrent, but about whether a Labour Government in 1992 under Neil Kinnock would build the fourth submarine. That was of great significance to the constituents of the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), to whom I shall briefly give way.
I am grateful. I am also grateful that the Labour party’s position has changed, for which my predecessor, now Lord Hutton, deserves some credit. I will not often agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about Trident, but is he aware that the report, published this week, of the Defence Committee, of which I am a member, suggests that Trident has de facto been included in the review in an unhelpful way through the budgeting arrangements that have been changed in recent weeks?
We must agree about that.
That takes me to the points that the Chairman of the Defence Committee made with great directness. I think that I am the last member of the 1997 Defence Committee still to be in the House. As the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) explained, the consultation that was carried out for that particular defence review was peerless. He outlined the number of meetings that the Committee held and the amount of detail into which it went. Indeed, I remember several occasions on which I could argue across the table, face to face, with John Reid, now Lord Reid, about issues that directly concerned the defence review and its outcome. There was one defect, which is now acknowledged. The Government of the day never published the foreign policy baseline. That is one of my criticisms of the current review.
My hon. Friend the Minister referred to a speech by the Foreign Secretary, but the national security strategy and a foreign policy baseline have not been published. I say with respect that if the review is to have a benevolent outcome, the House should be debating the foreign policy baseline and the national security strategy now so that we could, if I may put it a little ambitiously, offer some advice and exercise some influence over members of the National Security Committee.
My concern is mirrored by the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister. He said that if the Ministry of Defence had not proceeded at the same pace as the overall efforts to restore economic stability, we would have found ourselves given a sum of money and told to find a defence policy to fit it. My fear is that that is exactly what is happening. It is implied that the defence budget must be brought under control, to put it pejoratively, in the next five years, yet from what we hear from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, we will still be in Afghanistan in that period. Is it in the interests of morale and effectiveness to conduct such a wholesale programme during that period? Cutting programmes that are under review will incur penalties. Substantial sums of money will have to be paid out if we do not proceed with certain contracts. What account has been taken of that?
My anxiety can be summed up in my fear that we are at risk of being engaged not in a defence review, but in an expenditure review. To what should a defence review amount? Usually, it means a clear statement of foreign policy objectives, an analysis of the military requirements for achieving those objectives and a value-for-money analysis of the necessary resources. It seems to me that a series of decisions may emerge from the review that are not related to each other and that fail to provide the necessary coherence and cohesion not only for members of the armed services or politicians who have their responsibilities, but for the profile that we present to any potential adversary and—perhaps equally important —to our allies.
I have a constituency interest; I imagine that I am not alone in presenting such an interest to the House, and I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to respond to it today. On Saturday, I went to Royal Air Force Leuchars in my constituency. It was a battle of Britain airshow day and some 50,000 people attended. In the past, the base has had two squadrons of Typhoon with a third training squadron for Typhoon. It now has 71 Engineer Regiment (Volunteers). Many members of the regiment have been to Afghanistan and Iraq. The 58 Squadron RAF Regiment is training there to be deployed to Afghanistan next spring. The 50,000 people who visited the base on Saturday were compelled to do so because, last week, 6 Squadron was reformed as the first of three Typhoon squadrons, which, under current plans, is scheduled to be deployed to the base. The station is located in Scotland’s central belt, albeit the most attractive part—I would say that, wouldn’t I? It can provide the air defence for the whole of northern Britain.
Those of us with an interest in defence deplore the fact that its prominence in the minds of the British public is much reduced. I thoroughly supported the notion, which was effected under the previous Administration, that members of the armed forces could more regularly wear uniforms in public so that people had a clear and obvious identification with them. The argument for the continuation of RAF Leuchars is overwhelming. The command of the base is combined with the responsibilities of the Air Officer Scotland, who has important representational functions that are easily fulfilled from a base in the central area of Scotland. Were that base to be closed, there would be a substantial economic impact, as there is when any base is closed. The impact is felt on the communities that have grown up alongside the bases. However, in the case of Leuchars, I am confident that the defence case for its maintenance as a front-line air station is overwhelming. I therefore have every confidence that that view will prevail in the corridors of the Ministry of Defence.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who echoes many of the points that I have made before in representing what has been described as the most defence-dependent constituency in the UK, as it is home to both RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss.
I commend the Backbench Business Committee for securing this timely debate. As we all know, the National Security Council and the defence strategy group within the MOD will make key decisions within the next few weeks, so it is very timely for us to discuss this subject this week. I also commend the Defence Committee and its members for their timely report which I hope will be taken on board not only by the MOD, but—and perhaps more importantly—by the Treasury.
The strategic defence and security review is very important because it will determine whether there will be a continuing relationship between the armed forces and many of the regions and nations of the UK. That relationship includes the footprint of service personnel and key contracts such as those for building aircraft carriers on the Clyde and at Rosyth. During a Westminster Hall debate I secured on 20 July 2010, I said:
“I fear that the SDSR will lead to large parts of the UK having no defence infrastructure, with fewer bases, reduced units and manpower, and severely imbalanced defence spending.
There are reasons to believe that Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and some English regions will come off worst. That worrying prospect is supported by past regional and defence statistics issued by the Ministry of Defence. In recent years, the MOD has confirmed that more than 10,000 defence jobs have been lost in Scotland and that there has been a defence underspend in excess of £5.6 billion. The defence underspend statistics for Wales and Northern Ireland in the same period are £6.7 billion and £1.8 billion respectively. No doubt, if the MOD provided regional breakdowns for the English regions those would show that other areas have also been badly disadvantaged.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 65WH.]
I note with interest that the MOD published last week, for the first time, an answer that included English regions. I am surprised that that has not been picked up in the media or in this House. That answer bears out the case that I and the SNP have been making about the massive centralisation of defence spending in recent years.
The parliamentary answer given on 6 September 2010 shows that if one compares what each region receives as a percentage of their population some shocking trends emerge. For instance, in 2007-8 the south-east of England received 172% of its population share of spending, and the south-west received even more, with 247% of its population share. All other nations and regions got less than their fair share. If one excludes London, the two regions of the south-east and south-west of England took up a mammoth 45% of all expenditure, but account for only 22.1% of the population. Most shockingly, the north-east of England accounts for only 1.2% of spending, but has 4.2% of the population. That is a shocking indictment of 13 years of a Labour Government, with the north-east of England largely represented by Labour MPs. I will leave it up to Members from that part of the world to make that case.
More was spent on defence in London—a city—in 2007-08 than was spent in Scotland. MOD spending as a percentage from financial years 2003-04 to 2007-08 increased by 25% in the east midlands, by 21 % in the south-east, and by 15.2% in the south-west. But in the same period, it was down 40% in Wales, down 7.5% in the north-east of England and down 9% in Scotland.
All the statistics I have given were provided by the MOD and are available from Hansard. In Scotland, the defence underspend increased from £749 million in 2002-03 to £1.2 billion in 2007-08. That represents an increase of 68% over six years. Between 2002 and 2008, the underspend in Scotland totalled a mammoth £5.6 billion. So between 2005 and 2008, there has been a drastic real terms decline year on year in defence spending in Scotland. In total, the last Labour Government slashed defence spending by £150 million in those years. There was actually a 3% cut in defence spending between 2006-07 and 2007-08.
The hon. Lady has obviously not been listening to the facts, because under the Government she supported, defence spending was cut in Scotland. Unfortunately, we have had no apology for that. We are going to the country in next year’s election and the people will have their say. Perhaps the Labour party will live up to the invitation from their former leader to “bring it on”, but they may not be so confident about that now. The lack of confidence is not with the SNP, but with the Labour party.
I look forward to an apology from anyone on the Labour Benches for the cuts in spending that Scotland endured and the cuts in jobs that the defence sector in particular suffered. Since Labour’s strategic defence review—according to the MOD’s answers to parliamentary questions—10,480 fewer people are employed in defence jobs in Scotland, including more than 1,800 fewer service personnel, 4,600 civilian jobs and another 4,000 jobs that were supported by defence expenditure. We have had no apology from the Labour party for all those cuts.
Shockingly, there are now only 11,000 service personnel in Scotland. Pro rata, that is fewer per head than in the armed forces of the Irish Republic. If we spent our population’s share of the contribution to the MOD on defence in Scotland, significantly more would be spent and the jobs total would increase.
When Labour was in government, it amalgamated regiments, destroying the golden thread, which was so important to Scottish infantry regiments. In the first tranche of cuts at RAF Lossiemouth, 340 service jobs were lost. In the second tranche in 2005, 700 service jobs were lost. At RAF Leuchars, 160 service jobs were cut and at RAF Kinloss it was 180 service jobs. RAF Buchan and RAF Stornoway were closed and RAF Machrihanish was mothballed. The Royal Navy mooring and support depot at Fairlie was closed. The Royal Naval storage depot at Rosyth was closed and HMS Gannet lost 245 service jobs. That all happened on Labour’s watch and we have yet to have an apology. Since the last SDSR, it has been established as a fact that there have been cuts to defence jobs in Scotland, while MOD statistics show that the numbers have risen elsewhere in the UK. A mammoth, multi-billion pound defence underspend has opened up, and we hear from the SDSR that serious cuts are pending.
Despite the fact that there are fewer air bases and aircraft in Scotland than in our Scandinavian neighbours of comparable size, the SDSR is considering base closures; despite the fact that there are only four Army battalions based in Scotland, there are fears that Scottish-recruited units could be further cut and barracks closed; despite the reduction of conventional naval craft to a handful of minesweepers, there is an option to cut them yet further; and despite military command functions having been recently downgraded in Scotland, a further downgrading is being considered.
There is a real danger in this defence review of a further geographical concentration of the UK defence footprint, away from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the north of England: look where the current service headquarters are, look where the main operating bases and garrisons are, look where the main training facilities are, look where the defence budget is being spent, and ask whether this trend is going to continue. As I said in that earlier debate:
“UK Governments have been content to recruit young men and women from across these islands and often to send them into harm’s way. At some point soon, the MOD must ask itself whether it is acting in the interests of the whole UK. Defence policy is not just about strategic and foreign policy considerations, which must of course drive any review; it is also about the defence footprint, about where our personnel are stationed and about where defence resources are spent”—[Official Report, 20 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 68WH.]
among many other factors.
There is a challenge here to Defence Ministers, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats: will they intervene in the SDSR to ensure a balanced defence footprint across the nations and regions of the UK? We will not have to wait long to find out, but I hae ma doots.
In congratulating the Backbench Business Committee on choosing this extremely important topic for debate, I would say very gently to the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) that I do not view it as an important occasion for party political knockabout, or as an occasion to talk up one of the regions or nations of Great Britain in the way he did. The nature of the debate was much better typified by the excellent speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, who approached criticism of how the SDSR is being handled in the most sensible, intelligent and balanced way. That is what we ought to be doing.
As chairman of the all-party group on the armed services, it would be wrong if I did anything other than start by paying the most wholehearted tribute to the men and women of our services who are doing such fantastic jobs in Afghanistan. There are two types of occasion, both very important in my life, on which I would not be able to look people in the eye, if I felt that the SDSR was doing anything other than its best for our armed services. The first are the regular occasions on the high street of Wootton Bassett, where the families of the fallen servicemen stand in silent tribute alongside the townsfolk. If I thought I could not look them in the eye and say, “The House of Commons and the Government are doing their best for our people in Afghanistan,” I would not be doing my job.
Equally, when, as chairman of the all-party group, I welcome back each brigade returning from Afghanistan—the next is 4th Mechanised Brigade, which is coming to the House of Commons on 23 November—it is important that we are able to say to those people, “We here have done our best to enable you to do your job.” And I hope that is the underlying principle behind the entire SDSR.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will forgive me if I leave behind the more broad and clever discussions about the SDSR, how the foreign policy baseline is being considered, and how the whole strategic consideration is taken forward. Cleverer people than I will be advancing those arguments today, so in the short time available to me, I intend to leave those to them and instead focus on one extremely important aspect of the SDSR—the strategic air transport fleet and where it is based. Hon. Members know that I have a personal interest in these matters, although I do not intend to make this an entirely constituency-based contribution. I will seek to advance the argument that proper consideration of our strategic transport fleet is a vital, underlying principle behind the entire SDSR.
We have a fairly major crisis on our hands. The C-130K fleet, which has done such a fantastic job over many years—50 years altogether, I think—is nearing the end of its life. But so too, as I understand it, is the C-130J fleet. Those new Hercules were brought in very recently, but the tremendous battering they have had in Afghanistan means that many of them are nearing the end of their economic lives—in other words, their maintenance may well cost more than renewing them.
Equally, we are faced with the dreadful procurement shambles surrounding the A400M. We do not know when that plane will finally come into service, and we do not even know whether it is the right plane. It probably is—we are probably moving towards accepting the A400M as the right way forward—although many in the RAF would have preferred further C-130Ks and C-17s. However, the procurement and bringing into service of the A400Ms have been beyond words a shambles, and we do not quite know when they will be in service.
Just this morning, we saw a report from the Public Accounts Committee saying that the procurement process for the fleet of 14 new AirTankers that we are buying is equally shambolic. We do not know what the cost will be and we do not know how the planes will operate, and if we do not do something about it pretty quickly, we will have a real problem on our hands. And of course the VC10s and the Tridents are nearing the end of their useful lives too. We also have a fairly major crisis on our hands with regards to the air bridge to Afghanistan and all our air transport requirements, so I hope that the SDSR will pay real attention to that. I am sure that it will. It seems to me that a combined fleet of C17s and new Hercules C-130Js has an awful lot to recommend itself, but it might well be that we are too far down the track we are on.
Without boring the House, I will focus briefly on how the previous Government concluded that we should close RAF Lyneham. We have two air transport bases: one is RAF Lyneham and the second is RAF Brize Norton, but the previous Government proposed that we close RAF Lyneham and put all our air transport assets—both cargo and personnel—into RAF Brize Norton, reducing from three to one the number of runways we have, over-cramming RAF Brize Norton and leading to all kinds of complications and a vast capital investment in that base.
A large amount of money has already been spent on RAF Brize Norton, and I am not a good enough accountant to say whether so much capital has been spent already that it is impossible to reverse that decision, but I hope that it is not. Some of the accounting I have seen with regard to the move is questionable to say the least, and pouring good money after bad is not necessarily the right thing to do. I hope, therefore, that the SDSR will re-examine the bringing together of all our transport assets at Brize Norton, from a strategic and tactical standpoint, from my own constituency standpoint and from a financial standpoint. I presented to the last Government a dossier of thoughts on these matters, which I will ensure that the MOD has before the end of the consultation period next Friday. I hope it will make it a central part of the considerations on the SDSR.
With regard to my own constituency, if I am not successful in persuading the SDSR to reconsider the closure of RAF Lyneham for the RAF, I would like it to consider the base as a suitable place to bring back some of our 25,000 soldiers who we hear will be returning from Germany. It is close to Salisbury Plain and to all sorts of other military assets across Wiltshire. It is a secure base, has plenty of space, accommodation and buildings, and its runways will always be there, so it would be an ideal place for quick deployment of the Army. And the local community across Wiltshire, which would be so badly affected if the base is closed entirely, would welcome the Army there.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman is making the case he is making, but is he aware that there would be a considerable cost to the Government in bringing the troops back from Germany in that we would have to pay the German Government considerable sums in order for them to take back some of those capital assets?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. There would be a large cost in bringing our troops back from Germany, not least in providing accommodation for them when they got back here. Lyneham probably does not have big enough barracks, so there would have to be some capital investment. None the less, looked at over a longer period, I would hope that our presence in Germany would no longer be required. I know that the coalition has expressed its desire to bring our troops home from Germany, but the hon. Lady is right to say that there would be an economic consequence of doing so.
The base at Lyneham would be ideal for many Army requirements—one thinks in particular of the Royal Logistic Corps, which has two bases, one of which is in my constituency, at Hullavington, with the other at South Cerney. Bringing some of the Royal Logistic Corps people together in one place at Lyneham would be sensible, although there are a variety of other Army requirements for which Lyneham would seem to be ideally suited.
I would like to make one final plea to the Minister. If the RAF indeed leaves Lyneham, which we hope will not be the case, and if a satisfactory Army use for the base cannot be found, there are plenty of other things it could be used for. I have seen military bases vacated before—RAF Wroughton, under the previous Conservative Government, is one example that springs immediately to mind, as is Corsham in my constituency. What tends to happen is that Defence Estates sits on the vacated base and nothing happens for many years. People cannot make up their minds what will happen next, the economy of the area spirals downwards, vandals move into the base, nothing happens, and there are terrible consequences for the local area.
If my pleas to keep the RAF at Lyneham or to bring the Army in are not successful, will the Minister please guarantee to do one thing—something that I am glad to say my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister undertook to do in responding to me at Prime Minister’s questions some time ago? Will the Minister pull out all the stops to ensure that the appalling consequences for my constituency that would result will be minimised by the MOD and other Departments, and that Defence Estates will take steps to move out of the base as swiftly as possible, hand it over to local industry—or perhaps to low-cost local housing or other useful local purposes—and engage with the county council, myself and others to ensure that we create something in Lyneham that is economically and environmentally better for the area? We need something that we can look at and say, “We’re sorry that the RAF had to leave Lyneham after so many years of such distinguished service to the nation; none the less, that had to happen under the SDSR. What we now have at the vacated based at Lyneham is better than what we had before.”
Finally in the context of my constituency, let me say two things. First, I have seen the airmen and women from RAF Lyneham serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a variety of other places around the world. I know them and their planes well, and there is no finer group of people than the C-130J and C-130K pilots, engineers and others. The second group of people to whom I should like to pay tribute are the good people of Wootton Bassett. Tribute has been paid to them in the House before, but they make a vast contribution to the defence of this realm and to raising appreciation of our armed services. Week by week and in all weathers, they turn out and stand in the High street. They seek no thanks and no honour, but my goodness me, what a fantastic job they do, as they stand in proxy for all of us, in paying tribute to our fallen heroes.
May I associate myself absolutely with the remarks that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) made about Wootton Bassett? Let me also add my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for securing such an important debate at such an important time. I also commend the Defence Committee Chair, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), on his speech, on the Committee report that he led and, if I may say so, on making me welcome and part of the process, as a new member of the Committee and a new Member of the House.
I want to build on some of the things that have been said. It is important to make the point that Members on both sides of the House should learn from our recent history in this area under Governments of both colours. I should also like to press those in the new Government on how important it is that they should live up to the standards that they set for themselves in opposition. It is the case that successive Governments allowed the equipment programme to grow. That was not the preserve simply of the previous Government, although we have to recognise that it did grow, in part as a response to conflicts that no one seriously predicted at the time, but also because of our commitment to the Gray report, notwithstanding the important point made about that earlier. There is a need to correct that in the strategic defence and security review, but we, too, recognised that the correction needed to happen. It is important that the new Government go into the process with the right approach, which is why it is alarming that this does not necessarily seem to be happening and why the report that the Committee published this week is so critical, as was reflected in the right hon. Gentleman’s speech.
The point about not making commitments in opposition that no Government can afford has been amply set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the shadow Secretary of State, in relation to helicopters and the size of the Army. I do not think that the point needs to be added to further, but I hope that we get a commitment from the Minister in winding up that the Department has secured from the Treasury what it needs to be able to take a long-term view. It is no secret that the Secretary of State has been pressing to be given a 10-year spending envelope in which to make decisions, in recognition of the fact that if cuts are made too gravely in the early years, enormous capability will be lost, when the same size of budget reductions spread over 10 years could deliver a massively different profile.
It is fair to say that the Secretary of State has privately indicated that he thought that he had assurances on that commitment. However, given this debate and the obvious uncertainty over the Trident successor programme, which has been touched on and on which I shall comment shortly, it is important that the Department should set out whether it has indeed secured that commitment from the Treasury. Reference has been made to this in different ways, but whatever the outcome of the review, it is also critical that our prized defence industry maintains its capacity to deliver for our armed forces, as well as supporting our manufacturing industry and the many important high-skilled jobs across the country.
One does not think of my constituency as being a big arms-producing centre, yet there are four Rotherham firms that are suppliers to the Astute submarine programme, along with about two dozen altogether in South Yorkshire, including Sheffield Forgemasters. We need to make it clear that if the cuts happen and the submarines are no longer to be built in Barrow, it is not just Barrow that will be affected, but the entire northern manufacturing and engineering base, which already faces serious cuts with the Sheffield Forgemasters scandal. I therefore wish my hon. Friend well as he defends submarine-building, which also contributes to my constituency’s economy.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am grateful to him for that point. He mentioned the firms in his patch in Rotherham. It is indeed striking that in the supply chain for the Astute submarine programme alone, which is a significant but relatively small part of the overall defence industry in the United Kingdom, there are, by my reckoning, more than 1,400 firms, spread over 1,500 areas of the country, that contribute in some way—either directly, because they are defence contractors or small or medium-sized enterprises, or indirectly, in that although they are not part of the defence industry, they none the less get important business from the Astute programme.
Indeed, there are many companies across the country, including nine in Middlesbrough, in the neighbouring constituency to mine, that are affected by the strategic defence review. I worked at one of them, Lionweld Kennedy, some years ago. The SDSR will also assess the aircraft carrier programme, and the Corus Skinningrove site in my constituency provides components as part of those important aircraft carrier contracts.
Absolutely; my hon. Friend speaks well. He highlights the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) that we too often look at the defence industry in silos. It sometimes seems that I, as the MP for Barrow, should be the one who supports the submarines, while my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) should support the aircraft carriers. However, there is a huge interconnectedness in the industry that we forget at our peril. We in this House should be united in insisting that the Government maintain this capacity, not simply because of the jobs that are directly dependent on it—although they are critical—but because of the industry’s export capacity, which the new Government, to their credit, have said that they want to boost.
However, the alarming shortcomings that have been found in the current SDSR process pose a grave risk to this country’s ability to punch significantly above its weight in regard to its export capacity. We are currently punching about three times above our weight, and I want to see that increase. I will support the new Government in any practical measures that they can take to secure that kind of improvement, but the last thing we should be doing is rushing the process and taking too short-term a view of our deficit, because that could damage our export capacity and have grave knock-on economic consequences for decades to come.
The most important aspect of the need to maintain a viable and vibrant defence industry is the way in which it supports the front line. This applies not only to the unparalleled kit that we can make available to our armed forces in combat on a planned basis, but to the occasions on which they come to us with urgent operational requirements, as they have done several times during the conflict in Afghanistan. The UK Government are able to process orders that enable kit to get to the front line far more quickly by using our vibrant UK industry than they ever could by knocking on the door of foreign contractors and asking to be bumped up the queue, only to be told, “No, sorry, we have more pressing things to attend to.” We must retain that capacity.
An example of companies in my constituency responding to urgent operational requirements involves the solid state lighting industry. Companies such as Marl in Ulverston are doing incredibly innovative work to create new infrared lighting solutions that will give our troops the cutting edge in combat. We must keep such examples in mind as we go.
My final point is on the central importance of not putting off difficult decisions. The Secretary of State was absolutely right to say in his speech on Government procurement and investment to the Royal United Services Institute on 8 February this year:
“The default position should be ‘spend to save’ not ‘Delay to spend’. Speedy procurement saves money.”
We must hold up our hands and acknowledge that we might sometimes have fallen short of that ideal, and that we need to find ways of improving on that in future. However, it would be the gravest folly—particularly in regard to the Trident decision, which is close to my constituents’ hearts—if the new Government were to rip up the principle that they had in opposition and imposed a delay that would cost more and put the supply chain at risk. That could leave us without vital capacity.
I hope that the Minister will respond to those points. Will he also tell us whether he still agrees with what the Secretary of State said, and whether he will guarantee a round-the-clock submarine-based nuclear deterrent for the future? It is essential that we have an answer to that question.
“When it comes to our nuclear deterrent, there are some straightforward questions to answer. Should it be replaced? Do we need a submarine-based system? Does the decision need to be taken now? Our approach to all those questions is to answer yes.”
Those are not my words, but the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), now the Prime Minister, on 4 December 2006, when he gave an excellent response to the statement by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on why the Trident programme should be renewed. My right hon. Friend went on to say:
“Conservative Members have always believed that Britain should have an independent nuclear deterrent”—
“Those who argue that the world has changed so that no deterrent is required miss the point. Yes, the world has changed, and it continues to change rapidly, but that is the very case for keeping up our guard. Just as today’s threat is so different from that predicted 20 years ago, today we cannot predict the threat that we will face in 20 years’ time. Still less can we predict the threat in 40 to 50 years’ time, when the next generation of submarines will still be in service.”
Finally, my right hon. Friend pointed out that we need a credible deterrent, both against rogue states and against serious, modern, well-equipped states that pose a more traditional threat to our security. He said:
“We should have a credible deterrent to both.”
He went on to say that
“the key to a credible system is that it is not vulnerable to pre-emptive attack…Do not all the experts agree that, of the three options of land, air or submarine-based systems, the submarine-based system is the least vulnerable by far?”—[Official Report, 4 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 24.]
That was why, when the vote was held on replacing the nuclear deterrent with a successor to Trident on 14 March 2007, the Conservative Opposition voted very strongly with the Government. The motion was carried by 413 votes to 167, with the Liberal Democrats and some Labour rebels voting against.
Following that, the Conservatives gave a manifesto commitment at the last election, committing our party to replacing the Trident nuclear system with a successor system that would be submarine-based. We went into the election on that basis, but did not win enough seats—sadly, it must be said—to form a Government by ourselves. Conservative MPs were summoned, got together and addressed by our party leader. We were told about the various offers made to form a coalition with the nuclear deterrent—[Laughter.] Sorry, I mean with the Liberal Democrats. Because the nuclear deterrent was such a major issue of difference between us and the Liberal Democrats, a special mention was made of it, and it was stated that the successor to Trident would be carried forward and that the Liberal Democrats would have to accept it. I particularly remember a senior colleague looking at me, catching my eye at that moment, and giving me a reassuring nod because he knew of my concern about this issue. That was my right hon. Friend, as he now is, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I must say that when I came to the Chamber this morning, I was very agitated because it appeared that someone—a Government source—had spoken to the BBC suggesting that this commitment was in doubt. As I said in an intervention, if so, this was particularly alarming because it would be a betrayal of the commitment the Conservative party gave to the electorate and a betrayal of the commitment the Conservative party leader gave to Conservative MPs when seeking their support, which we gave, to the formation of the coalition. I cannot imagine that such a betrayal would take place. I must say that I am considerably reassured by the answers I have had from the Minister for the Armed Forces to questions put to him earlier in the debate.
I associate myself with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, although I cannot comment on the internal workings of the Conservative party. Does he agree that although the earlier assurance from the Minister for the Armed Forces was welcome, there has been so much confusion on this issue that it requires the Prime Minister to clarify once and for all precisely what the policy is, without ambiguity?
I think it would do no harm at all for the Prime Minister to make a further statement. He has always been unambiguous about this in the past and he was unambiguous about it when he was seeking the leadership of the party. It was a specific issue about which I asked him personally when I was reflecting on who to support and he was very firm in his commitment to the continuation of the nuclear deterrent.
I am not quite sure what actually happened with the generation of this story. We have heard from the Armed Forces Minister that, as far as he knows, it had nothing to do with anyone employed by the Government. On the other hand, the BBC says it got its story from “Government sources”. Those two statements are hard to reconcile. It is possible that someone somewhere on the press side in government thought they would take a punt at it, or perhaps someone thought they would fly a kite. The idea of flying a kite would be to say, “Well, let us see if we can shift this decision a little and see what sort of a reaction it gets.”
I hope that the reaction this has got so far—notably from my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) in his excellent interview on the “Today” programme this morning and to some extent, I hope, from the contributions I have made in the Chamber today—has been sufficient to send a message to anyone anywhere in government that if they think that Conservative Members who have devoted their political lives to the protection, the maintenance, the justification and the support for a strategic nuclear deterrent would be prepared to play back-somersaults on an issue of this sort, they have got another think coming. This is not going to happen.
One of the advantages of my having been able to campaign for 28 or 29 years on the same subject both outside and inside Parliament is that I have seen these things happen over and over again. It may be that some bright spark in the coalition thought that it would be a good idea if we could just shift the particular decision from one side of the next general election to the other, it would postpone some potential fissure between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats within that coalition. Let me assure anyone who holds that view that, on the contrary, any such move to delay will fuel the very divisions and uncertainty that people wish to avoid.
I have been here before, on an international scale. I remember when the decision was made in 1979 to deploy the cruise and Pershing II missiles in five NATO countries to counter the SS-20 deployments by the Soviet Union from 1977. However, there was a fatal flaw in what was done. It was announced in December 1979 that the deployment would take place, but it was not actually due to take place until November 1983, which was when the cruise missiles came in. That reopened the whole controversy, and gave new life to those who always oppose a nuclear deterrent or deployment. It was a fatal mistake. Anyone who makes a decision on a matter of this sort must make it in principle. We made it in principle, and we made it in principle in 2007.
Our attention has been drawn to some small print. We have been told that if we look at the coalition agreement, we will see that the deterrent will be replaced, and that it will be replaced on the basis of value-for-money assessments. Hon. Members will have heard me ask the Armed Forces Minister whether that could possibly be interpreted as meaning that the deterrent should not go ahead at all. He seemed to say that that could not be the case, but there is a problem. If we put off the decision about the main gate, we will reach a point at which, if it were decided not to proceed through the main gate with a replacement of Trident, the only conceivable alternative would be the one that we hear time and again from the Liberal Democrats: cruise missiles on Astute class submarines. That whole programme would have to be designed right from the beginning, and there would be no way of preventing a fatal gap which would ensure that by the time the programme had been designed, there would be no submarine-building capacity left at Barrow-in-Furness. I see the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) nodding in agreement.
I have seen these tricks played over and over again. People are unwilling to say that they want to get rid of the deterrent because they know that, politically speaking, that would be suicide, so they try to find indirect means of scuppering it. We will not fall for that sort of trickery.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Let me begin by paying tribute to the soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards who are currently being deployed to Afghanistan: our thoughts and prayers go with them, and they take our best wishes in support of what they are seeking to do in that country.
The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) mentioned the defence underspend in the regions of the United Kingdom. It is clear that the commitment of the regions to deliver men and women to serve in the armed forces is undiminished, and it is therefore a matter of regret that we do not receive our fair share of defence spend. In Northern Ireland the underspend amounts to £1.8 billion over five years, representing 74.2% of the total spend as a percentage of our population share. We want that to be addressed in the context of the SDSR. Moreover, following the recent closure of RAF Aldergrove, Northern Ireland has no RAF or Royal Navy presence. Although we still have the welcome presence of the Army, that is another indication of the diminishing role and presence of the armed forces in the region of the UK that I represent.
I want to touch on two issues. The first is the future role of the reserve forces. At present, the strength of the Territorial Army in the UK is just over 27,000 on an establishment of 38,500. That reflects the underfunding of recruiting activities for the Territorial Army, the cap that has been placed on numbers, and the fact that there is inadequate funding of TA training activities. The SDSR must address that.
The reserve forces of the UK, and particularly those in the United States, have proved to be very effective both as formed units and as individuals when serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. That proves not only their military value in enduring operations, but their cost-effectiveness as a source of military potential and mass when the threat or commitment requires it. It is worth noting that 24,000 reserve members of our armed forces have served on operational duty since 2003. The MOD must not undervalue the reserve forces or see them only as a source of cost savings, as opposed to a cost-effective, efficient vehicle for maintaining capability in UK territory.
The Secretary of State emphasised in his recent speech to the Royal United Services Institute that the SDSR must be about not salami slicing, but real change. Enhancing the role of the reserves in different defence roles, including helicopters, would represent real and sensible change. The United States and other allies, including Canada, have transformed their armed forces and lowered manpower costs by adopting a “whole force” approach, thereby achieving a significantly different balance between the regulars and the reserve component. While doing that, they have continued to commit substantial forces to meet enduring commitments over a 10-year period, with considerable success. That proves that deploying reserve forces does not diminish the military capacity of countries such as the United States and Canada, and there is no reason why that would be the case in the UK.
Therefore, in the context of the SDSR it may be necessary to direct a new work stream, integral to the ongoing work, to ensure that there is a major rebalancing of the regular and reserve mix. Reservists should be involved in the development of the SDSR, including making provision for a different model: an organisation that generates relevant capabilities and force structures at lower costs to deliver the proposed defence planning assumptions. It is worth noting that at full cost annual capitation rates, a TA soldier deployed on operations is generated at 55% of the cost of his or her regular counterpart. Instead of diminishing the TA estate and reducing the number of units, I hope that as a result of the SDSR, the Government will enhance its capacity and role in our armed forces.
Maintaining effective armed forces is not only about manpower and resources; it is also about the welfare of those who are serving, or have served, in them. To maintain both morale and decent rates of retention, we must look after the needs of service personnel and their families as well as those of veterans. Whatever cost cutting there is to be as a result of the SDSR, these men and women must not be short-changed by having their welfare diminished. Whether in the standard of living accommodation, the health and mental well-being of service personnel or, crucially, supporting those bereaved through the loss of a loved one, the Government must do the right thing in providing for the welfare of our armed forces.
Like many other Members, these days I frequently encounter veterans who are fighting to gain proper recognition for their medical condition or needs, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or hearing loss. Pensions are being reduced, benefits denied and accommodation is not available for them—I have encountered veterans who are homeless and destitute, which is disgraceful. This must not be permitted to continue. We must look after our veterans and our service personnel properly. Between 7% and 10% of all service personnel are medically downgraded or are awaiting a decision on medical downgrading. Again, these people need and deserve proper care and support.
I support the Royal British Legion in calling on the Government to introduce health screening and monitoring for service personnel and vulnerable dependants, and to ensure that priority is given to those deployed for extended periods, their partners and those who have been medically downgraded. I also endorse the Legion’s call for the establishment of an independent legal advice service to provide support for bereaved armed forces families and to guide them through the inquest process. Ministers will be aware of the reforms that were introduced for military inquests by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. I hope that they will implement them as quickly as possible, which will help families following the death of a loved one.
I am horrified by the difficulties that Mrs Brenda Hale, a constituent of mine whose husband, the late Captain Mark Hale, was killed on active service in Afghanistan, has encountered from time to time in gaining the support that she is entitled to receive as a widow. That is unacceptable. If we cannot treat properly the families of soldiers who are lost in active service and meet their needs, we are failing all our armed forces.
The health and well-being of our armed forces must continue to be a priority for the Government, and I hope that that will be reflected in the SDSR.
Allow me to take you back to the evening of 31 March 1982, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Prime Minister has just delivered a statement to the House of Commons, and is working in her office behind the Chair in which you now sit. She is occupied by thoughts of the uncertainty of Argentine intentions towards the Falkland Islands. The Defence Secretary telephones in a state of some agitation to report that the Argentine fleet is in full sail and likely to invade the Falklands in the morning of Friday 2 April. His advice is that should the islands fall, they cannot be retaken.
A meeting is convened with Foreign Office and MOD officials. Turning to the Chief of the Naval Staff, Sir Henry Leach, the Prime Minister asks for his assessment. Sir Henry replies: “I can put together a taskforce of destroyers, frigates, landing craft and support vessels, which will be led by the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. It can be ready to leave in 48 hours.” The Prime Minister gives the order to assemble.
Developments such as the Falklands war, the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11 were largely unforeseen; others, such as the ongoing dangers of international terrorism, are more readily perceived. The dangers of unpreparedness are real and the consequences extreme.
These are difficult times for every Department, but especially for the Ministry of Defence. The MOD cannot conduct its spending review with a blank sheet of paper because we are at war. The equivalent might be the Department of Health trying to balance its books in the midst of the cholera epidemics of the 1800s. In those circumstances, the question we must ask is this: can we knowingly fail to equip ourselves with a defence capability that will be relevant in all possible military scenarios, one that can be deployed with speed, and one that in many cases will be the lead point of action? Emphatically, the answer is that we cannot.
We cannot with conscience be without the security of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, which would greatly enhance Britain’s defence and security position. They would permit the UK to deploy essential offensive air power with our entire range of fast jets or helicopters that we have or may have without regard to establishing a land base or a supply chain, and without receiving overflight permissions. British forces could act at the discretion of our political and military command without the staying hand of uncooperative third states, and, once in position, with more penetration and versatility than our current carrier fleet.
Our country may be small, but we are a large nation. We have responsibilities to ourselves and our international partners. The Queen Elizabeth carriers will ensure that we can act unilaterally, as in the Falklands, and guarantee a leading role in bilateral and multilateral operations. The carriers will support larger and more frequent sorties than our current ones, and their amphibious assault capability means that they can cover when HMS Ocean is unavailable. They could support unmanned aircraft, and the flexibility provided by their large deck space will increase our potential to support humanitarian and evacuation missions.
The very nature of a carrier strike means that we can intervene militarily without needing to commit troops on the ground or, where soldiers are required in theatre, that the way can be prepared with air strikes and those troops landed from the same ship. Yet such is the military capability of these carriers that their deployment would serve as a significant deterrent to action within Britain’s sphere of influence, filling the deterrence gap that exists underneath the level of action which is obviated by the nuclear deterrent.
Ours is an island nation, defined by ocean-bound borders. The defence of the realm, the security of our fuel and food supply, and our international presence depend on naval strength. What I have described is the challenges that we face and the capabilities that we need to meet them. These challenges do not rest; global terrorism does not operate on a part-time basis and conventional military threats are not confined to traditional campaigning seasons. We must be ready to meet whatever faces us, at all times and at a moment’s notice. To do that we must commission both the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales carriers. Arguments to build just one or to sell the second off fail to understand the practicalities of maintaining the operational readiness of a carrier strike force or their export market, which lies solely in design, and not in finished ships.
I have long argued that the key to securing our shipbuilding industrial base is to ensure that our Royal Navy ships are exportable and to build on those markets. We can then have a slower drum beat for British ships, because we will be less reliant on Royal Navy work. A more sensible drum beat would mean that we could make savings and, I hope, be able to afford the number in the surface fleet that we should have. Unlike the Type 26, which has strong whole-ship export potential, if we are sensible about the amount of gadgets and gizmos it has, the carrier’s export market is limited to its design and, of course, its excellent engines and other components. Let us not forget that these, too, will provide British jobs and receipts to the Exchequer.
Although I have sympathy with the arguments of the off-the-shelf exponents— we should, of course, be using our defence budget to get the best kit at the best price, to best equip our forces—they fail to grasp the merit of retaining the capability to develop and maintain our assets. The unique collaboration between the Royal Navy and the private sector at Portsmouth navy base delivers on the MOD’s challenging targets for operational readiness of the surface fleet. Yet even with this excellence in repair, refit, development and—let us not forget—training, no ship can be at sea, or ready to go to sea, for 365 days a year. Therefore, if we want to have this carrier capability, we need two ships; one carrier is not an option—it is all or nothing, and nothing is not an option.
In recent years, carrier strike has been employed in the Falklands, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan, extending Britain’s reach into landlocked countries and across the globe. When the carrier fleet has not been pressed into action, its constant presence has served as a deterrent to those who harm us and our interests. If anyone needs further persuasion, they should consider who is equipping themselves with carrier strike capabilities. It is not only our old colleagues on the Security Council, but emerging nations such as Brazil and India. To sustain our position in the vanguard of world diplomacy and our seat on the permanent Security Council, we must not be left behind.
With two carriers we will have continual and immediate protection. In an unpredictable world, it is hard to evaluate the return on investment, and in a defence context the ultimate return on investment can be achieved only in the most dread of circumstances. The Queen Elizabeth carriers are well able to meet the challenges of this unpredictability: they are multi-use; they can perform amphibious operations as well as carrier strike; they are value for money; they will last for 50 years; we will use them; they will prevent conflict; and they will lead our response when those dread circumstances do arise.
There is often a lack of appreciation and understanding of what the Royal Navy does and of our complete reliance on carrier strike. That ignorance is testament to the Royal Navy’s effectiveness. We have taken it for granted.
We are used to our admirals saying that we can be ready in 48 hours. If we want that to continue, we must realise that we can afford to build both carriers and that we cannot afford not to.
In June, when the SDSR was announced, I welcomed the fact that that was going to happen, following through on the work begun by the last Labour Government and by Bernard Gray, who delivered a report with entirely sensible and incredibly well thought through proposals that needed to be acted on to improve the efficiency and delivery of goods and services to and by the MOD. However, the CSR-SDSR time pressure being placed on industry, the MOD and other defence-related organisations is causing increasing uncertainty and real concern. That concern has been evidenced both here at Westminster and across the UK in areas that either depend on the viability of the defence industrial base or have service personnel stationed at them.
The Defence Committee, on which I sit, is forthright in its comments in its first report about the way and the speed in which the SDSR process is being undertaken—the case that was so well made by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I think that everybody in this House appreciated the frankness with which he delivered his comments.
Does the hon. Lady not concede that there were some strong suggestions when the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) became Prime Minister that there would be a new defence review and a defence White Paper, neither of which was delivered even up until the point of the election, and that that is why we are having to undertake this review so quickly?
The hon. Gentleman needs perhaps to get some of his facts in order. The last Labour Government’s position and how we took forward the need for a review were set out very clearly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) earlier today. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not in the House to hear his comments.
The Committee acknowledges that there is a need for this review and for regular reviews in the future. We have been touching on the future needs of the UK and considering the future potential threats, as well as how they fit in with foreign policy, and I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) described some of the issues from a pan-European perspective in an interesting and thoughtful way. The Committee came to the view, which I share, that there is huge potential for mistakes to be made and that those mistakes could be irreversible.
In their recent evidence to the Committee, businesses added their voice to the debate. They felt that the process was moving too fast and that there had been little and in some cases no contact between senior defence industrialists and some Government Departments, including the Treasury, which I find astonishing. However, that tallies with the comments made by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire about a cacophony of anxieties. That was clearly evident from the comments that were made to us.
Indeed, when my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) asked whether there was a risk that the cuts could affect the industries’ capacity to continue to deliver and therefore put the defence of the realm at risk, the answer came back as a clear yes from Ian King, chief executive of BAE Systems. He went on to say that for
“some of the capabilities in the programmes, you are at that critical point where if you cut back on them you will not be able to reconstitute the capability, and it will be lost to the UK. That will have an impact on the economy, because of the high-end skills that we have in the sector. Also, if you think of defence exports, an area in which the UK, I think, punches way above its weight, you will not be able to sustain that going forward.”
From my constituency’s perspective, those words cast a long shadow, and I make no excuse for being incredibly parochial. We have in our dockyard one of the most highly skilled and efficient work forces in the country—a company that is growing and adding value to the UK economy through its exports and to the local economy through the well-paid jobs it provides and the way in which they bring spending power into Plymouth and the sub-region. Babcock signed up to the terms of business agreement that the last Government set in place, which gives real value for money and provides significant efficiencies. It would be extremely difficult for the Government to get out of that agreement without significant cost.
The terms of business agreement reinforced the announcement in the maritime change programme that was made under Labour and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) that Plymouth would continue to be a centre of excellence, particularly for deep maintenance work, and I trust that there is no intention to change that position. Our dockyard and naval base, to which I shall return, support about 7,000 jobs directly and about the same number again externally, including small and medium-sized businesses in the supply chain. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) flagged up the supply chain in relation to the Astute submarine. I have here a map that shows clearly at least 100 main contractors for the carriers, 13 of which are in the south-west. Each of those 13 contractors has a multitude of smaller companies feeding into it, supporting UK defence.
We need those jobs. A recent BBC-Experian survey flagged up just how vulnerable Plymouth would be without them. We are 309th out of 324 local authority areas in terms of our dependence on public sector—including MOD—investment and jobs. If we were the subject of significant job losses, we would be disproportionately hard hit. Because of our peripherality, we are not in a position, without significant Government investment in transport and digital links, to attract large private sector companies of the type that the Business Secretary and the Chancellor seem to think will fill the gaps left by the removal of any public sector involvement. We know that that investment is not going to happen.
The city of Plymouth has an exciting growth agenda, but that could be scuppered if the wrong decisions are made in the defence review. The cost to the Treasury of the loss of fiscal income and increased benefit payments for unemployment and housing, as well as the loss of spending power and therefore of income because of the VAT increase, would be significant. If Plymouth does not thrive, the whole sub-region will suffer. The planned local economic partnership proposed by the Conservatives could struggle without a hub such as Plymouth that is really thriving. What has the Business Secretary got to say about this in relation to the SDSR? He really should have a view, as should the Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions and for Communities and Local Government, not least because Plymouth city council will be left to pick up the pieces as it had to when cuts were made to the defence industry under the previous Conservative Government. We know from bitter experience that it takes decades to recover from such a position and that that places a huge burden on the local authority. Perhaps that is why the Conservative leader of Plymouth council has added her voice to the campaign that is being taken to her party’s Ministers to ensure that the SDSR does not damage Plymouth’s economy.
Plymouth has the largest naval base in western Europe and has the capacity cost-effectively to take more work and more vessels. There is a very strong economic argument for making better use of our flexible facilities. We need to support the skills base by bringing more ships alongside, perhaps moving them from Portsmouth. The hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) gave an extremely robust defence of the two carriers, and I utterly support that position. We could align the regular day-to-day maintenance with the deep maintenance.
Let me draw hon. Members’ attention to an incredibly robust article in Warships International Fleet Review by Francis Beaufort, entitled, “Will ‘coalition of idiots’ shut Devonport, give the marines to the army and send ASW”—anti-submarine warfare—“‘on holiday’?” In the article, he comments
“None of Portsmouth’s fleet support facilities compare with Devonport’s. The latter can refit nuclear-powered submarines, handle deep work on surface warships…as well as offering a world class Operational Sea Training centre for the Royal Navy,”
and so it goes on. The article also touches on flag officer sea training from Plymouth, which brings in a healthy income and can operate only in Plymouth because we have fast access to deep water. That is not the case anywhere else in the UK and certainly not in Portsmouth, where ships would have to negotiate busy shipping lanes. The Thursday wars that are operated so easily in and out of Plymouth simply could not be done anywhere else. So, I hope that that is not being considered as something to be moved.
The Navy needs to retain its amphibious strength. Significant investment has gone into, and is going into, Plymouth to support the Royal Marines, who are due to move there from Poole shortly. That capability is crucial to the shape of the future fleet and links to the need for the two carriers. I strongly counsel against any move to mothball the three vessels and landing craft that are currently based in Plymouth.
If the Treasury and MOD can sort out their turf war, they should look at whether, given the statements of the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Defence Secretaries in the run-up to the election that we must retain three naval bases, there is scope for minimising Portsmouth in a way that enables it to capitalise, as Plymouth cannot, on the commercial interest in the site and the higher land value of the MOD asset there, while retaining a Navy presence in Portsmouth, including its headquarters.
Devonport has a long naval history, with its infrastructure, skilled personnel and natural providence. The MOD could do a lot by protecting and, indeed, expanding Plymouth, but at the very least the new Government should stick to the findings and proposals of the maritime change programme and the naval base review which underlay the Government’s guarantee of a bigger and better future for Devonport, because it simply makes sound economic sense.
I am grateful to be called to speak in this debate on the issue of defence, which is so important to the Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency. May I say what a delight it is to follow my neighbour and colleague the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck). I associate myself strongly with much of what she has said.
In both my maiden speech and the Afghan debate last week I paid tribute to 3 Commando Brigade, 29 Commando, the Royal Marines and of course the Royal Navy, which have played an enormous part in ensuring a strong defence for us in Afghanistan. I will do that again today.
Obviously, the biggest issue that the coalition Government face is bringing our public finances back under control and delivering a defence and security strategy to protect our country for the years to come. This is not just a parochial matter for Plymouth; it is a much broader issue relating to the security of our whole country. This summer I submitted my own paper to the defence review. I argued that Devonport had a significant part to play in defending our country. It has done in the past and I very much hope that it will in the future. We are one of the oldest dockyards in the country, with 24,000 or 25,000 people dependent on the defence industry within the travel-to-work area. We have a highly skilled work force in a place with a reputation for low skills. It must not be ignored, and I very much hope that it will not be in the review.
I want to use this opportunity to ask the Minister to ensure that we retain flag officer sea training and the deep maintenance and submarine work on which the city is very dependent, and that we become a centre of excellence for amphibious ships and the home of the Royal Marines. We need to put Devonport’s role in the context of the financial climate and challenges that our Government face and concentrate on the British international role. The review must assess Britain’s role in a changing world, where there is a significant acceleration in the shift in income and global power is shifting from the west to the east.
In recent years a succession of natural disasters have taken place, and we have been expected—rightly so, in my opinion—to provide armed services to play a significant role in helping people who have been badly afflicted, whether in Pakistan in the recent floods or in response to the Tsunami five years ago. With Iran and North Korea developing nuclear capabilities, we must retain an operationally independent strategic nuclear deterrent that is effective and credible. The cheapest and most practical way of doing so is by modernising our Trident system. I therefore fully support the comments made earlier. I hope that this morning’s speculation is exactly that—speculation without an enormous amount of foundation.
To my mind, NATO should be the cornerstone of our defence policy. Our contribution should reflect our maritime history and worldwide international interests. We need an effective Navy, an effective Air Force, and effective amphibious forces. We need the two aircraft carriers desperately, and the logistical capacity in terms of naval and air cargo capability to support the international operations that we are involved in. I fully support the building of those two aircraft carriers, and the need for effective air power as well. We must retain a Navy and Air Force that are capable of engaging in state-on-state warfare, together with the capability to contribute to amphibious and wider operations.
While the UK and France should work closely together where we can, I am realistic about what that can achieve. If we are to have joint arrangements, I think that they should be with the United States of America; after all, we have much closer links with the United States than we have necessarily with France. It is no coincidence that some of the most enthusiastic proponents and advocates of Franco-British and joint European procurement are the defence contractors—I wonder why.
Government must reorder their priorities within public expenditure. The weighting of defence expenditure within public expenditure has fallen from 15% to 11%. In February, the Labour Government produced a Green Paper that assumed that defence should be planned at the current spending levels. That must be challenged. I understand that these views will not be very popular with my hon. Friends in the Treasury, but I believe that the principal issue in the level of defence spending should be deciding our political priorities. It is not that we cannot afford this; it is a question of the priorities that we choose within the public expenditure envelope. Defending our country must be the Government’s top priority. At the end of the cold war, the defence budget stood at about 5% of gross domestic product. In the mid-2000s it was squeezed to 2.5%, despite our troops being committed to extensive overseas operations.
I want to leave the House with this one thought: we are spending less money on defence than we did in the 1930s. Let me repeat what one of my namesakes, Oliver Twist, asked of Mr Bumble: “Please sir, may I have some more?”
One of the interesting things about speaking this late on in the debate is that most of the things one was going to say have already been said. I must congratulate the Chairman of the Defence Committee—I am the Vice-Chairman, so I would say this—on a very good contribution that covered all the relevant issues from A to Z.
I should like to put on record the fact that our hopes and wishes go with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who are based in Glencorse barracks in my constituency and who, earlier this week, went out to Afghanistan to train up some 4,000 police officers. The solution that we are looking for requires the Afghan police force and army to be able to take over when we finally leave. I wish our troops well. Indeed, I will be visiting Glencorse barracks tomorrow.
Yesterday, someone asked me why I was involved with the Defence Committee when I had no background in the armed forces. When I left school, many years ago now—hon. Members may not believe that—people went into the pits, the textile industry or the Army. We have heard about the footprint that the armed forces have within the United Kingdom and how society has changed in this respect. If some of the cuts that are being talked about go ahead in bases throughout Scotland, and indeed the UK, some of them will go and there will be another generation with no connection whatsoever to the armed forces. That is what has been happening over the years. When I talk to young people, I find it more and more difficult to tell them about the relevance of our armed forces and why it is important to support them.
This has come about because of personal experience; we all do things because of our own personal experiences. I came into this House in 2001. I was on Capitol hill when the plane hit the Pentagon in 2001, so I have first-hand experience of what terrorism at a new level means. We have to deal with our situation in the 21st century and take on a new weapon: terrorism. That point has to be identified.
When I returned, I realised for the first time what it meant to represent people as an MP, rather than as a councillor or trade unionist. An MP is the only person who may have to put their hand up in this Chamber and decide to send young men and women to a conflict from which they might not return. That is a sobering thought for any politician, and it grounds them in what they are doing.
On that point, I must tell new Members that they can join the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which comprises the Navy, the Air Force, the Army and the Marines. I honestly think that any new Member should consider doing so. I have been on it since 2001, I am now on the second part and I have been all over the world. I have visited Iraq and Afghanistan not only with the Defence Committee but with the armed forces, and the scheme is absolutely brilliant for seeing and understanding exactly what life is like on the front line. In an earlier contribution, we heard about the other work of the armed forces. They do not just fight; they perform rescue work and a multitude of other tasks. When people get involved with the armed forces, they begin to understand the scale of their work.
As the only Scottish Member on the Defence Committee, my constituency is Scotland, and it would be remiss of me not to argue the Scottish case in terms of the review. In Scotland, we have more than 12,000 armed forces regulars, out of 178,000; 1,640 officers; 10,540 officers in the national armed forces; more than 4,000 people in the Navy; more than 3,000 in the Army; more than 4,000 in the RAF; and the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces employ more than 20,000 people throughout Scotland. They are massive employers.
The armed forces continue to have a significant presence in Scotland, with 381 sites. That was the footprint to which I referred earlier, and if we start to withdraw it we will begin to lose contact with the population. That is a very important point. There are 18 armed forces career and information offices throughout Scotland; 5,000 armed forces volunteer reservists; 10,000 cadets, in spite of that disappearing footprint; 10 university squadron corps; 58 Territorial Army centres; 17 combined cadet force units; four university officer training corps; and 220 cadet detachments, supported by 1,000 adult volunteers. The MOD spends an average of £600 million in Scotland each year, it awards more than 500 direct contracts and substantial additional jobs in defence and manufacturing go through it, too.
I listened to the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) discussing how much is spent in each region, and he painted a picture that should concern everyone, but if it were left to his party, we would be flying kites as an air force in Scotland and have Captain Pugwash going up the Clyde—probably in the name of Alex Salmond.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. At the end of the day, we have to be realistic. Scotland is part of Britain, and that is why people join the armed forces. It is really important that we realise that.
Another important point for the review is that the UK defence industry employs some 300,000 people—a phenomenal number. In my constituency, a small factory unit employs 350 people including apprentices, and they need the aircraft carrier project to go ahead. They cannot have it delayed, because that would mean people being laid off; and once an employer loses people, as I know as an ex-miner, they will never get them back, because those people will find a future somewhere else. It is really important that we understand that point.
BAE Systems trains more than 1,200 people at any given time—it is a massive employer. In addition, UK defence exports amount to £7.2 billion—not million, but billion—so any effect on the defence industry will directly affect employment and Britain’s exports, thus producing another problem. The great concern about the review is that it is Treasury-led, and it must be prevented from becoming an argument about jobs, important though that is. It is far more about the defence of the realm, which is the most important thing. Jobs are key, but this is about deciding where we are as a country. That decision has to be taken by every Member of the House, not by an alliance. We should decide what role we want to play in the world, and then we can decide what type of armed forces we should have to support that decision. Every single Member should want to play a role in that.
The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is obviously going to be on the Back Benches for life given his comments today—just like me. I am one of the 126 rebels on Trident, and proud to be so. I understand Members’ concerns and views—I think it is an immoral weapon and one step too far, but I also respect the views of colleagues and comrades who decide otherwise. However, the Treasury has now forced a debate by putting Trident into the MOD budget, and people will expect that debate to take place. They will not understand if we cut back on soldiers, the Air Force, the Navy and our orders without Trident being talked about. The matter will have to be debated on the Floor of the House, and it might be defeated—one never knows. At the end of the day, people outside understand the bigger issues and will expect their politicians to work on their behalf.
I finish with a couple of comments. First:
“I hope the defence review isn’t simply a budget-cutting exercise, but stems from an objective and careful look at where Britain wants to be on the world stage”—
they are the words of General Sir Mike Jackson. Secondly, it would be
“disastrous if this Coalition government forsook coherent policy and simply put a spending programme in place on the basis of what was affordable, with scant regard for the consequences.”—
that was said not by not a supporter of ours but by General Sir Richard Dannatt. I hope that the Prime Minister listens to him this time—he employs him for that reason, after all. It is our job as a country and as politicians to work on this issue. No MP has a greater responsibility than to defend the realm.
Snap, Mr Deputy Speaker.
This has been a fascinating debate so far, and I pay tribute to Members on both sides of the House for interesting and at times well informed contributions. It is extremely important that Members take it upon themselves to learn about and understand defence and the military, especially as so many of them might not have direct experience of them. I have been impressed by many of the contributions that I have heard. I also know that many colleagues still wish to speak, so I shall try to keep my contribution brief.
I am grateful for the timing of this debate, as it comes only a few days after I attended a parade by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers on Sunday in Nuneaton and Bedworth, a borough that covers part of my constituency. The regiment was being given the freedom of the borough, and it was greeted by thousands of local people who, as ever, showed it warmth and their great pride. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my local regiment for its sterling work. I know that many young men from the regiment will be going to Afghanistan later this year, many of them for the first time, and I pay tribute to them.
The House will be aware that I was a regular officer before entering Parliament. Indeed, I left the Army to come into this place because I was concerned about the treatment and direction of the armed forces under the previous Government. I find myself in a quandary. I am here to be a champion of the armed forces, and it is clear that the SDSR will be very hard to swallow for many serving and retired soldiers, sailors and airmen, and for many others of us in the wider defence community. I confess that I am concerned—about what I read in the press and what I hear from former colleagues who are still serving. I think that there will be a significant reform of our armed forces and that many sacred cows will be slain.
As a former soldier, I do not want the armed forces to be reduced in size or capability. My instinct is to oppose significant reductions in formations and capabilities, with which I trained, and which I am used to, but—it is an important “but”—that is my heart talking. There is no room, in a subject as vital as the defence of the realm, for a misty-eyed, romantic old soldier like me—and perhaps Colonel Bob—to try to preserve things as he knew and loved them. That approach damaged our ability to defend ourselves in the past. Historically, our armed forces have been most at risk when they remained resistant to change.
During the first world war, contrary to popular perception, the British Army was highly innovative. We invented the tank and were among the first to develop the use of combat aircraft. After the great war, great British military thinkers, such as J. C. Fuller and Sir Basil Liddell Hart, led the way in developing the concept of mechanised warfare. By 1927, the British Army put together the prototype combined arms formation, called the Experimental Mechanised Force. It was arguably the world’s first modern armoured brigade—well ahead of its time.
So what happened? By 1929, the force, despite a successful programme of exercises and tests, was disbanded. The old guard, resistant to change, won the day. Consequently, while Germany was rearming throughout the 1930s, Britain still had four cavalry regiments, equipped with horses, as late as 1939. Germany had learned the lessons of mechanised warfare and prepared for the next war, while, as had happened so often in the past, we were too slow to move on from cherished weapons and tactics. As a result, we lost the first half of the second world war, leading to the humiliating retreat from Dunkirk and the surrender to Germany of the western European mainland for several years. The British military has always had to adapt to a changing world. It must. When it does that too slowly and too reluctantly, more soldiers die.
In my time as a soldier, my first unit was 19 Airmobile Field Ambulance. Just two years into my career, it no longer existed. When I became adjutant, it was of a unit called 3 Close Support Medical Regiment, which did not exist when I trained at Sandhurst only a few years previously. My initial commission was with the light infantry—no regiment now serves under that name.
We have been fighting two difficult and bloody wars for many years. We have done that with overstretched and tired solders and—initially, at least—inadequate equipment, vehicles and support helicopters. Yet throughout that time, we have continued with questionable and poorly managed defence procurement programmes costing billions of pounds. I will not rehearse the litany of disastrous procurement projects. We all know about the Typhoon and its problems, the A400M, which has been mentioned, the future rapid effect system debacle and the Type 45s, which have ended up costing £1 billion apiece.
Our long-term procurement programmes are a shambles and our forces are not balanced in a planned manner, according to a hard-headed assessment of the capabilities that we require. They have evolved as a result of historical equipment programmes and from a strategic defence review that took place more than 10 years ago, before 9/11. It was never properly funded and used defence planning assumptions that we have never met throughout my time in the service.
We have inherited a Ministry of Defence that I make no apologies for describing as not fit for purpose, and a £38 billion black hole in defence spending. Defence is not in good health. The strategic defence and security review is long overdue. Although my heart shudders with trepidation at what may come, my head tells me that change is badly needed to put defence back on a balanced and sustainable footing.
The debate is welcome, although it is a little unsettling against the changing landscape of the SDSR. I hope to make my remarks brief, bearing in mind, as I look across the Chamber, that others, more knowledgeable in defence matters than me, wish to speak. First, I pay tribute to the former hon. Member for Salisbury, Mr Robert Key, who went last year to the Hebrides, where I have some concerns, and made a great speech in the Chamber, backing a constituency issue of mine.
I represent the Hebrides range in Uist and Benbecula, and we feel that we have already been through the tough and robust process of a full review in the past 12 to 24 months. Two years ago, the then Labour Government threatened 125 jobs at the Hebrides range, which would have primarily affected Uist and Benbecula. That closure would have been devastating for those communities which have for decades cut their cloth and forgone other opportunities to serve the needs of the MOD. To put the issue in perspective, the job cuts in Uist and Benbecula at the Hebrides range would have been the equivalent of 25,000 jobs being cut in Edinburgh or Glasgow, or 300,000 jobs being cut in London, with the added difference that finding another job would have meant leaving the Hebrides—a ferry ride of between three to five hours, depending on the route taken. There would have been nowhere else to go.
I do not want to go over past woes, but to highlight present and future opportunities. The Hebrides range is a world-class testing facility, covering an area of 35,000 sq km, with current applications to extend even further. Comparisons are always made with Wales, but the area is larger than Wales and stretches further west from the Hebrides than is the distance to Aberdeen in the east. The size and scope of the area is unique in Europe and it is used by our European allies, our NATO allies and, indeed, our non-NATO allies.
The Hebrides range not only has an unrivalled space and danger area for missile testing, but also expertise and vast experience in organising trials and testing. A bomber at mach 3, a moving target and a missile are all measured and instrumented. Indeed, for a test lasting only 26 minutes, and for the test to be successful and yield useful data, planning has to be undertaken from about four months beforehand. Safety is of the utmost concern and every missile is fitted with a flight termination system in the unlikely event that anything goes wrong. Testing on the range can include air to air, air to sea, surface to surface and surface to air. Rapier tests are also carried out and tests on other missiles that are, I confess, only names to me, but others with great technical knowledge might recognise them—Storm Shadow, Brimstone, BVRAAM, which is a beyond visual range air-to-air missile, high velocity rockets and Type 45 Sea Vipers. The Navy has been on the range for three or four days and carried out very successful and useful testing of live Sea Viper firings. All tests, as I have said, are instrumented and yield vital data.
I mentioned the threat to the range, but this was rejected after a professional campaign by the Hebrides range task force, and included support that I had personally garnered from the then Liberal Democrat defence spokesman who is now the Minister for the Armed Forces, as well as the then Tory shadow Defence Secretary, now the Secretary of State. Their support was very welcome. They provided useful and sensible quotes backing the full retention of the Hebrides range, which led ultimately to the realisation dawning on the powers that be that the threat to the range was misplaced.
Three reasons were given for the possible downsizing of the range. First, it was claimed that there was a technical risk from the inadequacy of the microwave link between St Kilda and mainland Uist. St Kilda is almost in the middle of the range and is very high. Importantly, as identified by Jane’s defence consultants, who were commissioned by the Hebrides range task force, that means that the curvature of the earth is not such a problem in the use of the range, given its size. They also highlighted the lack of dependable communications with the mainland if control of the range was moved elsewhere. Secondly, the concern was that a downgraded Hebrides range would undermine safety planning, thus risking the obtaining of future planning consents, with the possible consequent lack of local good will and support. That is not an insignificant consideration.
The third reason was the financial acceptability of the plan. The cost of the QinetiQ proposal was some £41.5 million, with a £3.9 million saving annually. But the then Minister outlined guidance from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury who told him “clearly and unambiguously” that decisions could not be made based on net present value of the liability because
“it is the current year cash ceiling, not the Present Value of the liability which must be decisive.”
Those observations remain valid. Nothing has changed since the Hebrides range passed the most recent review with flying colours, so I can only conclude that it is safe. We look forward to the position of the Minister and the Defence Secretary, in their new roles, chiming with what they said when in opposition and with what the MOD said a year ago. I am confident about that, and I merely highlight the fact that they need to show it fairly soon.
It would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to point out two further uses for the Hebrides range in years to come. It would be ideal as a decompression camp for those returning from overseas operational theatres, and I am sure that the Ministry will look at that. It would also be a perfect test and application environment for unmanned aircraft systems. The Hebrides range is ideal, it is world class, there is probably nowhere better, and it is on our doorstep.
Finally, the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) made a comical and misleading quip about the SNP and our defence underspend. The point is that our defence underspend is a proportion of our taxes in Scotland, so the underspend is a consequence of the lack of Scottish independence.
I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate. I wish that I had heard the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Select Committee, but I was at a ministerial meeting.
Like other hon. Members, I have been impressed and illuminated by what I have heard from Members on both sides of the House. As a former soldier and now an MP, I, like my right hon. Friend, am concerned about the situation we find ourselves in today. Out there, thousands of men and women are defending our nation. Hundreds have been killed, and more than 1,500 have been seriously injured. Who is watching their backs? We all are—this is non-political; we are all watching their backs. Dare I say it, but we inherited a large liability from the Labour party. However, I do not want to get political on this issue—it is too serious.
My perception, and that of others I speak to, is that while our men and women sharpen their bayonets at one end, we too are sharpening ours—but to stab them in the back. That is the perception, and I am not comfortable with that as a former soldier and an MP. However, in my view, and that of many others, our armed forces are already pared to the bone. Underfunded and overstretched, they have seen conflict in recent years in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq—twice—and now Afghanistan. We have played our part on the world stage and lived up to our responsibilities, and I do not see that changing—and nor should it.
The likely threats of the future will be many and varied. Do we need this world reach, and the equipment and manpower to face them? Or do we put the duvet over our heads and bury our heads in the sand? I do not think so. It is not in our national psyche, as the recent commemorations to those brave few who fought in the air 70 years ago have reminded us in such a timely fashion. I sympathise with the Secretary of State and the Front-Bench team. He said he did not come into politics to see our armed services cut, and neither did I—and neither, I suspect, did many in the House.
Back in 1982, as we fought the Falklands war, expenditure on defence was, as we heard, 5% of GDP, but it is now about half that, and we are considering cutting it further. That, in my view, would be a disastrous mistake, both militarily and politically. We can and must reorganise our armed services—of that I have no doubt—grip our procurement programme, reshape the MOD, and buy off the shelf where expedient, but we must not cut their overall size. To make a sound and sensible decision, we need to have a clear strategy before the bean counters are let loose with their pens—with all due respect to accountants. Only then can we balance the losses to one service with increases to another. The cold war is over—we all know that—but climate change, finite resources, food, water and energy security, the possibility of cyber-attacks, and the rapid advance in technology, to name but a few, demand constant vigilance. To man the ramparts effectively, protect our world interests and fulfil our obligations to NATO, we need ships, planes and personnel.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says, and I agree with quite a lot of it. However, I have to tell him that the bean counters are already in charge. We are not talking about a strategic review in defence terms, but something that is being led by the Treasury. If he wants that confirmed, he only has to look at the 43 work streams that are currently under way and see that the Treasury is in the driving seat.
Does my hon. Friend not think it a bit rich for those who are now on the Opposition Benches to complain about a strategic defence and security review that is run by the pejoratively named bean counters? Perhaps they might like to cast their minds back to the last strategic defence review in 1998 and say how they think that one was conducted.
I entirely concur with my hon. Friend.
On nuclear submarines, I entirely concur with my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who made a very eloquent speech on the defence of our submarine-based nuclear deterrent. It is essential. We have four boats. To non-service personnel, let me explain that four boats are never in the water at one time; at least two, perhaps, will be out of the water, or will certainly be in the process of being updated or serviced. We need to have four. As I understand it, those submarines are the hardest form of deterrent to detect; and to those who say to me, “Why do we need a nuclear deterrent?” my answer is: “You’ve just answered your own question.” As was so eloquently stated by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton), it is our first duty to protect our country and her people.
Our long island history has shown how vital the role of the senior service is, as I am constantly reminded by my father, who served for many years in the Royal Navy. Two aircraft carriers are essential, and key to our future defence. It was my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) who so eloquently stated the case for the two aircraft carriers. I was serving at the time of the Falklands war, and although I was not sent there—the Coldstream Guards were not sent—many friends were. That war showed the significance of a floating base where there is no friendly land-based alternative. There is no alternative. Of course, high-spec ships are needed to escort an aircraft carrier, but if we are involved in a NATO-led operation, they need not necessarily be ours. I would argue—many Royal Navy officers to whom I have spoken, both serving and former, have said this too—that we need more, cheaper vessels to carry out our maritime duties around the world. With ever-increasing globalisation, more and more of our trade will go by sea.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, because of the ongoing conflicts involving the Army and the Royal Air Force, and because of the anniversary of the battle of Britain, the quiet work of the Royal Navy is often overlooked when we have these debates? It is thus important that we mention its vital work.
I shall say it again: the Royal Navy is the senior service. Without the Royal Navy, we would not be here. It really is as simple as that. I entirely concur with my hon. Friend. I am screaming for the Royal Navy, despite being a former soldier. We are an island nation, and we need the Royal Navy.
In the air, of course, we need aircraft, but we must decide what kind of aircraft and at what price. We need traditional aircraft to take off from airstrips, but we also need aircraft to man our aircraft carriers. That debate will no doubt be carried out by people far more qualified than I am. I do have some experience in the infantry, however, and it is my view and that of many others, serving and retired, that more boots are needed on the ground. It is perhaps an interesting statistic—although statistics can be dangerous—that at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, 20,000 troops were in the Province. Let us compare that with the 9,500 who are now in Helmand, a province three times the size of Wales.
Closer to home—I would be negligent if I did not talk about my constituency—we have the deep-water port at Portland. Many Royal Navy officers have asked me why we got rid of that facility. It is, however, still used by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and I have just heard today that that contract has been renewed. “Phew!”, I say. It has also been identified as a port and base for aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. Equally important are the headquarters of the Royal Armoured Corps at Bovington and the ranges at Lulworth. These employ 2,000 people, both military and civilian, and 4,500 students go through them every year. Cavalry troopers, many of whom are based in Germany, are now manning armoured platforms. We know that there are now 22 such platforms in theatre in Afghanistan. Many of those platforms are manned by troopers from cavalry regiments, and I am told that the training base at Bovington is an essential facility for getting those troopers qualified to use the equipment now being used in theatre.
I ask the Minister and his colleagues on the Front Bench to spare these vital and resourceful organisations. Cutting the armed services any further would tear into the very fabric of this country. They are a proud part of our heritage, as much so, dare I say it, as this House and the royal family. They have taken centuries to establish, but it would take only a moment to destroy them, and we would not be able to reassemble them if we needed them, as many hon. Members have said. Let us think of the training and the discipline, and the gold standard that our servicemen and women set us all. Their selflessness, courage and hard work go with them into civilian life, so that when they leave the armed forces, they contribute to this country. Many of the soldiers who served with me said that if they had not been in the Army, they would probably have been dependent on the welfare state. We bring them up and we train them, and when they leave, they contribute to the wealth and benefit of this country.
Only a week ago, we debated whether we should be in Afghanistan. The vote was unanimous: we should be. If we are prepared to hand out the guns, we cannot blanch when we reach for the cheque book. Freedom is not bought cheaply, and we must be prepared to fight for it. We must reignite our solidarity with NATO. We must also nurture our relationship with the United States because, like it or not, she is our guardian. I would rather have the United States than Russia or China, thank you. We must also be able to act on our own, should the situation demand that. Of course, we cannot prepare for every single eventuality—I accept that—but cutting our armed services further would be a dereliction of duty, a denial of history and a betrayal of those who have already sacrificed their lives.
I should like to offer my apologies for being unable to stay for the end of the debate; I am afraid that I have been unable to rearrange a long-standing commitment.
May I take this opportunity to welcome the principle of conducting the review? Before the general election, there was widespread consensus across the political spectrum on the need to conduct such a review, and the previous Government were committed to doing so immediately after the election. The new coalition Government are now carrying out that review. However, I have some concerns about the process, and about the way in which the review is being conducted. Members will be aware that the previous strategic defence review, published in 1998, was conducted over a period of some 14 months, and that it involved an extremely thorough analysis of the UK’s defence needs and capabilities. Indeed, other distinguished hon. Members have covered the issue in more detail, but the key point is extensive consultation and co-operation with the defence industry and other relevant stakeholders was carried out.
The current SDSR is being conducted over a period of just four to five months, and my understanding from discussions with defence industry representatives and trade unions is that they feel that the Government consultation with them has been, at best, limited and, at worst, non-existent. Industry representatives have complained to me that the process was very one-sided. I was told that on some of the rare occasions when they were invited to make submissions, they did so, but no subsequent attempts were made by the Government to engage in any discussions or to give any feedback on the ideas they submitted. As such, it would appear that insufficient time is being given to the review to ensure that its outcome will meet the UK’s modern defence needs and that consultation with vital stakeholders in the defence industry has been inadequate.
None the less, it remains the case that a defence review is essential to ensure that our armed forces are equipped to deal with the threat the UK faces and to recognise the role that the UK wants to play in the world. It must be driven by these principles. The shape of our armed forces must be determined by our current commitments, particularly our effort in Afghanistan, but also by the changing nature of the threat we face, including from international terrorism, and the danger posed by failing states.
The review must not be driven by a desire to identify massive cuts to the defence budget. It must also recognise the value and success of the defence industry to the economy of the UK, to Scotland, and, indeed, to my own West Dunbartonshire constituency. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) suggested earlier that it was not helpful for Members to make contributions that were too parochial, but I hope he will not be too upset if I put my case on the record, given that the Conservatives have only one MP north of the border and that the current Secretary of State for Scotland has yet to convince Labour Members that he is an effective voice within the Cabinet for Scotland.
According to the most up-to-date figures compiled by the industry organisation ADS—Aerospace, Defence and Security—and Scottish Enterprise, the aerospace, defence and marine industry in Scotland employs almost 40,000 people in almost 850 companies. The total annual turnover of Scottish-based aerospace, defence and marine companies is £5.2 billion. The industry is a high-value manufacturing sector, evidenced by the fact that average salaries within the industry are around one third higher than the Scottish average. These are not jobs that we can afford to lose.
My constituency is heavily reliant on the defence and marine industry. Many of my constituents work at the Clyde Naval Base, the home of the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent, and many others work in the shipyards on the Clyde where HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carriers are being built. Some 7,000 jobs are based at HMNB Clyde, with an additional estimated 4,000 jobs dependent on the base. Given that the Royal Navy’s submarine flotilla is set to be based there by 2017—a decision taken under the previous Government—it is likely that the work force will grow substantially.
It was therefore extremely disappointing to read reports that the Scottish Government were not intending to recognise the significance and importance of the Clyde Naval Base in their submission to the SDSR and have only now, after pressure from the Labour party, been forced to back down and recognise the importance of the expertise, manpower and facilities at the base.
A further 6,000 jobs in Scotland are dependent solely on the building of the aircraft carriers on the Clyde. The sustainability of these high-quality jobs is inextricably linked to sustained investment in defence by the Government—not for the sake of it, but to serve the UK’s strategic defence interests. In 2007, Parliament voted to renew the UK’s nuclear deterrent to safeguard our national security. Also in 2007, the then Defence Secretary confirmed the order of the two aircraft carriers, which were described recently by the current Minister for international security, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth) as a “national asset” fulfilling “a wide range” of requirements for the future of UK defence.
It has therefore been a huge source of concern for many of my constituents that from May this year, there has been growing uncertainty over both the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent and the plans for the two aircraft carriers. Most worrying is the fact that the apparent threat hanging over these projects is for financial rather than strategic defence reasons.
It was, of course, a Conservative party manifesto commitment at this year’s election to replace the Trident nuclear weapons system, the Conservatives having backed the previous Government’s plans to do so, but since the formation of the coalition Government the position has become much less clear. The concession of a Trident value-for-money study to secure a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats, and the Treasury’s wish for the replacement to be financed by the defence budget, have placed a huge question mark over the future of Trident. The uncertainty over the future of our nuclear deterrent threatens to put at risk the defence of our national security and the major role that the UK plays in the world, which is a fundamental problem. However, it also puts thousands of highly skilled specialist jobs at risk, which is of huge concern to my constituents who are doing those jobs.
I think we all heard what the Minister said earlier about the timetable for Trident, but he must recognise that that does not tally with the comments that we have heard from other Government sources. If he is willing to give a commitment on the Trident timetable, can he not give a similar commitment on the timetable for the aircraft carriers? There is just as much concern about their future. Although contracts have been signed and work has already been undertaken, the coalition Government have refused to guarantee that the projects will be completed. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), refused to commit himself to a statement on the aircraft carriers’ future in a House of Commons debate in July. More worrying, a senior Ministry of Defence source was quoted in various media in August as saying:
“We could have one, two or no new aircraft carriers... That does not mean we are leaning towards one particular option, but none should be considered as too radical.”
I agree with my hon. Friend. He has made a very good point.
The uncertainty threatens thousands of jobs in Scotland and across the UK, as well as undermining the vital role that, it has been concluded, the aircraft carriers will play in defending the UK. That point was made very well by the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt).
The SDSR must be about ensuring that our armed forces are equipped for the UK’s modern defence requirements. Government and Parliament have already decided that our nuclear deterrent should be renewed, and the two aircraft carriers should be built, to meet those requirements. It would therefore be extraordinary if, as a consequence of decisions following the review, plans to replace Trident or to build the aircraft carriers were delayed, watered down, or cancelled, for financial rather than strategic reasons. The Government must recognise the impact that such a decision would have on the economy and on jobs in the UK, particularly in Scotland and, as I have said, in my constituency. Thousands of high-skilled jobs would potentially be put at risk and, indeed, could disappear.
I urge the Minister to ensure that, following the SDSR, we have certainty about the renewal of our nuclear deterrent and the building of the two aircraft carriers, so that we can protect our strategic defence interests and thousands of jobs. I also urge him to consider whether the process of the review has been adequate, and in particular whether defence stakeholders, including trade unions, have been properly consulted.
Let me begin by associating myself absolutely with the Chairman of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I thank him for his speech, which was wonderfully delivered.
We do not live in Utopia. It would be great if we did, but life is not like that. We would not need an army, a navy or an air force in Utopia. We would not even need doctors or schools. Everything would be perfect.
We certainly would not need politicians.
Everyone is a little wicked, even Opposition Members. We have a problem in this country. We have a £38 million debt in the defence budget at the moment, and we would need an SDSR regardless of which Government were in power. I am not blaming anyone; I am just giving the facts. We also have a big problem because the SDSR—
The hon. Gentleman seems to be reading out the script he has been given by his party’s central office or his Front-Bench colleagues, and it is unusual for him to swallow what they give him, but I must tell him that the £38 billion to which he refers actually relates to the equipment budget over the next 10 years. [Interruption.] Yes, that was admitted: it was in the Gray report. However, it is important to recognise that over that 10-year period there will be slippage and reprogramming. The impression is being given that somehow this £38 billion must be paid for today, but that is not the case.
I am very glad to hear that, but we would certainly need an SDSR, and it is taking place very quickly—too quickly, perhaps. It is also happening when we are at war, which is extremely sad. We have a choice: we can either go straight to option one, which is to withdraw to fortress England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and just to look after our territorial waters, or we can go abroad to protect our interests overseas, whatever they may be. I happen to believe that we must go for the latter option.
Defence is a basket-case; it is really difficult. We have got to get to grips with it now, and it is exceedingly difficult to get to grips with. Mountbatten and Heseltine tried to reorganise the MOD, and there have been incremental and experimental changes ever since. The MOD is extremely difficult to reorganise, however. People always talk about the fact that we have two service personnel for every civil servant, but may I remind the House that many civil servants are people who guard bases and substitute for soldiers, sailors and airmen who would otherwise be called upon to do that job, and we do not have enough of them?
Yes, and they may be cheaper.
Procurement is a big problem; it is never easy to procure. In the second world war, within 18 months we managed to design and build Mulberry harbours and then tow them across the channel and put them into position. Like many other Members, I cannot understand why procurement is part of this basket-case—why procurement takes so long and is so expensive—but that is a fact: procurement is a problem.
Everyone wants to have equipment off the shelf. As all ex-soldiers know, we want the best kit we can get, we want it now, and we want it regardless of where it comes from. I remember when I was an infantryman wanting the M16 rifle. It was American, it was light and it weighed 6 lb. I wanted it to replace the self-loading rifle. In the jungles it was much easier to use an M16. Instead, however, we got the SA80, which did not seem to work and was heavy. The reason we had to have it was that we had to protect British jobs. I understand that—it is a fact of life—but it is one of the reasons why procurement remains such a problem.
When we have an SDSR, all three services have a problem because of regimental tradition. I pay great tribute to the Royal Air Force—my biggest hero is Guy Gibson of 617 Squadron—and I pay great tribute to the Royal Navy. Many people do not realise that we have a problem in trying to reorganise the armed forces because each of the armed services seems to have elements of the others within it: the Royal Air Force has the RAF Regiment and some kind of maritime capability; the Royal Navy has the Royal Marines and the Fleet Air Arm; and the Army says it has more aircraft than the RAF. It all seems a bit crazy, but it works and I hope we will not change it because tradition matters so much.
I shall now move on to my favourite hobby-horse: care of the wounded. Up until discharge, care is pretty good for our servicemen and women—it is as good as it can be—but I say to hon. Members that after our servicemen and women are discharged they are cast on to the national health service. I plead with Ministers to look at how we look after our wounded servicemen and women after they leave the forces, not necessarily within the defence budget but as part of an overall package.
That is great, but let us make it better, because I know servicemen who were victims of the Ballykelly bomb 28 years ago who still live in poverty.
Cuts and reviews are extremely difficult. The reason why we have capabilities in our armed forces is that they are required to be effective in battle. Many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, have served. Throughout our service, we all saw salami- slicing, which means cutting down units. When I joined my infantry battalion, it was 750 strong; when I left, it was 530 strong, but it was still called an infantry battalion. That is salami-slicing. No one likes it, but I have a great fear that we will have to do it again, because if we want to take expeditionary opportunities or respond to such needs, we must keep the capabilities that we have. That means that we will have to stomach what I call super salami-slicing in one way or other—I cannot see how we can avoid it.
Defence is, indeed, the first duty of government, as we all know. It is also a very difficult matter. We all understand the difficulties of choosing between a hospital and a squadron of aircraft, but defence is more like insurance, in that no one wants to pay for it until we require it, when the chips are down.
Mindful that Mr Deputy Speaker will tell me to shut up soon—which I will—I want to end with the words of Rudyard Kipling:
“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ’is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool - you bet that Tommy sees!”
You bet that Tommy sees what we do.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), whose maiden speech I heard. That one was just as eloquent. Rudyard Kipling, of course, lost his son in the first war, and in his later poetry, he was not so strong on militarism. That great poem, of course, was not in any way militaristic.
I want to give one figure to the House this afternoon— 2% plus a bit—because the idea that our overall defence budget expressed as a share of gross domestic product, which is a pretty good measure, will fall below 2% makes me nervous. That puts us in the same division as Spain, Italy, Luxembourg and other such countries, and it worries me because we have consistently made an important contribution since the end of the second world war to the notion that the democratic world is prepared to arm itself. It would prefer not to fight, but it can when necessary. As the Romans put it, if we want peace, we should prepare for war, or at least invest for it. If we fall below 2%, we will no longer be able to discharge that responsibility, which is common to the whole democratic world.
I am rather glad that the Defence Secretary is not here today, because I am not sure he would have agreed with the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), who said that this should be a non-political debate. The idea of the Defence Secretary, who has to carry his own non-aggression pact with him wherever he goes, being non-political is a touching concept. I hope that all Members of the House will hold him—I am sure that it is also his wish; I ask not to be misunderstood—to not letting our spending fall below 2%.
What we have not heard much of in this debate, after the introduction by the Chair of the Defence Committee, is the word “strategy”. What is our strategy? The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who has left the Chamber, is so keen for his country to leave the United Kingdom, but he is even keener for the English taxpayer to keep ensuring that there is investment in his constituency. That kind of constituency plea bargaining is justified politically, but it does not contribute to what should be the strategic choices that we have to make.
I put it to the House that one such choice is on Afghanistan. The hon. Member for South Dorset said that we are at war, but we are not; we are fighting a conflicted situation. We have declared war on nobody and we have mobilised nobody. We built the Mulberry harbour in a year and a half because deficit spending in world war two went through the roof in a way that is not even imaginable today; today we have not got the money or the will to do that. I suggest gently to the House that we need a clearer message on Afghanistan. No leadership is coming from the United States; there is talk about being in Afghanistan until 2015 and then it is all over. There was a lot of confusion during the first period of government between what the Secretary of State for Defence was saying and what the Prime Minister was saying, and it is important that the politicians get back the control of all these questions from the generals. I hope that we find a way—it is not unknown in our great and glorious island’s history—to say, “Enough is enough. Come home.” That is not scuttling; that is sensible survival politics.
Do we have an understanding of the new threats to our country? One hon. Member—I believe it was the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles)—mentioned cyber-attacks and I completely agree on that. But into which part of the defence strategy does dealing with them belong? We have a National Security Council, but is it capable of giving orders to the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and Her Majesty’s Treasury? The answer is no, which is why the director of the NSC is getting out as fast as he can to return to the diplomatic service. The creation of the NSC—this is where I disagree with one of the conclusions of this excellent Select Committee report—is not providing the answer to what we need.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about cyber-attacks, I wonder whether he, like me, was able to catch the excellent Radio 4 programme during the summer recess that discussed the future of the Royal Air Force and how the RAF was best placed to deal with cyber-attacks.
I was not, but I am nervous of service patriotism. I understand it, but I wonder whether the RAF should also have military regiments, whether the Army should also have an Army air force and whether there is not some rationalisation that could be applied.
On the question of the nuclear deterrent, I entirely agree with the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and others. If Britain substantially reduces its nuclear deterrent capability, others may be tempted to step into the breach. We are lucky that in one of the richest regions of the world only two mature democracies —France and Britain—have a nuclear capability. If either of us were to let go or significantly reduce our nuclear deterrent profile, what other major European power might be tempted to feel that it might need one?
From a sedentary position, the hon. Gentleman makes a crack about Poland. [Interruption.] I have a lot of Polish background and I would not suggest that it is very helpful vis-à-vis Russia to talk up any question of Poland’s becoming a nuclear power. It is far better that we are one and that the French remain one.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me.
We have the new rising powers in the world that do not respect the rules of democracy, whereas at the same time the democratic world is leaderless. President Obama, whom I like and admire—he is in my political family—is not a strategic world leader. There is no European leader who is a strategic world leader. The Chinese know what they want, the Russians know what they want, and Iran and North Korea know what they want. Many of the so-called Islamic republics know what they want. However, do we know what we want?
That is why the debate is important—not just in terms of my constituency interests, or firing ranges in the Western Isles or the absolutely correct need to talk with trade unions and others in the industry, or to help our wounded soldiers when they come back, for which the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) so eloquently appealed. It is about a bigger strategic set of choices. We have to lift our horizons and think about the new threats not just to our country but to the wider set of values of ourselves and our allies. I hope that the Government—I wish them well—can rise to that challenge. If they cannot, the House must make them.
Let me start by paying tribute to 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, better known as the Argylls, whom we are proud to host in Canterbury—they were given the freedom of the city last year, the first Scottish unit ever to do so—and to 3rd Battalion the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, our local Territorial Army battalion. They have both had many deployments to Afghanistan and both have taken casualties.
Before I make some rather controversial remarks, let me say that I am deeply conscious of the fact that I have never participated in active service. I was a witness to quite a serious battle once, but I have never been on active service, unlike a small number of Members of the House. Every time I meet people who have been, and especially when I meet those who have been desperately wounded—people who have lost limbs, who have been blinded and so on—I feel deeply humbled.
When people are wounded, it has an impact on morale. As I am in poetic mood, may I just say what Padre Woodbine Willie said in 1918? He put it perfectly:
“There are many kinds of sorrow
In this world of Love and Hate,
But there is no sterner sorrow
Than a soldier’s for his mate.”
The wounded not being dealt with properly has an impact on morale.
I thoroughly agree with my hon. and gallant Friend. Over the years, on a number of occasions—including at Prime Minister’s questions—I have raised that issue and been glad to do so. However, my speech today is on quite another subject.
I am emboldened by a pamphlet by two very fine fighting soldiers, General Sir Graeme Lamb and Colonel Richard Williams, both former commanding officers of the regular SAS—it will be published by Policy Exchange and was trailed in The Times today—to say that I have a very specific concern that I have never raised in the House before: I do not think that, for some years now, the quality of military advice in the upper echelons of the MOD has been anything like as good as that deserved by our gallant, brave and highly professional armed forces.
I was sorry to miss the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) and I must apologise to the House for being late, but I had a pressing constituency engagement with the Secretary of State for Health. However, I know that my right hon. Friend set out wider concerns—he is too polite a person to concentrate on particular areas—about the SDSR. I want to cite a couple of examples from the past for which politicians and the previous Labour Government must take the blame, but in which it seems that military advice must have played quite an important role.
The first is the second Iraq war, which is the largest conflict in the past 15 years. Let us put the intelligence, the dodgy dossier and all the rest of it to one side, although there was a military element in that, and ask how that conflict, in which we started so professionally and so well, could have led to such mistakes in operations, equipment and so on that it ended with a substantial British force sheltering on Basra airbase—I am saying no more than the American media have said again and again—subject to mortar fire, with men being killed and wounded, and unable to locate the mortars that were shooting at them until the US marines arrived to rescue them and effectively to clear the area.
Let me give a second example. There is probably no Labour politician for whom I have more respect than John Reid, who is an exceptional man. When he made that—in retrospect profoundly silly—remark about it being quite possible that we could go into Afghanistan without a single shot being fired, and when we deployed a force without even such basic equipment as adequate amounts of body armour, I cannot believe that he did so without first having conversed with his senior military advisers. I say that only because a number of Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) and for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), have already said that the MOD will need some shaking up. I believe passionately that the defence of the realm is the first priority of a Government. I stepped down as a Parliamentary Private Secretary—I quietly retired rather than resigning—during the “Options for Change” programme. I believe that we have to be a lot cleverer and that we cannot continue as we are now.
Let me address two of the themes from the pamphlet I mentioned. First, we have to move on from the industrial age to the information age, just as we moved from the horse-drawn age to the age of the tank. The pamphlet points out that, in practical terms, although we have lots of drones and other information-gathering systems in Afghanistan, our troops do not have the technology with the bandwidth to make much use of it. We are losing more than twice as many people per thousand in each engagement as the Americans, because although we have some of the information-gathering machines, we do not have the means by which to get the information to where it is needed in a timely fashion. On a more strategic level, the pamphlet makes the strong point that, in extremis and out-and-out war, a force that has the edge over the other side in information terms will ensure that the other side is never able to deliver a single shot. We are already that far behind the Americans in some areas. The really terrifying point is that, by working with little bits of civilian technology from the mobile phone and several other areas, the Taliban have in some areas got inside our information loop.
A second point that the pamphlet makes concerns a subject on which the House has heard from me many times. It discusses the reserve forces and the regular forces and makes the point, absolutely convincingly, that we must keep a full range of capabilities, but it is absolutely impossible for us to do so and at the same time afford to modernise our armed forces given the current costs of manpower. We could achieve it by doing what the Americans and the Israelis have done—by transferring most of the heavy stuff such as armour and heavy artillery not into storage in so-called reserves but into proper, trained volunteer reserve units.
We have just had the anniversary of the battle of Britain. My great-uncle served in that battle merely by driving a desk, but as an under-age enlistment in the first world war, he was one of the founding members of the Royal Flying Corps and served gallantly in the air. I am intensely proud to represent a Kentish constituency in which much of that battle took place. As the pamphlet that was published this morning reminds us, a quarter of those units were volunteer reserve units from the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and a third of the pilots in the regular squadrons were from the RAF Volunteer Reserve and were also volunteer reservists with civilian jobs who trained to fly for the Air Force in their spare time. The pamphlet asks something that we should all be asking about why the continental air defence of the United States is carried out almost entirely by the air national guard, with F-16s manned by people who fly for a living in their civilian jobs—the same applies in Israel—while in Britain we have the absurdity of paying the huge cost of training and retaining regular pilots to fly for just 12.5 hours a month. It must be possible to move some of those pilots across to volunteer units, as the pamphlet suggests.
I want to end by spending a couple of minutes on what makes volunteer reserves tick. If the outcome of the review is that the Government say that we have run out of money and that they intend to put various things on to the reserves, and that means pools of tanks and artillery equipment, aircraft in hangars and lists of people who very occasionally turn out to train, or worse still paper lists like those for the regular reserves of all three forces, the review will have failed and the volunteer reserves will wither and disappear.
We have to think about how we make the offer and the job sufficiently attractive that a high-calibre man or woman with a busy civilian job who is tired at the end of the week will be willing to climb into a car and drive to their training centre, aerodrome or vessel and undergo challenging and interesting training. There are three ways to do that. First, units must be led by volunteer reservists with real civilian jobs, not commanded by full-time people. Secondly, there must be a range of training and opportunities for command on operations that make commanders at the junior and middle-ranking officer level and the senior and junior NCO level feel that they are valued and have a real job to do. The Americans do it. When we sent a squadron of 21 SAS —my old regiment—last year, three out of fewer than 70 were awarded MCs in six months, so it can be done. Thirdly, we talk about barracks and accommodation, but the volunteer reservists must have decent centres. As Field Marshall Montgomery said, “They must be the best clubs in town.” These things cost money, but it is about a fifth of the price of their regular counterparts.
We face a difficult and dangerous world; we face an intensely difficult financial crisis. We must be more imaginative in finding a way forward.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) for the passion and sincerity that he regularly brings to our debates about defence and his excellent suggestion to reduce costs by depending more on reserves. It is obvious, as I shall say in a moment, that we cut equipment or cut manpower. That is it. If we cut equipment, we reduce future capability; if we cut manpower intelligently—I am afraid that the civil service cuts must come before armed forces cuts, and substantial cuts in the civil service must be made—it can be rebuilt much more quickly. We can maintain reserves of manpower, but we cannot retain reserves of equipment that we have not built. I commend his suggestion to the House.
The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) mentioned strategy. Let me say first that the Defence Committee has alerted us to the startlingly compressed timetable for the review. We know that there is only one reason for that. It is to fit into the spending round. There is no doubt that we are in danger of having an FDSR instead of an SDSR—a financial defence and security review rather than a strategic defence and security review.
On whether we cut expenditure on manpower or equipment, does the hon. Gentleman feel any of my concern that a great deal of DFID money goes to countries with massive military expenditure that represents a disproportionate level of their national income? I wonder whether we should look a little more closely at whether DFID money should go to prop up the military machines in India, Pakistan and some of the African states.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his suggestion, but I am not going to be drawn into that. I want to return to his mention of strategy. I am Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, which is conducting an inquiry entitled “Who does UK grand strategy?” We have had evidence from the Foreign Secretary and this morning the Chief of the Defence Staff gave evidence. There is a widespread feeling, expressed by the CDS himself, that we have lost the art of strategic thinking.
An article in the RUSI Journal by General Paul Newton and others states:
“The problem with the UK ‘debate’ on strategy, and defence matters more generally, is that for many observers there does not seem to be one.”
I am afraid that that is the vulnerability of this defence review—that it is being conducted in the absence of a coherent strategy. As the CDS said, we have lost the “habit of strategic thought”—the kind that looks 20 years ahead and asks what sort of country we want to be. The decisions that are made in the SDSR will define what sort of country we are in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time. It seems as though we are following Sir Humphrey’s adage about producing Government documents: “Always get rid of the difficult bit in the title—it does less harm than in the text.” Thus strategy is referred to in the title, and not to be dealt with in the substance of the text.
Yes, deficit reduction is the main effort of Government under the present circumstances; nobody in the defence world resents or disputes that. Indeed, economic security is one of the fundamental qualities of a secure state. However, the SDSR should concentrate on maintaining what I call minimum recoverable capability, so that however far we pare down current capabilities, they are recoverable in the event of an emergency. It is a risky business in this world. In the 1930s, we planned for a three-year warning for going to war, yet three years was hardly enough. As was pointed out in evidence to our Committee, it was the fighters—the Hurricanes and the Spitfires—coming into service at just the critical moment that saved this country from annihilation.
That is the kind of risk analysis that has to be made in this defence review. If the debate is about what capability we are employing and what capability we do not need because we never use it, that misses the point. Defence is about preparing for what we do not expect or anticipate. It is about being ready to use capabilities that we hope never to use, the strategic deterrent being a case in point. The danger of the SDSR is that it is being cost-driven—that it will permanently relegate this country from the first division of global powers, and that we are losing capabilities that once lost will never be recovered. We nearly did that in 1982. Paradoxically, it was the invasion of the Falklands that saved us and completely changed the situation. In fact, it brought back into being the whole concept of expeditionary warfare, which was a very alien concept in cold war terms.
The CDS referred to the financial envelope that the Ministry of Defence has been given. That sends shivers down my spine. The Treasury cannot be allowed to define £500 million spent on defence in terms exactly equivalent to £500 million spent on quangos and bureaucracy. The saving of £500 million on defence will cost far more strategically to this country than that of £500 million on quangos and bureaucracy. That qualitative judgment must be understood.
We have talked about Trident, although perhaps, for the sake of brevity, today is not the time to have that debate. If we delay Trident, we are not only doing something extraordinary that the Treasury has decried and despaired about so often in relation to defence, but putting off a programme that will cost more. If we are trying to get the deficit down over a 20-year period, then adding to costs in five years’ time will not reduce the deficit. It is like the pension problem whereby we store up future liabilities instead of facing up to them today. It is better to spend the money today than store up a bigger liability later on. We also run the risk of reopening the debate and creating an atmosphere in which cancellation becomes an option, and eventually an inevitability because of the cost increase.
If we are going to have a deterrent, then it is not about firing those weapons but about being ready and evidently prepared and determined to do so if necessary. It is about resolve, intent and sending signals to the wider world about what sort of country we are and how determined we are to defend our interests and our allies. If we falter on the upgrade of Trident, we will falter on the intention and resolve to defend our country, our wider interests and our allies. That is why we should not go down that road.
The alternative that we face in the defence review is Trident crowding out everything else, because there would be a bulge in expenditure on the procurement budget between 2015 and 2024. We would lose the aircraft carriers, the fast jets, the joint strike fighter, the transport aircrafts or the tanks, and they all have to be included in the mix. The problem is that the relationship between the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence has become dysfunctional. The MOD is evidently the most dysfunctional Department in Whitehall and became so under the previous Government. If I were in the Treasury, I would be exasperated at the constant moving of the goalposts, the additional costs, the cost over-runs and the incompetence that we have seen and that the Gray report exposed.
The Prime Minister will have to intervene in that dispute between the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence, to safeguard vital defence capability, despite the MOD’s incompetence, and give it a chance to sort matters out. Otherwise, we will finish up abandoning vital capacity, and non-economic strategic considerations will simply be ignored.
Perhaps the real SDSR will start after the spending review, because this SDSR has such a short time scale. The real strategic thinking—the installation of capacity for strategic thinking throughout Whitehall—has to start after this SDSR, and then we have to rebuild on the foundations that are left after the spending round. But what this spending round must not do is permanently relegate this country to the second division.
Order. We are moving into last-hour territory for Back-Benchers’ contributions to this important debate, and a considerable number of Members still wish to contribute. I hope that all Members will show a lot of time discipline now, so that everyone can get in. Many MPs have been here throughout the entire debate, and it would be very good if people were able to make a contribution.
There has been much discussion here and in the media about aircraft, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, and reference has also been made to the importance of high-technology warfare, run through cyberspace. However, it is worth remembering that, ultimately, any defence review is actually about the young men who will risk their lives fighting through the ranks of whoever is our enemy in order to substitute our flag for theirs. Any review that produces gleaming new carriers but a shortage of body armour, or that makes us powerful in cyberspace but short of troop-moving helicopters, has failed.
In the first Gulf war we watched on the news as the cruise missiles appeared almost to stop at the traffic lights and turn left. Iraqi command and control systems were destroyed from the air, but the Republican guard in the desert were cleared from their trenches by the infantry using bayonets. The Taliban will not surrender because their wi-fi has been brought down. There is of course a valuable role for technology, but it will only ever assist rather than replace boots on the ground.
Our armed forces have had to make do and make do, because events have demonstrated that second-guessing the future is simply impossible. Part of the cold war peace dividend was to be a saving on the costs of heavily armoured vehicles, especially main battle tanks, but a short time later the armoured regiments had to cannibalise every vehicle in Germany in order to form up in the Gulf, with the men from Vickers flying out there to attach better armour protection in theatre. The kit shortages for the second Gulf war and the war in Afghanistan are well known and an absolute disgrace.
The approach of assessing what we want to be able to do, and of equipping and training our armed forces in that context, has a certain logic, but it works only if there is the political will not to intervene in conflicts that fall outside what has been envisaged. That commitment is impossible to give. The problems of huge overstretch caused by fighting simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan are an example of politicians ignoring defence planning assumptions and asking the armed forces to sustain the unsustainable. In that case the situation was made worse by a refusal to recognise that and act upon it, but the basic danger of the problem recurring will always be present because circumstances may well not be of our making.
The solution is to build sufficient tolerance in troop numbers into the system. That is not waste; it is the price that has to be paid for the flexibility that may well be the difference between success and failure, and between the lives of our armed forces being saved and lost when the unexpected occurs. We have a duty to ensure that we have a properly trained, fully equipped and fully protected front-line Army. It must have the equipment necessary to move and resupply by air, and we need soldiers in sufficient number to allow rapid and effective deployment and to avoid deploying the same troops repeatedly in relatively short periods.
The smaller the Army, the shorter the gap between deployments and the greater the burden placed on not just our soldiers but their families. The fact that they would never shirk that burden makes it all the more important that we do not impose it upon them. By all means let there be discussion about carriers, aircraft and submarines, but let us not forget those who fight on the ground and our obligation to them.
You have asked for brevity, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I will genuinely try to honour that request for the speakers who will follow me.
I wish to speak about an issue that concerns the welfare of the armed forces, and particularly about a constituent of mine whose case was highlighted last week in my local newspaper, the Express and Star. More broadly, I feel that the points that the case raises are directly related to our troop deployments in Afghanistan and illustrate the severity of the problems we have to confront there. They are also related to the morale of our soldiers.
Last week, as the Deputy Prime Minister read out the names of our brave soldiers who had fallen over the recess period, my heart sank as the roll call just did not seem to stop. It took an eternity to complete. Beyond that heartbreaking toll of young British lives lost in Afghanistan, an increasing number of men and women are disabled by their injuries. One of those is my constituent Luke Cole, a recipient of the military cross.
Three years ago last week, reservist Private Cole was part of 2nd Battalion, Mercian Regiment, clearing the Taliban from an area in the south of Helmand province. He was in a section of four who had just finished clearing a building when they were trapped by a well-set Taliban ambush. At this point, I think it only fair that I use Luke’s own words to describe the situation that he encountered on that day, as the House often hears about those who have fallen but very rarely gets a real picture of the brave commitment taken on by those who fight on our behalf. He said:
“As we walked round from a building onto a patch of open ground, they took us by surprise with really heavy fire—AK47s, RPGs”—
rocket-propelled grenades. He continued:
“You could hear the bullets cracking over your head...you know that scene at the start of Saving Private Ryan? It was just like that.
I was hit instantly in the left leg. My mate, he was injured as well, shot in the head. I crawled over to him and started to give him first aid.
Bullets were flying past my head and hitting the ground around me. Rocket-propelled grenades were exploding but I knew I had a job to do.”
Luke refused morphine for his pain as he waited for his colleagues to get him out.
Luke Cole kept dozens of Taliban at bay, but three more bullets thudded into his rifle. Finally, after two hours of intense, non-stop fighting, he was hit again. To quote Luke once more:
“The shot went through the left hip and the bullet exited through my abdomen. I knew it was serious, I could see that my stomach had been torn open. I was on my own for about two hours but my commander was in touch with me through my radio. I told my commander ‘I’ve been hit’ and he said ‘Yes, we know’, and I said, ‘No, I’ve been hit again’. They asked me how I was doing and I said, ‘Just get me out’.”
The initial blast of Taliban fire had killed two other soldiers. Despite his dreadful injuries, Luke managed to keep firing his damaged weapon, pumping shot after shot at the enemy, keeping them at bay until rescuers hauled him clear.
Private Cole was awarded a military cross, and a further military cross was given posthumously to one of his fellow soldiers who fell on that fateful day. Luke’s leg is now damaged and he has suffered a hole in his hip and internal injuries. His injuries mean that he can never go back to his previous job as a forklift engineer, nor can he achieve his hope of becoming a full-time soldier.
It is often said that a society can be judged by the way it treats its elderly and its children. I am pretty sure that we can add soldiers to that list. After all, they put their lives on the line so that we can sleep safely in our beds at night. To cut to the chase, Luke has been advised that he may be retired on a Territorial Army pension rather than that of a regular soldier. He has been treated as a member of the TA, despite the fact that he was shot during a 12-month tour of duty with the regular Army unit that he intended to join full time. I think that most right-minded people would find that hard to fathom, and I ask the Minister to revisit the case.
I will not because time is pressing. Normally, I would give way, but I have to press on.
I have often heard the Secretary of State talk about the differences that he has noticed in the treatment of armed forces personnel by our American cousins and by us. Luke was awarded the military cross for his bravery, and one can never put a price on that. However, such bravery is worthy of a dignified and respectful acknowledgement of the sacrifice that our soldiers make.
In view of that particularly pertinent personal story, may I recommend to the Secretary of State that he look at the anomaly, so that when all our soldiers are on a tour of duty, they are compensated on a fair and just basis? I trust he will agree that that is the very least we can do for those who have done so much for us.
At the core of the debate are three interlocking factors. I want to examine them and draw some conclusions from them. First, there has been a massive reduction in the defence budget since the war. It is now clear that, in the past decade, funding for defence has fallen too low. During our recent two foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the sheer number of urgent operational requirements is evidence of the lack of investment in defence. We do not have the equipment in place for the engagements that we have chosen to pursue. Resources are scrambled at the last minute—at times, that leads to concerns about the adequacy of provision for our armed forces in theatre.
Secondly, we need to recognise that the debate cannot occur in the abstract. As we have just heard, it concerns men and women who are prepared to lay down their lives on our nation’s behalf. We must remember the very real needs of the 9,500 men and women who are currently serving in theatre in Afghanistan. Any outcomes of the continuing review must give them the highest priority in investment and spending.
Thirdly, the conclusions of the debate on the SDSR hinge on our assessment of the threats that we may face in future. Some see Afghanistan as the template for future operations, and want our armed forces configured on that basis, whereas other intelligence suggests that additional threats from different sources—such as interstate conflict, threats from failed states and cyber warfare—should be given greater consideration. The tension between those three factors must be resolved to reach the right conclusions on the future shape of our armed forces.
In short, while the Afghan commitment dictates our current priorities, it must not be allowed to dictate Britain’s future capabilities and defence posture. There is much discussion about the nature of the future threats. Some failed states show no signs of compromise, and history demonstrates the dangers of cutting defence spending in the belief that interstate war is over.
In future, an attack is as likely to come from disruption to our computer and IT networks as it is from a conventional military force. The debate is about the design of our defence capability and the extent to which it should be shaped on current or contingent operations, or on the threats we may be expected to counter in 10 or 15 years. Although we must ensure that our forces are armed properly and can fight and win in any combat operation with which the Government may task them, we must also make sure that we are a leader in countering cyber warfare. We must invest in Britain’s intelligence capacity as a priority, both in the armed forces and in other Government agencies. Whatever the challenge may be—terrorist attack, invasion of a dependent territory or NATO article 5 commitment—it will probably come when we least expect it. The capture of the Falklands, 9/11 and the gas shortages a few years ago have all demonstrated that, whatever the nature of the threat, it frequently comes from out of the blue.
Our front-line forces need strength, flexibility and the capability to fight all foes. It is clear that there is an irreducible minimum for each service if they are to remain viable, credible and capable of dealing with the threats that we ask them to counter. Whatever short-term economic pressures exist and however they weigh in this debate, they should not shape the strategy of our defence spending. As a member of the Defence Committee, I endorse the comments made by several Members, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I remain concerned that a budgetary straitjacket, imposed by the Treasury, will dictate some of the SDSR outcomes, despite the best efforts of the ministerial team and the Secretary of State.
The UK’s decisions on defence need to be made in conjunction with the obligations and alliances that we have in NATO, as well as our commitments to the UN and in the EU. These are foreign policy areas and perhaps outside the scope of this debate, but the hard facts mean that defence comes at a cost—either we pay for it or we reshape the role and expectations of influence that we have.
I wish to offer a few observations about where savings can be made, such as in training. Rightly, the armed forces invest heavily in training, but in many areas that training overlaps among the three services, necessitating many initial training establishments with all the associated duplication of costs. There is scope for areas of joint training between the services, which will further reduce costs. This kind of cut will always generate a rearguard action from the services but we need to be bold. It is not a case of abandoning one service or another, but the question needs to be asked whether distinct establishments are needed when they have significant elements of training in common. However, it must be acknowledged that people, and by that I mean service personnel, are still required in significant numbers—for servicing equipment; for maintaining aircraft; for fire fighting and damage control on board ship; and for dominating an area on land.
These are tough times. The Treasury, as one would expect, has a tight grip on the spending review process—perhaps too tight for some of us—but this should not lead the SDSR to make decisions today that will cost more tomorrow. The capabilities to be deployed at times of critical but undefined threats in the future should not be sacrificed to deal with imminent budgetary threats. Anything we cut for good today will not be easily recovered tomorrow. I hope that the SDSR will make wise decisions that put our serving forces first. I hope that it will take tough decisions based on rational analysis rather than tradition, while acknowledging that if we do not look beyond the spending review to the risks and threats the nation will face in 10 or 15 years—and invest in research into new capabilities—this review will have failed.
I declare an interest in this debate as the wife of a serving naval officer. It was in that capacity that I was in the arrivals lounge at RAF Brize Norton on Saturday. Today, we have addressed the technical side of the SDSR, but the human side of it was etched on the faces of the families waiting with me in that arrivals lounge and could be seen in the emotional scenes of reunion as the soldiers, sailors and airmen returned to the arms of their loving families. It was a powerful reminder to me of the responsibility and duty that we have as politicians to not only the men and women of the armed services, but their families back home.
In this time of deficit and defence reviews, it is vital that we in the Chamber are aware of a fundamentally important point. The armed forces are not just a homogenous mass of fighting machine; they are about people—soldiers, sailors, airmen, as well as their wives, children, partners and parents. We ask these people to lay their lives, or those of the people whom they love most in the world, on the line, so these people must be at the heart of any decisions we make about the armed forces. That means giving them enough manpower and the best equipment we can afford to enable them to do their jobs safely and properly, as well as respecting them enough to restore the military covenant and address the quality of life issues that can seriously affect morale.
All the UK armed forces have been operating at a sustained high tempo since the end of the cold war, which has meant that our armed forces have endured a near continuous cycle of deployed operations for well over 20 years. The effect on our servicemen and women is hard to quantify, and what is even more difficult to ascertain is the effect on those left behind. That is why rest and recuperation is such a vital part of the military covenant. It provides a useful period in which service personnel and their families can regroup and prepare for redeployment. It is essential, therefore, that the R and R clock starts when the person actually arrives back in the UK, to allow the maximum time for the unseen wounds of stress to be in some way healed, prior to returning to the front line.
Currently, R and R starts as soon as somebody leaves their front-line base, and in the case of Afghanistan, it can often take up to three days to get back. That has nothing to do with manpower. Operation Herrick manning within infantry battle groups allows for the extra personnel to cover those on R and R. The delays are actually due to the lack of capacity within the strategic air bridge between the operational theatre and the UK. If we are serious about looking after the continuing health of our forces, surely it is fairer that we adopt the American system, in which the leave period begins only when they touch down on US soil.
We also have an obligation to provide our servicemen and women with the equipment they need to do their jobs properly. There is a simple point here: fail to prepare, prepare to fail. It is clear that in years gone by, our armed forces have not been adequately equipped to deal with current and emerging threats. Equipment deficiencies have resulted in billions of pounds being spent under the urgent operational requirements process, and tales of equipment shortages during Operation Telic, in the second gulf war, were well documented and widely reported in the press. However unpalatable the cost of re-equipping our armed forces, it is a necessary process, and failure to invest in defence procurement allows the gap between current and required capability to widen more quickly.
At present, despite ever decreasing resources, we continue to play our full part on the world stage, but a review is needed of how operations are planned and how thinly we spread our resources. The Army currently operates in 80 countries worldwide, and the Royal Navy, the senior service, which has a long and distinguished history firmly rooted in my Gosport constituency, continues to operate all over the world, from anti-piracy missions of Somalia to the fight against drugs in the Caribbean, and of course supporting operations in Afghanistan. As 80% of the world’s population lives within 150 miles of the sea, aircraft carriers and the aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm have the ability to influence nations from international waters. That is the strategic effect that this nation has fought to maintain and that other nations, such as India and China, are so desperate to acquire.
Recent history shows how important those carriers are. I am talking about the Falklands conflict back in 1982, lest we forget that we could not have liberated those islands without two aircraft carriers, and had the taskforce lost one of those carriers, both military and political history would have been rewritten. The Falklands war also teaches us the importance of adaptability. If this country is to play a role in the world, we must be ready and able to react to any threat that arises, in any area of the world. In 1982, we had sufficient capacity to deal with the loss of ships we suffered, but today’s fleet has been cut to the bare bones and we are spread very thin.
In recent years, we have had a tendency to produce technically advanced warships in smaller and smaller numbers, evidenced by the new Type 45s. To paraphrase Stalin, however, quantity has a quality of its own. It does not take a genius to figure out that no matter how powerful a warship, it cannot be in two places at the same time. If we are to continue to send our brave soldiers, airmen and sailors out to meet our world commitment, it is our duty to do so only if we can ensure that they have sufficient manpower, ships, aircraft and equipment to get the job done and to bring them home safely.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), I have a special interest in the Royal Navy, because my daughter is a serving Royal Navy officer. I can therefore empathise with the feelings that she and the other naval families experienced at Brize Norton.
HMS Raleigh lies in my constituency. It is the Royal Navy’s premier training establishment in the south-west of England and the only naval facility in the UK responsible for the initial training of ratings. Recently—last week, in fact—it was announced that HMS Raleigh was to cut its intake by 50%. I understand that this is because people are not leaving the Navy, which means that there is no room for people to come in. However, my main concern—I hope that the Minister will take note of this—is that we could end up with a future skills gap.
HMS Raleigh has many strings to its bow. The facility can boast of being home to the naval military training school, the Royal Navy’s submarine school, the defence maritime logistics school, the Royal Marine band and the national Sea Cadets. The firefighting facilities located at the site regularly play host to fire brigades from throughout the United Kingdom. They develop their skills in conjunction with other Government agencies, such as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, in order to practice combating incidents of fire, chemical release or industrial accidents on vessels or structures at sea. Other public bodies, such as the police force, also make regular use of the facilities.
Hon. Members will also be pleased to know that the excellence provided by the staff at HMS Raleigh is recognised not just within the confines of the UK. As part of the deals to sell now much-needed Type 22 and 23 frigates to the Romanian and Chilean navies respectively, HMS Raleigh played a significant part in training the foreign crews that serve onboard. It is estimated that nearly 5% of the Romanian navy has passed through the doors of HMS Raleigh, bringing millions of pounds into the UK’s coffers in the process. Indeed, it is not just on the high seas that that is the case. The Saudi Arabian air force put nearly 50 students through the 21-week full-time training programme at Raleigh. Local families played host, providing a homely environment and boosting the local economy as well.
HMS Raleigh is a busy base and a relevant base to today’s Navy, and long may that continue. The Raleigh of 2010 remains an incredibly busy place. Indeed, the Navy states that because of the sheer volume of courses run at the site—the figure is in the hundreds—at facilities such as those that I mentioned, throughput runs at about 44,000 per annum, a figure far larger than the Royal Navy itself. Building work at the base has been almost continuous over the past decade, costing hundreds of millions of pounds simply to accommodate new recruits and customers in clean, pleasant accommodation. When taking into account the population of Torpoint, the town of about 9,000 residents where HMS Raleigh is situated, it is clear that the base always has, and always will have, a highly significant economic impact on the town and the surrounding area. That is a key point: local pubs, taxi firms, bed and breakfasts, and shops all benefit from HMS Raleigh.
I hope that the Minister will take the message back to the Secretary of State that the people in my constituency are very anxious at this time of great upheaval and uncertainty. They rely heavily on HMS Raleigh for employment. I hope that the Secretary of State will ensure that this tremendous training base remains, because it not only trains superb recruits for the Royal Navy, but provides a great deal of income for the Ministry of Defence.
Notwithstanding the fact that time is pressing, I want to thank the Backbench Business Committee for initiating this debate. I also want to associate myself with the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) to the citizens of Wootton Bassett, who come out, week in, week out, rain or shine, to show just how important our armed forces are to the people of this country.
We have heard a great deal about the Army and, latterly, the Royal Navy. I want to spend a little time focusing on the Royal Air Force, notwithstanding my own very brief service in the Army, which was nowhere near as distinguished as that of my hon. and gallant Friends who have already spoken, or of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). I want to talk about the Royal Air Force because it seems appropriate to do so this week, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the victory of the few. That seems to make it a fitting topic. I think that the whole House will concur that the few in our generation have become few enough, and I hope that the Minister will recognise that there is little scope for reduction either in their numbers or in the capability that the Royal Air Force delivers.
At its most fundamental level, the first duty of the Royal Air Force is no different from the first duty of the Government—that is, to ensure the security of the United Kingdom. The Royal Air Force demonstrates to potential adversaries our capabilities and our resolve to ensure our essential freedoms. It is necessary, therefore, that we maintain the capability that we already have to deter attack, if the Government are to act freely and with confidence in the nation’s interests, without fear of reprisal in the form of air attack from abroad. There is a very real threat, not merely from foreign countries but from those who do not necessarily associate themselves with any country. The recent anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States serves as a necessary reminder of the potential for terrorist action from the air. Quite apart from that, foreign military aircraft continue to attempt to probe the United Kingdom’s airspace on a surprisingly regular basis. That is a matter of public knowledge.
If the Government therefore wish properly to discharge their first duty of keeping their citizens safe, they must start from the position that the RAF’s current fast jet capabilities are necessary for the protection of our own borders, and not just so that we can go on jaunts overseas. Stereotypically, perhaps, we tend to think of aerial security primarily in terms of the RAF’s quick reaction alert fighter force, which is on call 24/7 to defend the sovereignty of the United Kingdom’s airspace. That is undoubtedly important, yet homeland security—as our American cousins like to call it—is in fact broader than that. At this moment in our national history, economic security could be equally, if not more, significant than the direct physical threat of attack.
As an island nation, we have to be able to secure our lines of communication, not least so that we can trade our way out of the current economic crisis. Self-evidently, the capabilities of the Royal Air Force play a vital role in protecting our air and maritime trade routes. The chaos caused by the recent volcanic ash cloud showed the impact on national life of significant disruption to air transport, as well as the financial consequences that can result from it. It was a timely reminder to us all of how the use of our airspace can be challenged in unexpected ways, and how there could be other innovative threats to our way of life.
Our way of life is also challenged by the asymmetric threats that we see in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, and air power is vital in addressing those threats. Any soldier on the ground will say that the RAF is performing a mission-critical role in Afghanistan—in terms of the air bridge to get our troops there and back and to keep them supplied logistically, as alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage); the heavy lift capability within theatre, so vital for keeping ahead of the enemy and ensuring safety and security in movement; and, of course, the threat that the Royal Air Force can create from the air both in support of ground movement and in order to defend our soldiers when they come under attack. It is simply impossible to conceive that the operations in which we are engaged in Afghanistan could be performed without the support of the Royal Air Force.
It was an American general, Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry who, admittedly in the context of a smaller troop deployment in Afghanistan in 2007, observed:
“Without Air and Space Power, 500,000 to 600,000 troops would be needed in Afghanistan to achieve the same effects as the 40,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen we have there today. Air and Space Power provides the asymmetric advantage over the Taliban such that no matter where they choose to fight, coalition forces can bring to bear overwhelming firepower in a matter of minutes.”
I could add a number of other things, but time presses. In due course, we will have the chance to see what comes out of the sausage-machine of the strategic defence and security review.
As a number of Members have observed, we do not ourselves know what lies around the corner. The epistemologist Nicola Taylor refers to this difficulty as the “black swans” and a former US Defence Secretary talked about “unknown unknowns”, and my hon. Friends the Members for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and for Salisbury (John Glen) referred to this issue. What I know is that past conflicts tell us that we simply do not know what the future holds, as indeed the Falklands war demonstrated. Had the defence review of 1981 been implemented, we would not have been able to carry out that deployment. I venture to suggest that we therefore need to be very careful about future capabilities so that the few do not become so few that the Government are no longer able to perform their first duty of defending the citizens of this country.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak this afternoon. Like so many Members before me, I would like to extend my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for its excellent foresight in calling a debate on a topic of such great interest to so many on both sides of the House.
The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) said earlier that he wanted to encourage new Members to join the armed forces parliamentary scheme. The hon. Gentleman is no longer in his place, but I would like to echo his comments and say how pleased I am to have signed up and how pleased I am that so many of my new colleagues of all parties have also signed up to this excellent scheme.
Of course, the strategic defence and security review has to be seen in the appropriate context, both financial and strategic. We have to be careful to ensure that it is not driven solely by financial considerations. In this House, we have a duty to ensure that it pays proper heed and attention to the strategic considerations. I would be the first to accept that the strategic situation in which we now find ourselves was not particularly in the control of the previous Government, just as it is not directly in the control of any Government—nobody could have foreseen or predicted the international and global situation that has arisen.
I would argue that the financial circumstances in which the SDSR is being carried out were perhaps more in the control of the previous Government and that the challenges we now face in addressing some of those problems can more accurately be laid at their feet. However, we are where we are. In proceeding to debate and carry out the SDSR, I hope that the Government will never forget, as many colleagues have reminded them, that the primary duty of any Government is to ensure the defence and security of the realm.
In order to get this right, we have to deal with a great many difficult questions. Some are headline grabbers: the aircraft carriers, strategic nuclear defence, the joint strike fighter—the big issues that all the newspapers want to talk about. There are also many other issues, often equally important, that do not always grab the front pages: the quality of service personnel accommodation, how we are to deal with our reserve and cadet forces, the work we need to do to encourage the cadet forces and how best to look after those injured in conflict when fighting overseas for the nation. All these questions must be taken into consideration in the context of the world in which we live today and of the financial constraints that exist so that we can ensure that the SDSR comes up with the result that is in the best interests of this country.
Throughout the decision-making process, the Government have, of course, another obligation—always to try to strive to deliver value for money for the taxpayer in everything they do. We have heard from a number of Members today comments about, and discussion of, various defence procurement programmes that have not run according to plan. I am thinking particularly of the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), who referred to a number of aircraft schemes, notably the new scheme for the new strategic tanker aircraft.
The tanker aircraft is very much in the news today. The latest report from the Public Accounts Committee is scathingly critical of the programme, pointing out that it will eventually deliver 14 aircraft at a cost of £10.5 billion, that it is currently nearly six years overdue, and that the signing-up process took nine years to complete. Although, as a member of the Committee, I have a slight vested interest, I think that the report was quite right in its criticism. In the context of defence spending assessment and the approval of projects, it is important to stress the need for the Government to drive for value for money in procurement, and to ensure that it is flexible so that our armed forces can adapt to and meet the needs of the changing strategic environment in the future.
With that important issue in mind—along with the importance of managing, in whatever way we can, to secure an effective strategic defence capability within the financial constraints that we all know exist today—I was delighted to hear so many of my hon. Friends fighting for the things which, to me, seem particularly important. I would single out the aircraft carrier proposals and the strategic nuclear deterrent and its replacement. Of course those projects must deliver value for money, costs must be controlled, and they must be delivered on time and fit for purpose; but we must bear in mind that they are vital to giving our military forces the strategic ability to continue to engage in a dynamic way throughout the globe, as they can today.
I am conscious of the time. Let me end by asking the Government to take careful account of the comments that so many Members have made, and to note the priorities of Members in all parts of the House as we have heard them expressed today. We ask the Government to ensure that whatever decisions they make are in the best interests of the military as a whole, and to consider the possible future needs as well as the known unknowns, the unknown unknowns, and the things that we are really just not sure about at all.
If only the former United States Defence Secretary had possessed the clarity of speech that has just been demonstrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), he might have been better understood.
I, too, thank the Backbench Business Committee. Last week’s excellent debate on Afghanistan, the ripples of which are, I believe, hitting the shores of Government, showed that it can have an effect. This rather modest reform of our Parliament is clearly for the better, both improving the quality of the voice with which we represent our constituents and demonstrating that we are a revitalised House. That is important in the context of today’s debate, because it is surely our democracy that we are discussing. I refer not just to the oft-repeated fact that the first duty of any Government and Parliament is to defend the interests of our democracy, the people who put us here, our political institutions and our allies, but to democracy as a wider entity. It is worth pointing out, even if we were to wish it otherwise, that we are still the second largest contributor to the effort globally, and while our contribution may be considerably less than that of the United States in Afghanistan, it is still more than 10 times that of Germany and France, welcome though their contribution is.
I was going to present a short critique of the actions of the last Government, but owing to your injunctions, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall cut that out. In any event, I think that, given that only one Labour Back Bencher is present, it would be grossly unfair to vent my spleen on him. The one person whom I would exempt from criticism is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench. It was plain to many people—those of us who were not in the House at the time could observe it on television from an amateur perspective—that the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) was one of the few people who wrestled with the very difficult circumstances in which he found himself, if I may put it in that way, in the interests of our forces and our servicemen.
What I will say is that, like much of the promise of the last Labour Government, this promise started out very well indeed. The 1998 strategic defence review and the 2005 defence industrial strategy were both extremely fine documents. They were not only coherent and well thought out, but founded on the firm basis of a sense of foreign policy direction and wider British interests. They were also surprisingly prescient. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman is aware of the following phrase in the 1998 strategic defence review. It states that while the review’s authors understand that we have to address wider strategic interests, it is also important that there is an understanding that
“smaller but frequent, often simultaneous and sometimes prolonged operations can be more difficult than preparing for a single worst-case conflict.”
If the foresight of Lord Robertson at that time had been fulfilled by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), we might be having a different discussion here today. I believe that future historians, whom the right hon. Gentleman often prays in aid when he is assailed by the judgments of the current generation, will surely judge his failure to articulate a sensible and clear policy on Iraq and Afghanistan—and his predecessor’s, too—and his complete failure to fund appropriately our forces in theatre to be a case of terrible neglect.
The right hon. Gentleman and his predecessor did precious little to advance the cause of, and case for, peace in the middle east, despite all the assurances we were given at the inception of the Iraq war. Effectively, that failure charges a levy on our intelligence, security and defence budgets for every single year that we fail to find a solution. That is the framework within which the current SDSR must be undertaken.
A cautionary tale must also be heeded. It is to be hoped that any differences that might exist between the Treasury and the MOD—I am sure there is complete amity between them!—are settled, and settled for the next 10 years, as is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s intention. The division between those two Departments has been alluded to frequently in the debate, and it causes a structural problem in our defence capability that has manifested itself very clearly in previous years.
I am also pleased that in the formulation of the context of this SDSR there seem to be signs that the Gordian knot that lies at the heart of any defence review is being grasped, in that while my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State states what I hope is the obvious point that we should keep our options open for a future in which we expect our highest priorities to change over time, there is also a recognition that the UK cannot ensure against every imaginable risk and that therefore the Government must decide which risks they are prepared to take. These two statements go to the nub of what we must address in the SDSR. It offers a good and appropriate opportunity to think very clearly about what threats we will face in the distant future, rather than just next year, the year after that and in five years’ time, which are much more apparent. I hope it is not too provocative a statement to say that we need to take far greater risks with short-term threats that are unlikely to materialise in order to protect ourselves against longer term risks of which we are far less sure.
Let me quickly mention a few key issues that I do not think have been mentioned so far: the competition for water resources; the continued reliance, at least over the next 40 or 50 years, on liquid hydrocarbons; and the shift in global economic power to China and India. All of those issues suggest that we need to be looking to have a stronger maritime force, which requires investment decisions now, not in five, 10 or 15 years’ time.
Let me also briefly address the question of how we pay for that. It seems ludicrous that we are preserving a deep strike force against an enemy that is unlikely to exist in the very near future—for instance, battle tanks that within their lifetime are unlikely to face an enemy that will come over the European plain. I also echo the points about reservists; their greater use seems to be an obvious way to bring down costs and maintain capability.
I also hope the Secretary of State will take on board very clearly the message about Afghanistan that came out of the previous Backbench Business Committee debate. In respect of that country, comments have been made about the 13th century. With the passing knowledge of mediaeval history that I have—and I know one other Member in the Chamber also has—I can say that I think many people in the 13th century would have taken some offence had they heard that comment.
The fact is that we cannot generate five centuries or fifteen centuries of development in civil society in five years. We must think very carefully about why we are in Afghanistan. Once that question is answered, the savings might be put towards the serious threats that we will face not in five years’ time, but in 20 years’ time.
I pay tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces. We have heard a lot about them in the debate, but I fundamentally believe, as many of my constituents do, that as a nation, we have a duty to give our armed forces our full support in return for the selfless service and sacrifice that they are prepared to give in our name.
As we discuss the review against this financial backdrop, which we have heard a great deal about, my thoughts and those of my constituents are with the troops and families of 16 Air Assault Brigade. Based up the road from Witham at the Colchester garrison, they will once again return to Afghanistan in the autumn. They have suffered losses on previous tours, and we pray for their safe return.
Troops based at the garrison and their respective regiments, such as 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, have been involved in many major conflicts, including both world wars, and the Crimean, Napoleonic and Falklands wars. They have played an instrumental role in safeguarding British sovereignty, protecting British interests and threats from other European nations and foreign powers. Long may that continue.
As a country, we owe a tremendous debt to our troops for what they have done and what they continue to do in the name of our country. We should never, ever shy away from celebrating our armed forces, even during the difficult financial situation that we currently face and this review. That is why I am heartened by the campaign that is being run locally in my constituency by the Daily Gazette newspaper to encourage local businesses and attractions to give discounts, and special offers and deals, to members of our armed forces during their valued rest periods.
As we have heard again today, there are many significant concerns with the defence review and the future nuclear deterrent. I fundamentally would like to think that the support that my constituents and the broader British public give to our armed forces will be further reflected in Government policy following the review. I very much urge Ministers to focus on the things that we have heard about, but they should not forget our duty of care and responsibility to our injured servicemen and women, given the great sacrifices that they make for our country.
I hope that the review will very much right the wrongs of the damaging period when we saw our armed forces overstretched, under-resourced and sent into theatre with overused or out-of-date equipment. As we know, for a great period, our armed forces suffered greatly. At the same time, it was a period of great and deep shame.
Progress has since been made, particularly with the doubling of the operational allowance. We have heard today about the military covenant, but time is short, so I conclude by saying that I hope the covenant is restored in full as soon as possible, so that 16 Air Assault Brigade and their families, and my constituents who care so much about our armed forces and the defence of our great nation, can fully restore their trust in Government to support those who sacrifice so much for our country.
We have heard this afternoon from both a wife and a mother, so I am happy to complete the set as the daughter of an Air Force officer. I grew up for most of my childhood on Air Force bases, so I fully understand the value of our armed forces.
Last month, I visited the cold war nuclear bunker at Bolt Head in my constituency. I hope that it can be saved from dereliction and opened as a museum, because it is a chilling reminder of how close we came to Armageddon. That did not happen largely because both sides understood the rules of the game, but does anybody seriously believe that stateless terrorist groups or rogue regimes understand those rules or even care about the consequences?
Many of my constituents cannot understand why our strategic nuclear weapon is being left out of the strategic defence and security review, because the uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons is one of the greatest threats to our existence. That voice has not been heard this afternoon. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me, because it needs to be heard.
At the heart of the 1968 non-proliferation treaty was a commitment to the goal of disarmament by recognised nuclear weapons states; it was the cornerstone of the pledge to the nuclear have-nots in order to stop them seeking to acquire their own weapons. Dissatisfaction among states without nuclear weapons at the lack of progress in achieving the aims of article VI is widespread. Let me remind the House that at the sixth non-proliferation treaty review conference in 2000 we signed up to
“an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed”.
In renewing Trident, we break that pledge and remove our moral credibility. How can we begin to persuade nations such as Iran to step back from the nuclear cliff edge unless we are at least prepared to step back from the precipice ourselves? I am not advocating a unilateral approach, but if this obsolete, expensive and unthinkable weapon has any value at all, surely it is as the means to bring others to the negotiating table. I am rather tired of being told, “It cannot be done” and that to advocate nuclear disarmament is to be incapable of understanding the complexity of the issue. Nor do I accept the argument that these weapons cannot be un-invented; we cannot un-invent biological weapons, but nobody is suggesting that we take that route to mutually assured destruction.
My concern is that as time distances us from the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the horrific consequences of nuclear war become clouded and remote, and that we lose our sense of outrage. In the event of such an outrage—even with a dirty bomb—would we seriously consider nuclear retaliation? Against whom would we retaliate? I am not alone in believing that among the greatest threats facing us is uncontrolled nuclear proliferation and the risk of these weapons then falling into the hands of those who would not hesitate to use them. I have received a great deal of correspondence, as I am sure many hon. Members have, from constituents opposed to the renewal of Trident.
I would ask the Secretary of State to address those real and present dangers, as well as the unknown future threats, by delaying Trident in order to persuade others to join us at the negotiating table. Specifically, I would ask whether any efforts have been made to do that; has any contact been made with those countries that lie outside the non-proliferation treaty—Israel, India and Pakistan? Even more importantly, has Trident been offered up as a means of persuading Iran away from its goal of acquiring a nuclear weapon? Surely that would be preferable to waiting for an Israeli strike against Iranian installations.
I ask Members to consider how secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is from falling into the hands of extremists. An area the size of Italy is underwater in Pakistan and it will rightly be the greatest recipient of UK overseas aid. Surely Pakistan cannot afford to waste precious resources on maintaining a nuclear deterrent—come to that, nor can we. I would rather have an effective Army, Navy and—I have an interest here—Air Force than spend at least £20 billion of their resources on a weapon that we can never use and that no longer acts as a deterrent. I call on the Secretary of State to delay his decision on Trident, not because I am an idealist, but because I am a realist. I call on him to protect our conventional armed forces and, specifically, to recognise that in my constituency, Britannia naval college is far more important.
I shall conclude by reminding the House that Alfred Nobel, of peace prize fame, was famously convinced that his invention of dynamite would make war too destructive to contemplate. We would be wrong to make the same mistake with Trident.
In the moments remaining, I shall try to be brief. I am pleased to be speaking towards the end of today’s debate—there have been some excellent speeches by Members of all parties and a great deal has been brought to the attention of the Minister, which I hope he will feed back to Government circles when they are considering the SDSR.
I put my name forward to speak in today’s debate because I wanted to wave the flag for the Royal Navy. With our Army and armed forces in conflict, they are at the top of our concerns in defence debates—and rightly so. In today’s speeches, when hon. Members spoke about defence, it all came back to the Army. The Air Force is also prevalent in our minds with the 70th anniversary of the battle of Britain and because of the lives that have been lost in the field of conflict by the RAF in the past decade. It is important that we recognise the work of the Royal Navy, which does not always take place in the field of conflict—as is the case with many of the other services, I hasten to add.
Drawing on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) at the end of her speech, it is worth reminding the House that the Royal Navy’s role is extensive: it delivers humanitarian and disaster relief, as we recently saw in Haiti; it evacuates British nationals overseas, and I am not talking about the ash cloud but about what happened in Lebanon in 2006; it carries out counter-terrorism, with Operation Active Endeavour active in the Mediterranean; it carries out counter-piracy, which I shall mention, with the operations in the Gulf of Aden and the horn of Africa; it protects fisheries in UK territorial waters; it protects international shipping lanes, which I shall also mention; it counters drugs trafficking in the Caribbean; and, as shown in the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), it plays a role in defence diplomacy, including the joint exercises with international partners.
The Royal Navy is and remains the principal guardian of the silent principles of national security. That point is enforced by the words of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, who said in July that
“maritime capabilities are not a luxury—they are a necessity. Our ability to control what happens at sea and from the sea is fundamental to our national security and prosperity…our maritime forces are delivering today and they will have a vital role”.
Let me quote the Chamber of Shipping:
“Shipping is at the forefront of the UK’s economic growth”.
It goes on:
“92% of our international trade and 24% of our internal trade is moved by sea…The UK-flag fleet has grown by 530% since 2000…The maritime services sector (shipping, ports and maritime business) contributes £25 billion to the UK’s GDP and supports half a million jobs.”
We know that we face great piracy in our seas. There are still ongoing cases of civilians who are being held ransom. We know that some of our seaports and choke points are very dangerous. As the former First Sea Lord Jonathon Bond said:
“Maritime piracy is increasing, 95% of global trade passes through nine maritime choke points and there are still some 14 British overseas territories or crown dependencies and 5.5 million Britons living overseas.”
When we take the debate forward, we must ensure that we do not merely look at the field of conflict and at what potential conflicts could come from that, although that is vital to the defence of this country. However, let us not forget that this is also a security review and that the security of our country depends on the fact that we are, whether we like it or not, an island nation and one that depends on the merchant navy to keep it safe, secure and prosperous. Without a Royal Navy that can go out and enforce the conditions so that people can sail safely, we would be at a lower point than we are.
I was going to talk about the aircraft carriers, but I see that I am unfortunately running out of time. I shall save that for another debate. However, if we have the aircraft carrier capability and the Trident capability, we will ensure that we have a diplomatic tool. As the Secretary of State said in the House on 21 June:
“We know from historical experience that a declaration of peaceful intent is not sufficient to dissuade aggressors and that a weakening of national defences can encourage them.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 55.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) made an impassioned and excellent speech. In response to her comment about people who would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons and about our leading the way, I say that those people might hesitate to use them if we had a way of counteracting which would threaten their security.
We have had an excellent debate. There has been the usual mixture of party political fencing, good defence analysis and knowledge, and discussion of constituency and single-service interests. These debates follow a particular pattern but are none the less enormously useful.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who was the Minister for Veterans, has asked me to make a point about the comments regarding Luke Cole. We make this point constructively, but the ministerial team needs to stay on top of such issues and to be sceptical about what they are told if they are to make sure that the agreements that have been reached and the care that is, in theory, provided to people is actually provided through the chain of command. I appeal to Ministers to be as diligent as my hon. Friend and his predecessor about the welfare side of the veterans job.
We are about to go into the conference recess. I do not intend to put forward my name for the Labour shadow Cabinet, so this might—one never knows what will happen—be the last time that I speak from the Front Bench in this place. I was the Minister for the Armed Forces for two years, the Secretary of State for 11 months and I have been the shadow Secretary of State for about four months. My involvement with the MOD and the military has been life-changing and, on the whole, enormously rewarding. It has had its low points and many high points and I have worked with some amazing and fabulous people, including military personnel, civil servants, politicians and special advisers. Some great people work in this area of policy.
Let me mention one or two of the things that I have been involved with. I was totally in favour of commissioning the Gray report; I supported my predecessor in that and I never tried to suppress or delay the report in any way. I was totally in favour of my predecessor-but-one’s commissioning of the Haddon-Cave report, which was a devastating report on the systems that we had in the MOD, and I never tried to put any spin or gloss on that. It was enormously important that the MOD learned, or had the opportunity to learn, all the lessons that it needed to.
I was in charge of commissioning the service personnel Command Paper, and I had a lot of support from many good people in making sure that that was a useful document that actually delivered something for our service community—against much resistance, I have to say. I commissioned a Green Paper to try to help whoever was to be in government—us or the Conservatives —to prepare for the very difficult strategic defence review after the election. I did that in an open, broad and cross-party way, not for tactical reasons but because it was the right thing to do. I think that helped in some small way with some of the difficulties that people now have.
In my time as the Secretary of State for Defence, I never widened the gap in the defence budget; indeed, I closed it a little. The opportunities to close it outside a strategic defence review were limited, but we closed it none the less and we took some very difficult decisions in order to do so. What I am most proud of is that we moved force density in Task Force Helmand a long way in the right direction. Helmand is the most difficult job our armed forces face today. They need not only equipment, helicopters and vehicles but boots on the ground and enough of them to cover the ground. We moved force density in the right direction, and I am enormously proud of that.
That is very kind of the right hon. Gentleman. A number of people have said kind things.
The defence of this country faces some difficult choices. It is not my responsibility or that of my hon. Friends to help the Government in that regard; it is our responsibility to hold the Government to account. There are no easy options. Salami slicing is not going to work. It is the Government’s responsibility, and it is in their own interests, that they do not walk away from those difficulties because, if they do, all that I would say to them on a personal level is that avoiding hard choices is a bit of a matter of character, but organisationally it can be habit-forming. And if they form that habit, they will pay a heavy price.
With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will reply. This has been a good debate. When the Backbench Business Committee decided on this subject for today’s debate, it would have been pleased to think we would get 30 speeches from the Floor of the House of such wide-ranging nature and all of a positive and constructive tone. As I said at the beginning, the SDSR has not yet made any of the big decisions, but it is just about to do so. This could not, therefore, have been a more timely moment for everyone who wished to put the points that they have made today to do so. I reaffirm our commitment to take away all the points made and give them the most serious consideration.
As ever in the House when we are discussing the armed forces, the debate has been informed by the personal experience, background and understanding of many Members. What has been most evident across the political divide is the respect shared by all Members of the House for the commitment and dedication of the brave men and women who serve in our armed forces. They are a credit to the country, and we are rightly proud of them.
As I anticipated, hon. Members from all parts of the country have rightly made the case for their local area, as is their responsibility. We have heard from places as far apart as the Outer Hebrides and Cornwall, and most points in between. Hon. Members with naval bases or a military or industrial footprint in their constituency all made points about the impact that any decision might have in their area. It is proper that they do so, but I hope they understand that it is not possible at this point in the process for me to respond or offer comfort on each and every point.
This is very much in response to where the Minister is in his comments. Given that he has paid so much close attention to hon. Members who have spoken for the interests of their parts of the country, is he surprised that, given the importance of aircraft carriers, not one Labour Member from Glasgow or Fife has bothered to turn up or speak in the debate?