Mr Speaker, I completely apologise for any inconvenience to you or the House as a result of my late attendance.
Last month, the Government published the strategic defence and security review. This was a thorough, cross-Government strategic effort, overseen by the National Security Council, looking at all aspects of security and defence. It describes the adaptable posture that we have chosen to meet the threats and exploit the opportunities that we identified in the national security strategy.
There always had to be very good reasons for the coalition; my hon. Friend shows how collegiate we have become in the past few months.
I pay tribute, after a long and complex process, to Lord Stirrup and Sir Bill Jeffrey, the outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff and the permanent secretary at the MOD. I would like to thank them for all their hard work on behalf of the Department and the armed forces over many years.
The fiscal environment that we inherited from the previous Government has required us to make some very difficult and complex decisions in the SDSR. That should not come as a surprise to the Labour party. In his Green Paper, my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), who is in his place today, wrote with characteristic understatement that defence faced
“challenging financial pressures…which will constrain Government resources.”
His Green Paper, a cross-party effort, said:
“We cannot proceed with all the activities and programmes we currently aspire to, while simultaneously supporting our current operations and investing in the new capabilities we need. We will need to make tough decisions”.
We have had 12 years without a fundamental rethink and we are in the midst of the biggest financial crisis in a generation, with an inherited defence budget that is in overdraft to the tune of some £38 billion and is tied up by a byzantine system of contractual obligations. There was a record in-year increase of £3.3 billion in the equipment programme during Labour’s last year in government alone. All that has come at a time when our armed forces are fighting at a high tempo in Afghanistan. It has fallen to this Government to take the tough decisions required without undermining serious capabilities, the military covenant or the UK industrial capacity.
If we had a clean sheet of paper without the financial pressures that face all Government Departments as a result of the inherited fiscal deficit, and if we were unencumbered by existing contractual obligations and in different operational circumstances, the results would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, although difficult, the decisions that we have made are coherent and consistent, and will provide us with the capabilities that we require for the future.
We now know that, as the former Chief of the Defence Staff has said, Labour Ministers were offered advice on which cuts to make to get the defence budget back into balance, but that advice was rejected owing to the lack of political will in the run-up to the general election. Only the coalition Government have had the political courage to do what was financially and militarily right with defence. We have had to implement the cuts that Labour Ministers lacked the courage to make.
Quite the reverse. In opposition, we spent considerable time discussing with the French what we would want to do in terms of greater co-operation were we to win the general election. What we saw this week were the fruits of considerable labour on both sides for a considerable time.
It is rational and reasonable simply to want greater co-operation with our biggest military ally in continental Europe. What has been amazing in the last few days is the level of agreement, which seems to have occurred across the political spectrum, that this is not a drastic threat to UK sovereignty, but a common-sense use of both our nations’ resources.
As the Defence Secretary for the last year of the Labour Government, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that in that year we took £900 million out of the defence budget, rather than increase the deficit by £3 billion, and that that was met with howls from the then Opposition. Without wanting to fall out with the then Chief of the Defence Staff, I have to say that I cannot remember his ever having said anything to me about defence cuts that I was not prepared to make. I say that on the record.
The right hon. Gentleman has made his point very clearly. Obviously, I am unable to say what discussions might have taken place. However, the point is that, as the National Audit Office said, there was an added overspend of £3.3 billion in the final year alone in the projects budgets. That is very clear.
As the Prime Minister has said, the SDSR was about taking the right decisions to protect national security in the years ahead, not simply a cost-saving exercise to get to grips with the biggest budget deficit in post-war history. However, let us be absolutely clear that those are not two separate things. Proper strategic thought encompasses ends, ways and means, matching ambition and policy to commitments and resources. A strategy that does not take account of fiscal or budgetary measures is no strategy at all; it is simply wishful thinking.
As Lord Ashdown recently put it, we cannot defend a country on flights of fancy. Furthermore, history has clearly shown how fundamental a strong economy is for effective national security and defence over the long term. We were left an economically toxic legacy by the previous Government. They doubled the national debt and left us with the biggest budget deficit in the G20. We are spending £120 million every single day just to pay off the interest on Labour’s debt. The interest we will pay next year on the debt is some £46 billion, significantly more than the entire annual defence budget, and we will get nothing for that money. Without regaining economic strength, we will be unable to sustain in the long term the capabilities required, including military capabilities, to keep our citizens safe and maintain our influence on the world stage.
If we learned anything from the cold war, it is that a strong economy equals strong defence. The economic legacy of the previous Government is a national security liability. We were left with a situation in which the country’s finances were wrecked while the world is a more dangerous place than at any time in recent memory.
Every Department must make its own contribution to deficit reduction and the MOD is no exception, but because of the priority we place on security, the defence budget is making a more modest contribution to deficit reduction relative to almost all other Government Departments.
The SDSR meets twin priorities of protecting front-line capability for Afghanistan and beginning the process of transforming our armed forces to meet the challenges of the future, setting the path to a coherent and affordable defence capability in 2020 and beyond.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, decisions still have to be made on the future of the joint combat aircraft and RAF Lossiemouth, which the MOD recently concluded to be the ideal JCA base because it provides excellent access to training areas and modern facilities and is the most cost-effective. The Secretary of State is in Oslo next week meeting Nordic partners. Will he discuss the opportunities for air defence co-operation with the Norwegians, who will have the same aircraft and will station them closest to RAF Lossiemouth?
The hon. Gentleman makes a useful point. We will be discussing a wide range of future issues, including air defences and the common threats that we face. The hon. Gentleman’s point is important but, as he recognises, it will have to be balanced against a number of other interests. We fully recognise the problems and anxieties that the uncertainties will create until the decisions are taken, but we will try to expedite them as best we can while fully understanding the issues involved.
As I said, the SDSR dealt with Afghanistan and the future 2020 force so, if I may, I shall take them in turn. Our armed forces are in Afghanistan first and foremost to protect our national security by ensuring that transnational terrorists cannot find safe and unhindered sanctuary there, as they did before 9/11. There is no difference across this House and those who seek to do ill to British forces or British interests should understand that there is a united House of Commons behind our armed forces.
Under the leadership of, first, General McChrystal and now General Petraeus, we have the right strategy in place to succeed. We now have the right number of troops in theatre with the right equipment and we will soon agree a plan for the transition of key responsibilities to the Afghan Government at the NATO summit in Lisbon in a couple of weeks’ time. We now have to be patient and let the strategy run its course.
The Foreign Secretary set out to Parliament last week the steady progress that is being made in the security mission. Afghanistan is the top foreign policy priority for the Government and the main effort for defence and we will do all that is necessary to achieve operational success and ensure that our forces have the tools they require to do the job. I am grateful to the shadow Defence Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary for showing such an interest in detailed briefing on the subject so early in their time in office.
Of course the Opposition support what the Government are doing in Afghanistan but, as we saw from the events of this week, as al-Qaeda is displaced from Afghanistan, it ends up in places such as Yemen. May I urge the Secretary of State to recognise that when we take action in one country, it affects another, and can we please also pursue a strategy to ensure that Yemen is as stable as possible?
I am not sure that I accept the basic premise that it is an either/or situation. We have to deal with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even if we deal with them effectively, that does not mean that there will not be a terrorist threat from elsewhere. We need to be ever vigilant and to recognise that the problem of dealing with an ideology is that it can occur in any part of the globe. We also need to be aware that it is most likely to be present and to have effect where there are failed states.
I believe that proper joined-up government that is willing to consider how we support failing states and how we get improved governance, resources and development into those countries is one of the best ways of ensuring that the ideology never takes root. It is true in whatever dispute we are talking about that people who have nothing to lose may gamble with it, whereas people who have a stake are far more likely to be circumspect about what happens. That is one of the best ways to deny territory to those with that sort of fanatical ideology.
I agree with the Secretary of State’s assessment of Afghanistan and that there is a united House. However, could he enlighten the House by telling us at what stage the Prime Minister consulted him on the withdrawal date of 2015?
We have so many ongoing discussions, not just inside the Government but, as the hon. Lady knows, with our NATO partners and with our American partners. It is essential that when we set these dates we are also cognisant of what the Afghan Government want. The Afghan Government have for some time—as the previous Government fully understood—had the ambition to manage entirely their own security apparatus by the end of 2014. The approach that has been taken by this Government and more widely in NATO has been to ask how we tie our timetables in with the ambitions of the Afghans. It is perfectly reasonable. As the NATO summit in a couple of weeks’ time will show, it is increasingly the view of NATO that we should transition out of a combat role and allow the Afghan Government to have control by the end of 2014, but that we should maintain the resources required to give them support. For example, whether the Afghans will be able to develop any sort of meaningful air wing according to their timetable of 2014 is something that we must consider.
May I take the Secretary of State back to his comments on last week’s statement by the Foreign Secretary? So far, his speech has concentrated, quite rightly, on the military, but may I press him on the importance of joined-up government across Departments here so that in Afghanistan the political and economic sides—the other two sides of the triangle—get equal weight? Does joined-up thinking happen in Government here?
It is increasingly happening, not only here but on the ground. To be fair, I must say that it is increasingly happening within NATO. The planning to co-ordinate military activity with the civilian reconstruction element is increasingly successful. There remains a gap which is what people talk about as “hot” construction, “hot” intervention or “hot” reconstruction, however we want to define it, which is at the initial period when we have military success, how do we begin the reconstruction process early enough and maximise the benefits from our own actions there? There are many people who would look at the example of Afghanistan in recent years and say that between 2003 and 2006 we perhaps did not ensure that we had in the optimal way joined the different elements that my hon. Friend mentions. However, we are seeing regular improvements in that regard, both nationally and internationally.
As the Secretary of State is probably aware, the Foreign Affairs Committee visited Afghanistan last week, when we had an opportunity to see the components of the settlement that he has described put in place. We welcome the indications of cautious optimism that are coming out of that country. As for 2015, does he accept that when that pledge was made, it related to a period that was almost the length of the second world war? Does he agree that that provides an ample opportunity for a solution and a settlement to be realised?
My hon. Friend makes a very constructive point. I think that the time scales are realistic.
Where proposed changes in the SDSR had implications for operations in Afghanistan, we have ensured that the success of the mission was given priority. Consequently we have made no changes to combat units involved in Afghan operations and have postponed changes in other key capabilities such as the RAF’s Sentinel ground surveillance aircraft for as long as they are required there. This is in addition to the enhancements planned in capabilities such as counter-IED, protected vehicle surveillance and remotely piloted aircraft. And of course we have doubled the operational allowance, as we promised.
The men and women of our armed forces risk an awful lot to keep us safe. In Afghanistan, their sacrifice has been significant, and it will continue to be a dangerous place in which to operate. All of us in this House owe them our respect and gratitude, but most of all we owe them our support. This Government will not let them down.
I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman says about the debt of gratitude that we owe to our armed forces; that will be endorsed on both sides of this House. We also owe a huge debt of gratitude to their families. When the Prime Minister brought the defence and security decisions before this House, he said that there were decisions to be made about the allowances made to the armed forces and their families. When will we have that information? Can we have an assurance that those families will not be worse off as a result of the ongoing sacrifice of their family members on the front line?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. Indeed, when we recently met a number of our armed forces coming home from Afghanistan, we both pointed out that without the support of families it would be infinitely more difficult for our service personnel to be engaged in Afghanistan. It is important that when we look at allowances, we strike a balance between what will enable our personnel and their families to get an adequate standard of living, particularly when they face the unique difficulties of postings abroad or extended periods away from family, and ensuring, in the very difficult financial climate we inherited, that we get value for money. We will carry out the review as quickly as we can, but I have to say to the hon. Lady that I would much rather get it right than get it quickly. We need properly to understand the implications for changes to the allowance, and any changes that are made must be phased in in a way that makes it possible for families to adjust to and absorb any of the financial changes that we are forced to undertake.
My right hon. Friend has rightly won admiration for the very difficult settlement that he has had to reach in this review. He is clear from his remarks that the Afghan campaign, which may be costing the British taxpayer up to £8 billion a year, has significantly skewed the shape of the core defence programme. Can this be quantified? Should not those distortions to the core defence programme also be funded from the reserve so that defence policy in the long term is not affected by what we are doing in Afghanistan?
If my hon. Friend is saying that defence should permanently have more money than it gets in any one year, neither I, nor—I suspect, as I look at him—the shadow Defence Secretary would disagree with that. We have to live within the financial constraints that we have. When we say that there were inevitable distortions because of Afghanistan, that is merely to state the blindingly obvious. We need to have a regular period of review so that we are able to take account, on a constant basis, of changing circumstances. That is why we want to have a five-yearly defence review that is able to do that, so that we are not having to wait for disproportionately long periods before making any adjustments that we might need. The 2015 review will be a very useful point at which to try to assess what the legacy of Afghanistan may be on our armed forces and what adjustments are required in the light of that.
Let me now turn to the detail of the SDSR in relation to defence. The new national security strategy set out the policy framework that was the force driver of the SDSR. The adaptive posture demands that our armed forces become a more flexible and agile force with global reach, capable of providing nuclear and conventional deterrence, containment, coercion and intervention.
The Government are committed to the maintenance of the UK’s minimum effective nuclear deterrent. We will proceed with the renewal of Trident and the submarine replacement programme, incorporating the changes set out in the value-for-money study published in the SDSR. The decision to extend the life of the current Vanguard class submarines and changes in the profile of the replacement programme mean that initial gate will be approved in the next few weeks. The next phase of the project will commence, and the main gate decision will take place in 2016. This programme does not in any way alter the continuous nature and credibility of the nuclear deterrent.
There has been a lot of discussion about the renewal of Trident. Irrespective of the decisions about gates, can my right hon. Friend confirm the absolute centrality in his thinking of the fact that we need to maintain a continuous at-sea deterrent?
I have absolutely no problem in agreeing with my hon. Friend about the importance of continuous at-sea deterrence. Let me make two simple points about that. First, having a continuous at-sea deterrent has a diplomatic utility. It means that because it is a background and consistent deterrent, we do not have the problem of choosing when to deploy it at a time of rising tension, which could exacerbate a difficult situation. Secondly, if we do not have continuous at-sea deterrence, we have to decide at what point we are physically going to put the deterrent to sea. That may require our having additional military assets effectively to fight it out to sea if required. Those who think that taking risks with continuous at-sea deterrence because it is a cheap option economically might need to think again in the light of what I have said.
The adaptable posture required by the NSC also means that we will be investing in new technology and capabilities more suited to the likely character of future conflict, such as cyber-security, while reducing our stockholdings and capabilities that have less utility in the post-cold war world, such as heavy armour and non-precision artillery. We will, however, maintain the ability to regenerate capabilities that are not needed now if threats change. Capabilities that we have the option of regenerating include increased amphibious capability as well as heavy armour and artillery in the event that more is required. We have taken less risk against those capabilities that are more difficult to regenerate, such as submarines, to take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris).
Alliances and partnerships remain a fundamental part of our approach. In taking decisions in the SDSR, we have given significant weight to the fact that we and our NATO allies consciously rely on each other for particular capabilities. Sometimes even our biggest allies do that. I think, for example, of the United States and the British mine-hunting capabilities in the Gulf.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I shall deal later with our thinking about what the United Kingdom needs to be able to do itself and in what circumstances.
We rely on our allies, and we will deepen our multilateral and bilateral defence relationships. This week, we set out our deepened relationship with France. On Wednesday, as I intimated to the House the other day, I will have a meeting with the new British-Scandinavian NATO group. That is very important for a number of reasons. We want a closer bilateral relationship with Norway, which is one of our key strategic partners. We want to create a NATO framework that makes it easier for Sweden and Finland to have a closer relationship, and as a nuclear power we want to give even greater reassurance to the Baltic states about the reality of article 5 of the NATO treaty. We also want to create regional structures to make it easier to engage with Russia, where we can, on regional problem solving. It is a useful lesson for the UK that in a world in which there is a multi-polar power base, we need more different levers to act in the interests of our national security.
The UK has unique national interests, however, and we cannot always expect to depend on our partners when Britain’s direct national interests are threatened. I wish to make it clear that we will maintain an autonomous capability to sustain a considerable and capable military force on an enduring basis, if required, for both intervention and stabilisation operations. That means, at best effort, a one-off intervention force of some 30,000, including maritime and air support, or a force of some 6,500 plus enablers for enduring operations. That is not hugely dissimilar to the level of effort in Afghanistan today.
As delivering effective defence capability in the 21st century becomes more expensive at a time when budgets are under growing pressure, we should exploit economies of scale and increase co-operation where national security allows it and sovereign capability is not jeopardised. That means exploring deeper co-operation with NATO members, as demonstrated with France this week, and with partners further afield in key regions around the world.
I wish to set out the future shape of our armed forces and the process by which we have made our decisions. I will then deal with specific issues, particularly those on which we have taken calculated risks with capability.
The SDSR is a point of departure, not the end of the line. We have set a path to 2020 and beyond, with regular reviews every five years. The first period, from 2010 to 2015, is necessarily a period of rebalancing our strategic direction, in the light of the factors that I outlined earlier. That is required to tackle the unfunded liability in the defence programme, to live within our means as the deficit is addressed and to focus our efforts on Afghanistan. Overall, the resources allocated for the spending review period will allow us to pursue today’s operations and prepare for tomorrow, but that means scaling back the overall size of the armed forces.
To make those judgments, we have contrasted cost savings and capability implications with the risks that we face in the real global security environment and our ability to reconstitute or regenerate capabilities that we might need in future. We have taken the tough decisions that the previous Government ducked. The Prime Minister has set out to Parliament in his statement and in the White Paper the implications for the structure and establishment of the armed forces, and I will not tax the patience of the House or yourself, Madam Deputy Speaker, by repeating each of them here. I will, though, address specific issues later.
There are still difficult decisions to be taken for the coming period as we implement the SDSR, including the basing decisions mentioned by the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), who is no longer in his place, and the rationalisation of the defence estate. As the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said, we will also have the issue of allowances to deal with in the coming months. I can assure the House that we will take those decisions as quickly as possible, to minimise uncertainty, but in a way that is sensitive to economic and social pressures and the needs of our people and their families. In addition, three further reviews are being undertaken to bring other areas of defence into line with the new force structure.
There is no doubt that we need to deal with armed forces accommodation. We will want to do so as quickly as possible and in a way that produces the best and quickest improvement, at the best deal for the taxpayer. We will learn all the lessons from the previous Government, and even from times before them.
The three further reviews that I mentioned are the six-month study of the future role and structure of reserve forces; a review of force generation and sustainability by the service chiefs and the defence reform unit; and the remodelling of the MOD itself, which is overseen by Lord Levene’s defence reform unit. Let me be very clear: I entirely agree with Lord Levene’s view about the staff in the MOD, who are among the most able people I have worked with. I am sure that former Ministers would concur. However, I wish to be equally clear that the Department must be restructured to serve the interests of the new national security posture, and smaller armed forces will require a smaller system of civilian support.
I am acutely aware that behind the bare numbers of the reductions that we plan are loyal people, with livelihoods and families, who face an uncertain future through no fault of their own. We will do everything we can to manage the process sensitively and with care and support, but manage it we must if we are to meet our vision of the future force structure. The Government are determined to reinvigorate and respect an enduring military covenant. We cannot shield the armed forces from the consequences of the economic circumstances that we face, but we will make progress wherever we can. I look forward to receiving soon the report of the independent armed forces covenant taskforce that we set up earlier this year.
The second period, from 2015 to 2020, will be about regrowing capability and achieving our overall vision. That will include the reintroduction of a carrier strike capability, with the joint strike fighter carrier variant aircraft manned by a joint Royal Navy and RAF force, and an escort fleet including the Type 45 destroyer and, soon after 2020, the Type 26 global combat ship, which used to be called the future surface combatant—the names keep changing. We will also reconfigure the RAF fast jet fleet around the JSF and the Typhoon, and consolidate the multi-role brigade structure in the Army.
One of my goals as part of the SDSR was to reduce the number of types of equipment used to provide the same capability. Achieving that by 2020 will mean less duplication and less expense overall, when we take into account the complex training and support requirements of each piece of kit. That will include reducing the number of types of equipment in the air transport and helicopter fleets, and of destroyers and frigates.
Nevertheless, my very strong belief, which the Prime Minister shares, is that the structure that we have agreed for 2020 will require year-on-year real-terms growth in the defence budget beyond 2015. It would be nice to do more sooner, but as the great hero of the Labour party, Tony Benn, once said, albeit in different circumstances,
“the jam we thought was for tomorrow, we’ve already eaten.”
How well he understood his own party.
There is a hard road ahead, but at the end of the process Britain will have the capabilities that it needs to keep our people safe and live up to its responsibilities to our allies and friends, and our national interests will be more secure.
I turn to some specific issues. The carrier strike capability that we plan will give the UK the ability to project military power over land as well as sea, from anywhere in the world, without reliance on land bases in other countries. Britain will require the strategic choice and flexibility in force projection that carrier strike offers. I also believe that that capability should be as interoperable as possible with the allies with whom we are most likely to work in future. The inherited design of the carriers would not have achieved that.
The House and the country must understand that any decisions regarding the carriers must be taken in the context of their extended service life of 50 years. The final captain of a Queen Elizabeth carrier has not even been born yet. When they go out of service, I will be 109 years old and the shadow Defence Secretary a sprightly 103. We are taking decisions now on what will be best for us as a country in the middle of the century. That is why we have taken three decisions. First, we have decided to take a capability gap in carrier strike, because we assess that the risk of not having access to basing and overflight for our fast jet force in the next decade is low. However, the same cannot be said looking further ahead.
Secondly, we have decided to install catapult and arrester gear, which will allow greater interoperability, particularly with US and French carriers and jets, and maximise the through-life utility of our carrier strike capability. Thirdly, we have decided to acquire the carrier variant of the joint strike fighter. Adding the “cats and traps” will allow us to use the carrier variant of the JSF, which has a bigger payload and a longer range than the STOVL variant planned by the previous Government. Overall, the carrier variant will be significantly cheaper, reducing the through-life cost compared with the STOVL version.
Contrary to popular belief, there will not be a new Queen Elizabeth class carrier in service without the planes to go on it, apart from in the period required by law for us to have the carrier properly crewed up and ready to accept the planes. The idea I have come across in some parts of the media—that we can get brand-new carriers and the brand-new planes to fly off them almost on the same day—simply defies the complexity of the operation involved.
When the carrier enters service towards the end of the decade, the JSF will be ready to embark on it. Yes, there will be a delay to the programme as a consequence of the decisions I have mentioned, but unlike the previous Government’s delay to the carrier programme in 2008, which added £1.6 billion to the overall cost—more than the whole Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget next year—and gave us nothing in return, our delay will give us a carrier that is best configured for the next 50 years.
I am seriously concerned about the decision that the Government have taken. They have not only scrapped the Harrier, but retreated from STOVL, going back to what is basically today’s and yesterday’s technology of “cats and traps”. They have left themselves potentially reliant on two aircraft that do fundamentally the same thing, giving up the ability to use short-take-off and vertical-landing aircraft. This is about more than the capability of the carrier. We are giving up—not temporarily, but permanently—the capability that the Harrier has given us. We will have two fleets of aircraft that fundamentally do the same thing.
First, “cats and traps” are not yesterday’s technology. In fact, considerable expense is going into ensuring that there are more modern, more effective “cat and trap” systems. The United States is spending a great deal of research and development money on that at present. Secondly, if we are to have genuine interoperability, it makes sense to have carriers that the American navy or the French can land on and, in the case of the French, use when their carrier is in refit and they require ongoing training. It is perfectly rational to buy the plane with the longer range and bigger payload, which is in fact cheaper. In the past, it was decided, for whatever reasons, to build 65,000-tonne carriers without a “cat and trap” system, and that decision was augmented by the STOVL decision. That would have been the most expensive variant, with the shortest range and the smallest payload. We are bringing those greater capabilities into better alignment with the carrier itself.
The right hon. Member for Coventry North East mentioned the Harrier. We had to face up to the difficult choices that the previous Government put off. Regrettably, we have decided to retire HMS Ark Royal three years early and to retire the Harrier force—both in 2011. Of course, that is not unprecedented. The UK’s carrier strike capability was gapped during the late 1970s, as we transitioned from Buccaneer to Harrier itself. While Harrier was operating in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009, our ability to generate carrier strike was at best severely curtailed.
Over the next five years, life-saving combat air support to operations in Afghanistan has to be the overriding priority. In Afghanistan, the Joint Force Harrier did wonderful work, and I pay tribute to the Harrier aircraft, the crews that have serviced them and the pilots who have flown them since they entered service. During its deployment to Afghanistan, the Joint Force Harrier flew in excess of 22,000 hours on more than 8,500 sorties, more than 2,000 of which were close air support missions. It is my understanding that every Harrier pilot from every Harrier squadron took part at some point during the Harrier’s deployment to Afghanistan.
Tough and unsentimental choices had to be made, however, and the military advice was that Tornado was the more capable aircraft to retain, due to its wider capabilities and force size, for not only Afghanistan but other significant contingent capabilities. Operations in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009 took their toll on the Harrier force. By the time the aircraft was withdrawn from theatre, the force’s ability to recuperate and regenerate a fully operational carrier strike capability—notwithstanding the strenuous efforts to do so by Joint Force Harrier—had understandably been affected.
The decision taken by the previous Government in 2009 drastically to salami-slice the number of Harriers meant that, even if we had wanted to, we could not sustain our current fast-jet requirement in Afghanistan using Harriers alone. The decision in 2009 reduced the number of Harriers from 18 force elements at readiness to 10, but the military advice is that we require 40 force elements at readiness of Harriers to maintain our fast-jet contribution in Afghanistan on an enduring basis and without breaching harmony guidelines.
The Fleet Air Arm will require something of a transitioning with the new joint strike fighter when we get towards the end of the decade. I have had discussions with my American counterparts, who have made it clear that, should we require help to maintain skills in any way in the run-up to that period, the United States will make the facilities available to us, and we fully understand that. Let me make it clear, as I did earlier, that the joint strike fighter will be flown from our carriers by both Royal Navy and Air Force pilots. We will maintain a joint force, which is an important message to both services at a time of uncertainty.
Some of the things we have read about Harrier have been hugely over-simplistic. As a result of decisions taken in recent years, I am afraid that the previous Government loaded the dice against Harrier a long time before the last election. I fully understand the consequences of retiring Harrier for livelihoods and basing, and the emotiveness of this beautiful and iconic aircraft, particularly in relation to the Falklands conflict of 1982, as everyone in the House will appreciate. However, I believe that we have made the right decision, based on unsentimental military logic.
The Falklands have been the subject of some comment in recent days. The Government are unequivocally committed to the defence of our overseas territories and dependencies, but the situation now is far removed from that of the early 1980s. First, we maintain a far more robust and capable force in the Falklands to act as a deterrent and to secure our interests there, and that force is able to be reinforced as the need arises. Secondly, and more importantly, Argentina is no longer ruled by a military junta that is repressive at home and aggressive abroad. Argentina is now a vibrant, multi-party democracy, constructive on the world stage and pledged to peaceful resolution of the issues that undoubtedly remain between us. Of course, we maintain robust contingency plans for times of crisis, and there is no questioning our resolve to defend the Falklands whenever required and from whatever quarter.
The decision to cancel the Nimrod MRA4 programme was extremely difficult due to the nature of the military tasks to which the aircraft was designed to contribute, the amount of public money that had been spent on it and the impact of such a decision on the people who have dedicated their careers to delivering this capability or who depend on it for their livelihoods. However, the severe financial pressures faced by the Government and the urgent need to bring the defence programme into balance meant that we could not retain all our existing programmes, as recognised by the previous Government in their Green Paper.
I recognise that this decision means taking some risks on the capability that Nimrod was to provide. Since the withdrawal of the Nimrod MR2 in March—a decision taken by the previous Government—the Ministry of Defence has sought to mitigate the gap in capability through the use, on a case-by-case basis, of other military assets, including Type 23 frigates, Merlin anti-submarine warfare helicopters and Hercules C-130 aircraft, and by relying on assistance from allies and partners. In view of the sensitive and classified nature of some of those military tasks and the implications for the protection of our armed forces, including the nuclear deterrent, it is not possible for me to comment on those measures in detail, but as the previous Government did, I am happy to make the Opposition spokesman fully aware, as far as the classification allows, of our decisions and the military advice upon which we take them.
As Defence Secretary, I have concentrated today on issues within my remit, but the guiding principle of the SDSR has been to join national security efforts across the Government, flowing from the direction that the new National Security Council now delivers. The SDSR covers far more ground—from conflict prevention to counter-terrorism, energy security, cyber-security and border security, and resilience at home and overseas—and I hope that hon. Members will take the opportunity to raise those wider issues today.
The Government had to take some difficult decisions, and the transformation will be painful, but we will emerge with a robust national security structure and a coherent set of capabilities that supports our foreign policy goals of rebuilding our prosperity and safeguarding our security both overseas and at home, but I should like to end by restating my commitment to sustaining operations in Afghanistan. We must succeed there—that must be our main effort. At the heart of those operations are the men and women of our armed forces, the civilians and families who support them, the intelligence and security agencies, and all those who stand between us and those who would do us harm. The whole House will agree that they are the best of the best and thank them for their dedication, professionalism and selfless commitment. All of us in this country owe them a very deep debt of gratitude.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond in today’s debate and I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments. At the beginning at least, his was a rather breathless speech. He spoke of being 109 years of age when the new Queen Elizabeth type aircraft carriers go out of service, but I hope he leaves more time to get to the Chamber from the Ministry of Defence when he is 109. He certainly will not be able to get here at the speed he did today.
Earlier in the week, the Secretary of State had to be summoned to the House to explain in detail the treaties with France, and today the House was treated to a quite remarkable filibuster to accommodate his diary and those of his fellow Ministers. I was tempted to reflect that perhaps they were on French time, but that would have brought them here in time for business questions rather than making them late for this debate. I welcome the ministerial team, who took the approach of arriving in shifts for their boss’s speech this afternoon.
Despite that, it is with a sense of honour that today I am making my first speech at the Dispatch Box as the shadow Secretary of State for Defence. My sense of pride is only slightly diminished by having the word “shadow” in my job title.
I hope it will not be for too long. Even in opposition, it is an honour to work to support our armed forces and their families, and the defence of our nation and all our interests. The most important responsibility of the Government is the safety and security of our country. All MPs of all parties also carry that responsibility. I want the House to know that this Opposition will always act in the interests of what we believe to be right for our country, and not any narrow party interest.
Although the Secretary of State and I may disagree across the Dispatch Box, I want to tell him that I will never question his personal commitment to the defence of our nation. All Conservatives are patriots, but the Secretary of State must be aware that all patriots are not Conservatives. Therefore, I look forward to working with the Government to ensure that our forces, who are the best of Britain, operate with the right equipment. I also want to ensure that their service to their country is properly rewarded and valued, and where possible, that even more is done to value their dedication and patriotism. In addition, we should also recognise the crucial role played by so many MOD civilian staff, as the Secretary of State did. I should like to put on record the House’s gratitude for the unheralded work of our security services.
I thought that the Secretary of State, in what was in large part a thoughtful speech, struck a better tone on the issue of MOD redundancies than has been struck before. Hitherto, there was almost a sense of celebration at the reduction in head count. It will be reassuring for MOD officials, who are perhaps watching this debate or will read Hansard, that there was no waving of Order Papers today at the announcement of potential future redundancies.
As the Prime Minister has rightly said in recent times, our power and influence is enhanced by our integration with political, social and economic global networks. However, I sense that the unprecedented scale and pace of global change will, if anything, increase ever more sharply in future. Although our openness increases the threats that we face, conversely it assists us, in part, in overcoming those contemporary challenges. Today’s threats are more complex and difficult to map, and they are harder to repel. Terrorism, cyber-attack, natural resource shortages, large-scale disaster or unconventional attacks from chemical or biological weapons all threaten our shores, our interests and our values. Although we might face fewer conventional threats, our defences at home remain subject to frequent aerial and maritime probing and challenges.
The strategic defence and security review was an opportunity to reshape the UK’s military force in that changing global security landscape. Unfortunately, according to the Royal United Services Institute, 68% of the defence and security community felt that it was a
“lost opportunity for a more radical reassessment of the UK’s role in the world”.
It seems that the security review did not clearly define Britain’s place in the world, nor did it alter the balance of Britain’s armed forces to meet existing and emerging threats. The review leaves unanswered many questions about Britain’s place in this ever-changing world.
I will come to that later in my comments, but it is clear that Britain must make a pragmatic assessment of our global ambition. As the Secretary of State has acknowledged—tersely in his letter and, I am sure, in private conversations with others in government—the review process has been driven largely by the cuts that the Government have been determined to make. Some people say that the 38-page document to which the Secretary of State referred looks like a decent executive summary, but no fewer than 10 pages in it are entirely blank. In parts, it lacks historical accuracy. On page 23, we read:
“For 800 years, the UK has been at the forefront of shaping the relationship between the rights of individuals and powers and obligations of the state”.
The document predicts future threats, which cannot be an exact science—we know that—but it lacks historical accuracy. The fact is that the UK did not exist in its current form 800 years ago. A document that aims to set out a process and to predict the nature of future threats does not even get its history right. Its assessment of our nation’s past lacks real intellectual vigour—[Interruption.] One of the Ministers who arrived a little late for the Secretary of State’s speech says that that is a pedantic point, but I do not think that it is. To say that they do not understand the nature or the history of this collection of nations of the United Kingdom when it comes to an assessment of our role in the world is not pedantic.
There are major challenges facing our national security, as the Secretary of State has said, and as was emphasised only last weekend, with the bomb plots to bring down cargo planes. The defence review rightly makes it clear that primary among the myriad defence and security issues we face is Afghanistan.
I, my shadow Defence team and the shadow Foreign Secretary appreciated the first of what I hope will be many regular briefings on Afghanistan held yesterday in the Ministry of Defence. I also look forward to the opportunity to visit Afghanistan, and of course I, along with others on the Opposition Front Bench, will liaise with the MOD about such visits. I want to make it clear that we will work with the Government in a spirit of co-operation to help to bring the conflict to an end, and to ensure peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Our forces—and, indeed, our enemies—should continually be reminded of that unity of purpose. Our military aim must be to ensure that never again can al-Qaeda use Afghanistan as an incubator for terrorism, and we must use our military forces to weaken the Taliban to such an extent that the Afghan people can determine their own future.
May I join others who will no doubt welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role? His was an excellent appointment. I was in Afghanistan last week with the Foreign Affairs Committee, and we also went to Pakistan. Does he agree that although the international community—or some of it, at least—has set deadlines, there should be conditions-based activity in Afghanistan, and that the international community might need to think again about what will be needed in the future, if the proposed increase in the capabilities of the Afghan forces are not sufficient by 2015?
I have spoken to my hon. Friend and others who were on that visit to Afghanistan, and they commented on what they believed to be the significant progress made there in recent years. No doubt he would like to put that on the record as well. It is significant and important for the Government to continue to offer clarity about the conditions-based approach to the 2015 timeline; I am sure that the Secretary of State will have heard those comments and will seek to reassure the House and the nation on that matter.
The international strategy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) saw on his visit, has been focusing on building up key pillars of the state and delivering better lives for the Afghan people. There is a real record of sometimes fragile achievement being carefully built upon in Afghanistan, and it is the bravery of our forces, which is renowned across the globe—we all celebrate that again today—and their professionalism, which we must also recognise, that has helped to make that progress achievable.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the British press write about the Afghan campaign, one of the problems is that we conflate Afghanistan and Helmand, although the severe problems that Britain is facing in Helmand are often not the same in the rest of the country? We must make it clear to the British public that outside Helmand there are positive conditions prevailing, good signs of development and huge progress being made. We are at the front line of the most difficult task, but we must not neglect the fact that huge successes have also been achieved.
My hon. Friend, who has paid close attention to these matters over a long time, is right. Those of us who supported the decision to take military action in Iraq and who supported the action in Afghanistan appreciate that those two conflicts have been conflated in public perception, which has not helped the debate about Afghanistan. She raised an important point about the misunderstanding and misapprehension about Helmand province. We heard from the MOD yesterday that Helmand province accounts for 1% of Afghanistan’s population. The UK’s forces are engaged in some of the heaviest fighting, and in some of the most difficult and most complex areas of the insurgency, but there has been remarkable progress, in Helmand and in other parts of Afghanistan. It is right that she has put that on the record, and that we celebrate it here.
The work that is going on in justice, law and order, civil administration, economic activity and freedom of movement in Helmand and Afghanistan, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) will have seen and read about, is a cornerstone of a lasting political settlement, as are efforts to eradicate institutionalised corruption. Part of such a settlement relies on meaningful engagement with former insurgents. As a precondition for engagement, those who want a political stake in their country’s future must permanently sever ties with violence and accept the Afghan constitutional framework. In doing so, their interests will be recognised but constrained by the laws of the land and balanced by the interests and views of others. As the Government take that important work forward, they will continue to have the Opposition’s full support.
I want to address a number of the points that the Secretary of State has made about Afghanistan recently. The first concerns the role of women in Afghan society. Many now rightly assess that women’s role in Afghanistan has improved markedly beyond the pre-Taliban days in Afghanistan. Things continue to improve more slowly than we might wish. Nevertheless they have improved significantly, and I urge the Government to remain vigilant and ensure that, as former Taliban fighters are reintegrated, the welcome progress made in guaranteeing freedom and equal rights for women is not compromised in accommodating those with harder-line opinions.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South said, the Government have set 2015 as a target for the conclusion of our forces’ combat role. We all wish to see our forces home as soon as possible. When I, along with my right hon. Friends the leader of the Labour party and the shadow Foreign Secretary, met General Petraeus recently, we talked about the conditions-based progress towards full withdrawal. It is essential that the UK Government are clear in private and public about the stages and conditions in advance of our withdrawal.
Crucial to Afghan and international ambition is the capacity of home-grown security forces to take on greater responsibility. It is important for the Government to make it clear whether they have undertaken an assessment of the capacity of Afghan forces to meet the 2015 timeline. Although the immediate concern about the quantity of recruits has abated—with 305,000 now in service—there remain genuine worries about the quality of some of those undoubtedly brave recruits. There is clearly a shortage of trainers for the Afghan forces, and although the UK is doing its bit, it is essential for that fundamental issue to be resolved quickly if the Afghan security forces are to be able to perform the functions that the Afghan Government wish them to. I urge the Government, therefore, to continue to monitor not just the quantity but the quality of the Afghan security forces. There is also, of course, a wider societal issue in Afghanistan concerning levels of literacy, which impact on the ability of the Afghan armed forces—but that is a longer term societal challenge.
Finally, on Afghanistan, we welcome the commitments that the Secretary of State and Prime Minister have given in assuring the House that the impact of the defence review is not intended to affect the front line in Afghanistan. However, Opposition Members—and, I am certain, many Government Members—will be seeking a constant assurance that nothing in the small print of the defence review or those flowing from it will affect our efforts in Afghanistan right up until the end of combat operations.
More widely, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) asked about Yemen. The Leader of the Opposition rightly asked the Prime Minister about that at Prime Minister’s questions this week, and we were reassured by the Prime Minister’s response. It is important that Yemen does not become a safe haven for terrorist recruitment, training and operations. It is also important that the country’s economic decline and instability do not threaten regional security and economic interests. Continued conflict and loss of livelihoods could result in increasing poverty and a humanitarian crisis, and mass migration within the country and beyond. It is crucial, therefore, that we work with the Yemeni Government to counter the terror threat, including through our support in helping them to disrupt al-Qaeda.
Terrorism, however, is not the only threat facing Yemen. Al-Qaeda looks to exploit instability where it can, and it is of strategic importance for the UK to remain engaged in Yemen.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State on his appointment, and welcome his wise words today. Let us get the language on Yemen right. It is not a failed state, as some have said, but it has the capacity to fail if we do not assist it. We must follow up the promises made to the Yemeni Government in London in January to provide basic help, such as security scanners, which I understand have still not been delivered. Let us help Yemen and engage with it, rather than criticising it.
My right hon. Friend is experienced in such matters, and he is right to raise that point. So far today we have not heard anyone speaking of Yemen as a failed state, but it has the capacity to become so, with all that that means. I am sure that the Government heard my right hon. Friend’s plea for scanners. The Prime Minister was asked about that at Question Time on Wednesday, and gave a categoric commitment to continue to be engaged in Yemen. In addition to the scanners being delivered, I look forward to the Government making it clear that ministerial engagement will continue, with visits to Yemen in the near future. It is important for that political public commitment to be there for all to see.
There are points in the review that I and many others welcome: the commitment to hold reviews every five years, taking forward the previous Government's work on cyber-crime to prevent organised crime, terrorism and other states from making malign attacks on our infrastructure, the 25% reduction in warheads, and the continued commitment to increase funding for our special forces. However, among all the talk of fiscal deficits, I want now to turn to the strategic deficit at the heart of the Government’s plans.
There are strategic contradictions between the Government’s assessment of future threats, as laid out in the security strategy, and the tangible action to prepare for them, as laid out in the defence review. Those two documents were separated by just one day in their publication, but face in different directions in important ways. The security strategy rightly says that it will prioritise flexibility and adaptability across the armed forces, but the defence review surrenders some of that capacity in the Royal Navy. The Government said that they wanted to take tough long-term decisions, but have put off Trident—to appease their coalition partners, I think .
There are no coalition party Back-Bench Members here to disagree, so I hope that the one belated arrival on the Front Bench does not take offence.
Some people believe that the decision on Trident owes more to defence of the coalition than to defence of the realm. The security strategy marks a significant shift with an emphasis on mitigating risk, the ability to deter, and the attributes of soft power. All that is rightly contained in the security strategy. However, the defence review lacks emphasis on cultural and diplomatic power in complementing traditional hard power. Indeed, the comprehensive spending review may have set back the cause of cultural diplomacy by many years. Moving the World Service, which has been so important to so many people in so many ways, from the Foreign Office may signify a serious scaling down of cultural diplomacy.
I grew up—or at least, spent all my teenage years—in South Africa, where people had to be bilingual in English and Afrikaans. I remember watching the news on television and listening to South African radio, and even as youngsters we knew instinctively that we could not trust what we were hearing, regardless of what language it was in. Whether it was in English or Afrikaans, we knew that it was state propaganda. The only place to turn to, which my family did, was the BBC’s World Service. It was the one source of accurate and reliable information that people throughout the world regularly turned to at times of difficulty or when seeking the truth. Labour Members will continue to take a keen interest in what moving the World Service from the Foreign Office will mean to quality and reach in different languages throughout the globe.
Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that the role that the World Service could play in a country like Pakistan, where obviously we cannot and would not wish to send troops, is vital to the stability of the region, and would help our effort in Afghanistan?
The right hon. Gentleman is correct, and we can compete in our admiration of the BBC’s World Service and all that it does, including the launch of the Arabic service relatively recently, the broadcasting in Pashtun, and the fact that President Obama used the medium of the World Service to broadcast. We are occasionally frustrated with some things that the BBC does, but in principle, as an institution, the World Service is something that everyone in this country who feels a sense of pride and patriotism should be remarkably proud of.
(Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): As someone who lives in Wales, I regularly listen to the World Service, for reasons similar to those that my right hon. Friend gave for listening to it in South Africa: we have a colonial Government these days. I echo the point made by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, that in Helmand province particularly, and other parts of Afghanistan, the really important medium of information is the radio. It is not the television, or Fox News, as it is in America. The power of what the right hon. Gentleman said is palpable to anyone who visits the place.
Reference has been made to Pakistan. My right hon. Friend may not be aware that the BBC World Service gave evidence to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and said that because of financial restrictions, it could not go ahead with an Urdu language television service that it had hoped to establish. Does he agree that that is highly regrettable, and that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, while it has responsibility for funding the World Service for the next two years, should reconsider?
Mr Murphy: My hon. Friend raises the crucial issue of funding support, and the World Service’s reach and ability to do remarkable things, and to be a presence and a trusted friend of people across the globe who have few other sources of reliable and objective information in their own language. The Minister will have heard the comments that have been made, and it would be extraordinarily worrying if the sort of cuts that my hon. Friend has mentioned came to pass.
When I was in the Negev desert, I met Bedouin tribesmen who talked about the power of the BBC World Service, which again is the one source of reliable and objective information in that part of the world. I do not want to labour the point, but I am certain that we will return to it, as it has arisen in the comprehensive spending review.
The Government said in the defence review that they wanted to combat emerging threats, but we have heard little, in the review or since, about concrete plans to address threats to energy, food or water security. Thanks to the review, the Secretary of State’s to-do list has grown. I do not doubt his ability, but he will have a packed day. Rather than announcing details in the review, the Government have delayed decisions until another day. A review has been set up to consider plans for procurement. Rather than coming up with a strategy for integrating, a review has been set up; rather than setting out efficiency savings in detail, a review has been set up; force generation, counter-terrorism and preparedness for civil emergencies are all subject to review. Add to that the fact that the plethora of parliamentary questions suggest that the Government have not done their homework, and that they must do better. Their strategy has been rushed, they did not ask many of the right questions, and they still have not come up with many answers.
I look forward to playing a full part in many of the reviews, but the sheer number is further proof that the entire process has been rushed. At the heart of the strategic incoherence is the back-to-front decision making leading to the review. For all the claims of cross-Government co-operation, the defence review has become a spending review—cutting what could be cut to meet fiscal priorities, not doing what could be done to reshape Britain’s armed forces around strategic security goals. To answer the strategic questions, we needed a thorough examination of foreign policy flexibility, defence needs and how to make defence more efficient in the longer term, not simply a drive for immediate savings now.
Let me turn to some of the other points that the Secretary of State mentioned. On Nimrod, I welcome his commitment to share what he can with the shadow Foreign Secretary and me. However, there is a sense of disquiet in the country about the impact on the deterrent, and there are particular worries in parts of Scotland about the impact on air force bases.
Let me turn to the aircraft carriers, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the former Defence Secretary, has spoken of. We already know that for a decade or more, the UK will have no carrier strike capability of its own. The Government have entered into two 50-year defence treaties with France, and although we welcome them in principle, there are still many unanswered questions. In opposition, the Conservatives played fast and loose with Euroscepticism when the Labour Government mooted defence co-operation. By contrast, we welcome a bilateral approach with our European neighbours. We will continue to support those efforts and ask the important questions. We are not clear whether those treaties, which have now been deposited in the Library, will contain legally binding guarantees. Last week in response to questions, the Prime Minister told the House:
“It is not easy to see in the short term the need for that sort of carrier strike”.—[Official Report, 19 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 808.]
Given the nature of those documents and the nature of the threat, the fact is that there is enormous uncertainty. Despite what the Prime Minister has said, and despite the fact that the title of the Government’s own strategy document refers to an “age of uncertainty”, they have not been able to persuade the country that they feel certain that we will not need carrier strike capability over the next decade. As the Chair of the Select Committee on Defence has asked, if the Government feel sure that we can do without that ability for a decade, why are they equally sure that we will not need a strike capability once that decade has passed? Our approach has led to our friends passing polite comment, while others snigger up their sleeves about a maritime nation building the two greatest ships in our history while the country is devoid of carrier strike capability for a decade.
In conclusion, I share the worry of many in this House and beyond the Commons—a worry echoed in the Defence Committee’s report. The process has been rushed. Mistakes may have been made, and some of them may be serious. With respect, I hope that the Defence Committee is wrong, but I fear that it may be right. I want to finish my comments in the same tone in which I started. Nine years into a military commitment in Afghanistan, and with up to five more in a combat role ahead for our country and our forces, it is essential that we again commit ourselves to a bipartisan approach to Afghanistan. For all our disagreements on so many other issues facing our country, we are at one in supporting our forces as they face up to our enemies, and their families as they start to think of another Christmas separated from their loved ones. As our country comes together this week to commemorate the lives of those who have been lost in conflict through the ages, it is also right that today we celebrate the enormous contribution and immeasurable bravery of our men and women in uniform.
In the week before Armistice day, I, along with every other Member of this House, salute the memory of the fallen and extend my thoughts and sympathies to their families, as well as to those who have been wounded, to wish them a speedy recovery. I further pay a heartfelt tribute to the men and women of the British armed forces, wherever they are serving—sea, land or air—and most especially to those in Afghanistan; to the service families, who just by keeping the home fires burning do invaluable work for the nation; and to the civilian staff in the Ministry of Defence and elsewhere, who support our armed forces extremely well.
I welcome the new shadow Secretary of State. I am delighted to tell him that I had the privilege of working on the Green Paper of his right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the former Secretary of State, which was valuable pre-thinking for some of the work that went into the SDSR. It was not the right hon. Gentleman’s fault, but looking back, perhaps the only mistake was that none of the aspirations that we discussed was in any way linked to financial considerations. They were really linked more to the question of capability. To that extent, the Green Paper did an important job, even though its conclusion at the end of the day was held to be rather unrealistic.
I declare an interest, as the honorary colonel of the Bristol university officer training corps. One of their distinguished former officers, the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), now sits on the Front Bench, while the daughter of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, is one of their most glittering alumnettes. I want the Secretary of State to be particularly aware of the exceptional work of the OTC this summer, when they deployed to Canada at full unit strength to take part in Exercise Prairie Thunder, an extremely important training operation that, as I am sure the House is aware, put formed battle groups through their paces before operational deployments, most particularly to Afghanistan. The cadets were attached to the opposition force, which is much the most interesting and fun thing to do, and they performed magnificently.
I raise that because I want the Secretary of State to congratulate the cadets on their efforts. They were extremely professional and did very well. I also want to thank the Ministry of Defence and all those responsible for helping, and to congratulate Lieutenant-Colonel Petersen and all those who arranged the exercise. I want the Secretary of State to understand that there is a wider utility to the university officer training corps, in supporting the regular Army. The exercise presented a tremendous opportunity for officer cadets to work with regular Army units, to everyone’s advantage. I hope very much that he will remember that point when important decisions are taken about the OTCs, who make an important contribution to the military life of this country and provide an invaluable footprint at universities.
When the Prime Minister announced the review, I welcomed especially the careful analysis done to support it, and I welcome most of the conclusions that have been reached. However, as the Prime Minister agreed on the day that the review was announced and as the Secretary of State said this afternoon, this is just the starting point for a much more fundamental transformation of defence in this country, so that in 10 years’ time we will have a defence posture and capability capable of securing our national interests at home and abroad. An enormous body of much more detailed work now needs to be done on strategy, capability and all the rest.
Let me take this opportunity also to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) on the excellent report that the Select Committee on Public Administration has produced on strategy. He has made an invaluable contribution, and the Government need to pay careful attention to the points that he has made.
The purpose of the 2010 strategy review—and presumably that of all other reviews—is to achieve a strategy that matches ends, ways and means. The most immediate signal to come out of the SDSR is that the financial realities confronting the coalition Government—and the country—have forced them to make cuts that they would clearly much rather not have had to make. It is important to recognise that the SDSR has inevitably resulted in a real reduction in Britain’s ability to undertake strategic power projection. The jarring gong of reality has sounded, and the truly dismal lessons of the past 13 years have had to be learned in a very brief period.
As for the individual services, I would say this. First, I am afraid that I simply do not understand the stance of the Royal Navy, which would leave it unable to have anything but an absolutely minimal presence across the globe. That seems to be an appalling decision by the naval planners, and they will—mark my words—come always to regret it. Secondly, I simply believe that the Royal Air Force has got it wrong, while the Army has come up with a sensible, pragmatic and workable solution. However, will the Secretary of State tell me how he sees the development of the use of drone aircraft and who will be responsible for using them? What will be the configuration of the armoured regiments after the loss of the Challenger tanks? He is absolutely right to take those steps to retire—or, at least, to mothball—some of the Challenger tanks. What will the armoured regiments look like and what will their task be?
I warmly welcome the treaty signed between the French and British Governments. In truth, this has been 40 or 50 years in the making, and only now have the Prime Minister and the President of the French Republic managed to bring to harbour a very difficult and extremely important step for this country and for France. I am quite clear that it was the right thing to do. The most important step and the real game changer is with regard to the nuclear issues. I strongly and warmly welcome the treaty—although I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex has some reservations—and I think it will be but a precursor to further and greater co-operation.
I have three big points to make: first, on the reserves; secondly, on the need to maintain momentum around transformation; thirdly, on the Ministry of Defence headquarters.
I ask the Secretary of State to continue to examine how better to use our reserves. We in the UK are out of kilter with all our major allies. About 40% of US combat capability is generated by reserves. For example, the US deploys the National Guard brigades to Afghanistan where, after training, they perform on par with regular forces. The National Guard flies fast jets, including the 5th generation F-22 Raptor. The UK has demolished the capability of reserves to deploy as combat units. They are now used as trickle reinforcements to regulars. This may work well in Afghanistan—part of our main effort, as the Secretary of State said—and may help to allay regular overstretch. It is, however, a completely unimaginative approach to defence as a whole and a gross waste of a magnificent potential asset.
Much of our war-fighting capability is required at low readiness. As the House knows, this country faces no major external existential threat, and the opportunity to man much of it with expanded reservist capability and capacity clearly exists. Do we really need 300-plus fast jets at high readiness? No, we do not. Huge savings could be made, perhaps by placing two thirds of the force in reserve and building over the next 10 years the reserve capability to operate them. The Royal Air Force has a large alumni of brilliant fast-jet pilots, who would love to be better used. RAF regular pilots are reportedly restricted to 10 flying hours a month—fewer than US National Guard pilots.
Do we really need to man the tanks and artillery required for general war fighting with expensive regulars who are needed for operations on other equipment in Afghanistan? No, we do not. It is a gross waste of money, and they should have got on and done that a long time ago. Again, those could be stored with small quantities of equipment used for training competent reserve brigades to be held at low readiness. The same could go for much of our amphibious shipping.
The leadership of the UK armed forces, as I know the Secretary of State understands, has always shown a disappointing disregard for the real potential of a transformed Territorial Army, Royal Naval Reserve and Royal Air Force voluntary reserve. They need to be ordered to go away and undertake a root-and-branch review to re-balance armed forces to take proper benefit from this cost-effective and potentially powerful asset. I warmly welcome the steps taken for a review of our reserve forces, headed by General Houghton, and I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who has down the years championed the TA in this House with great vigour, power and energy.
My second theme is the need to continue to build momentum for transformation. As many have said, the strategic defence and security review is a beginning, not an end, but how can defence build momentum around the need to transform our armed forces without the catalyst of the SDSR? I was truly disappointed to hear the new permanent secretary in her first pronouncement on Monday say that the SDSR would be taken forward through the defence planning process. I have to tell the House that this is the same broken defence planning process that got the Ministry of Defence into the appalling mess that it is in now. This is about horse-trading, delaying, single-service rowing and general fudging of issues. What we need is real transformation. That game has definitely been started by the Secretary of State and it is clear that he has the will to see it through. I very much hope that he will do so, and get his way.
That leads me to my third point about the MOD. The best four years of my life were spent as Minister of State for the Armed Forces. I loved every single minute of it; I worked with the most wonderful people. They are marvellous people, but the MOD has become a vast and cumbersome beast. It centralises all power and freezes all decision making. Absolutely no one is accountable and no one is ever held to account. Difficult decisions are nearly always avoided, and vested interests always prevail. For a start, the single services plans organisation needs to be turned upside down and a far more purple approach is required. There are more three-star officers and officials in the headquarters now than there were 20 years ago when our armed forces were two thirds larger.
I would like to remind the House of what I said on 15 October 2009 in a debate on defence policy:
“How can anyone seriously justify the creation last year of the post of director general of strategy to serve in addition to the director general of policy, who did the job perfectly well when I was a Minister? How can anyone justify creating a commercial director general, a chief of defence materiel, a deputy chief of defence staff personnel and a director general of human resources? It is a crazy, absurd, overblown bureaucracy.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2009; Vol. 713, c. 503.]
That must be dealt with. The Secretary of State will have to move very quickly on this if he is to get his way on other matters.
My hon. Friend is making some extremely powerful points. Does he agree that the emphasis now seems to have become a competition not between the three services, but between military personnel and civilian personnel? The fact that civilian personnel have given themselves equivalent ranks to military personnel has put them more in direct competition, so that they double up the functions of the armed forces.
My hon. Friend is right. The problem is that there are overlaps at every level of decision taking in the Ministry of Defence. Two separate audiences are competing with each other. It is extraordinary that an institution that understands the ethos of command is so bad at doing it itself. Some of the most dreadful things were brought to me when I was a Minister. There might have been a terrible military cock-up and it would be taken away to be examined. The issue would come back six months later, but everyone would have had their fingers over it and Ministers would end up being told that it had been a great military triumph. It is true that no one is ever held accountable. The decision making is very lame and very long-winded.
May I give a practical example to illustrate my hon. Friend’s point? I learned to my horror that the vice-chief of the defence staff had recruited a civilian medical adviser, to parallel the function of the three-star surgeon-general who is doing a very good job—and, of course, at great expense. Perhaps that provides an example of a post the could be cut.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely vivid and important point. We can bet our bottom dollar that there would have been a frightfully good reason for doing it—it should have been blown out of the water on day one.
All this has created the mess we are in, with a £38 billion overspend. One of the most important jobs of the Secretary of State and the Administration is to build an agile strategic military headquarters and Department of State which are able to respond effectively to the rapidly changing environment of the 21st century. That does not exist in the Ministry of Defence at present, and it must be created, which will mean considerable decentralisation. The front-line commanders-in-chief need to be given the tools and the space that they need to do the job. As has been said, they need to be allowed to get on with it, and to stop being micro-managed by civil servants in Whitehall.
I am very pleased that the Secretary of State has engaged Lord Levene and a team of admirable and extremely experienced experts from the private sector to assist in this task, but if they are to drive the huge changes that are needed, senior officers and officials must recognise that what they have built has failed catastrophically, and must change. They must understand the need to transform. The senior military and officials need to own the change themselves, and they need to drive it forward. It will be a complete and fundamental change of culture, but it must be achieved.
Let me end by reading out a quotation that I have read out during almost every speech on defence that I have made in the House for years and years. It is a remarkable speech made by Lord Wavell, which the House should bear in mind as all these changes are being made, and as they think about the men and women at the sharp end—the people who end up having to deal with decisions, sometimes very bad decisions, made in the Ministry of Defence.
Lord Wavell said:
“in the last resort, the end of all military training, the settling of all policy, the ordering of all weaponry and all that goes into the makings of the armed forces is that the deciding factor in battle will always be this. That sooner or later, Private so-and-so will, of his own free will and in the face of great danger, uncertainty and chaos, have to advance to his front in the face of the enemy. If all that goes wrong, after all the training, the intensive preparation and the provision of equipment and expenditure, the system has failed.”
Despite everything, the system has not failed.
The House needs to remember, in the midst of the sometimes idiotic and petty political arguments that separate us in all parts of this House of Commons, that these young men and women are doing something really extraordinary, and doing it at great personal danger and risk to themselves. Ministers must never forget, in this great talk of strategy, this plethora of change and all that will go on at the top, with headquarters being got rid of and people being shuffled around, that they must be able to continue to deliver the really remarkable people who are able to do the job for which all this money is spent. That must be kept at all times in the forefront of the minds of the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames). I echo his tribute to our armed forces—not just the fallen, but all of them. I spent two years as Minister for the Armed Forces and one as Secretary of State for Defence during a period when we were not only suffering the greatest losses of modern times, but fighting at the highest level of capability that we have had to achieve recently, and showing what our armed forces were capable of. That impressed on me what amazing people they are: they are worthy of our wholehearted support.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mid Sussex for many other reasons. As he said, he was very helpful when I was producing a Green Paper while I was a Minister, and his commitment to the armed forces is recognised by nearly everyone. I do not think it was entirely recognised by the sergeant-major who was responsible for his training at Sandhurst, if all the stories that he has told me are true, but everyone else recognises it—and, of course, his ancestry rivals my own. [Laughter.]
My admiration for the current Secretary of State is growing by the minute. I have to say that he has displayed huge capability in the political field, both in the House today and elsewhere. In the political arena, he is emulating some of the skills displayed by the Duke of Wellington, who used to hide his horses on reverse slopes and show his strength where he felt weakest. The Secretary of State has done the same this afternoon: he has lectured us about strategy—he has used the phrases of the lecture circuit—because he knows jolly well that what has been presented to the nation in the last few weeks is far from a strategy. What we have is an SPSR, or “seriously pretend spending review”, not a strategic security review. I think the Secretary of State knows that, but he does his very best to hide it, and he will do his very best to work within it. He has fought his corner hard in Government, and he is to be respected for that.
However, we never quite received an answer from the Secretary of State to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart). He talked a great deal about how we were joining our commitment to Afghanistan with the growing capability of the Afghan national security forces. The right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Select Committee, tried to help him by telling us again what we all know—how long we have been in Afghanistan—but the question was very simple: did the Prime Minister consult the Secretary of State before he announced the 2015 withdrawal date for our combat mission in Afghanistan?
Answer came there none, but we know what the answer is. The Prime Minister did not consult the Secretary of State. He did not consult his Defence Secretary, he did not consult his Foreign Secretary, and he did not consult his Chief of the Defence Staff. We know whom the Prime Minister consulted before he made that decision: he consulted the Deputy Prime Minister. This was a political decision, made for political reasons. We have more than 9,000 troops in theatre in Afghanistan, facing an enemy whose main tactic is to wait until we tire and then to inherit a victory, but for political reasons, and no others, the Prime Minister of this country announced an end date for our combat mission, playing into the hands of the enemy by transferring the pressure from the Taliban to the Afghan Government.
I am not saying that there is not a huge need for pressure on the Afghan Government. The single weakest point of the campaign of the international security assistance force in Afghanistan lies in the weaknesses and corruption of its Government, and if we fail to put that right, the mission will most certainly fail. But the decision to remove the pressure on the main enemy for domestic political reasons without even consulting the Defence Secretary, the Foreign Secretary or the Chief of the Defence Staff was astonishing.
I have great respect for the way in which the right hon. Gentleman conducted himself as Defence Secretary in very difficult circumstances, but I really do think that he is talking complete rubbish about this. When I last visited Afghanistan, the Americans had already indicated that they were minded to withdraw, and the effect of that was to galvanise the Afghan political process. The stalemate in the Afghan political process has been the main obstacle to progress in Afghanistan. I believe that the Prime Minister made the right announcement, and I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence was properly consulted.
I have the greatest respect for the hon. Gentleman as well. I know that he follows these issues, and takes them very seriously. As I have said, there is a need for pressure on the Afghan Government—I do not doubt that—but let us not pretend that the British Government only went as far as the American Government had gone. What the American President said in autumn 2009—albeit unfortunately taking a long time to say it—was that by 2011 there would be a draw-down of the additional troops put into Afghanistan. He did not say there would be a withdrawal and an end to the combat mission. It was the British Prime Minister who said that, and as he is the leader of the nation providing the second largest troop contribution, that announcement was by no means insignificant in respect of the ISAF contingent.
The British Prime Minister named a date for the total end of the combat mission for party political reasons. We can establish that by considering the people he consulted as against those he failed to consult. If the reasons for the announcement had been to do with the operational mission, he would have consulted the Defence and Foreign Secretaries and the Chief of the Defence Staff, but as both the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and I know, the person he consulted was the Deputy Prime Minister.
At the beginning of today’s debate the Defence Secretary was asked whether or not he was consulted on the withdrawal of British troops, and he said by way of reply that the 2015 date was arrived at because the Afghan President had stated that he wanted to have strategic control over the defence of Afghanistan by 2014. Does it not therefore follow that if the Afghan President decides by 2014 that he is not ready to take over that strategic command and control, we will have to stay longer? Perhaps the Prime Minister should discuss and consult on that matter with the Defence Secretary.
Well, the decision has been taken, and it has been repeatedly reiterated. It is not going to be reversed, so we can ponder it as much as we like, but our armed forces and others will have to plan within the parameters that have been set for them. All I would say to my hon. Friend is that if the reason she has advanced for the 2015 decision is correct, President Karzai would have been consulted before the announcement was made, but as the Defence Secretary was not consulted, I do not believe that President Karzai was consulted either. The person who was consulted was the Deputy Prime Minister, and that is what gives us the key insight into the motivation for this announcement.
I think the right hon. Gentleman is getting distracted over this consultation issue. The central question is whether the Afghan national army is going to be in a fit state in five years to guarantee the country internally and externally. Does he seriously think that if it is not ready in five years, it will ever be ready?
Plans are in place, and the argument the hon. Gentleman puts is part of the cover for the 2015 decision, but I know that, privately if not publicly, he has no doubts about the real reasons that decision was taken, and he knows that what I am saying is true. Many other people know it to be true, too.
On the strategic defence review, I do not deny the problems the Government were facing, although they are doing their very best to exaggerate the difficulties we left them. They keep on mentioning the figure of £38 billion, and if they persist in doing so eventually somebody will apply their common sense and realise that it is a bit of an exaggeration. There was overheating in the defence budget, but the only way we can get even close to £38 billion is by assuming a flat cash settlement for more than 10 years and no trimming of defence aspirations. That is not what the Government did and it is not what any alternative Government would do.
However, I do not blame the Government for exaggerating the difficulties they inherited because they did have some very difficult decisions to take. They faced an extremely acute financial situation and they had to try to conduct a strategic defence review with the Army in the field. I congratulate them on their efforts to do that, although I think they could have tried harder. They could have consulted more and therefore not rushed, and they need not have been totally dominated by the financial considerations, but they did their best in very difficult circumstances.
I also congratulate the Government on their decision to invest in cyber-security. That is a genuine area of weakness that needs to be addressed, but is the investment they are making in cyber-capability being counted towards our 2% NATO target for defence spending? What else are they putting into that in order to get to the 2% figure and thereby shield themselves from the fact that there are considerable defence cuts here that could—it depends on how we count this—take us below that target figure?
I join others in thanking the right hon. Gentleman for the work he did as Secretary of State. We all know that he inherited a very difficult situation and he did the best he could in the circumstances. He is also my constituency neighbour of course, and we work together on other issues.
The right hon. Gentleman has alluded several times to the fact that the review was a spending review rather than a strategic defence review. Does he honestly believe that if Labour had won the last election, defence would have had a better financial settlement than has been achieved under this Government?
I have to say that the answer is, “Not necessarily.” I think we would have taken more time and consulted more broadly, however. I think we would have got industry on board and carried more people with us, but I am not sure how well we would have done. I will come on to that issue later, however, as I want to make one further point about the level of settlement that has been achieved.
I am genuinely worried about the decision the Government took on the joint strike fighter. The Prime Minister’s announcement on the strategic defence review revealed that we have not only not funded the carriers, but we have bought the wrong aircraft. The Government have, effectively, done away with our short take-off and vertical landing capability not for 10 years because of the early demise of the Harrier, but for ever. We will therefore end up with the JSF and the Typhoons. They will be two separate fleets, and small fleets too, because there will not be the money to expand either of them. We will be faced with the running costs of those two separate fleets as well, when they have fundamentally the same capability.
I know that the JSF has stealth whereas the Typhoon does not, but the Typhoon is a pretty impressive beast, and we are going to wind up paying for two separate sets of maintenance for two separate fleets of fast jets that do fundamentally the same thing, but having given up short take-off and vertical landing capability. That capability is not only required for flying off carriers; it is required for other scenarios too—day-one warfare involving failed states, for example. A Harrier can take off in a big car park, but the JSF basically needs a full-size runway in order to be able to operate. That capability would be greatly valued by the US Marine Corps if the programme had been maintained, but now that the British Government have pulled out it will not be available to us. I am not at all sure that the Government have not made a significant mistake in that regard.
Let me return to how well the Government did. The Defence Secretary fought his corner and the headline cut in the defence budget is 8%, but in reality it is 13%. That is because the Treasury has won and it has transferred the costs of the deterrent to the core budget. That is getting very little attention, but it is equivalent to another 5% cut in the defence budget. The Government put off the decision on the renewal of the deterrent and the Prime Minister told the House in a fantastic piece of salesmanship that he had actually managed to save money while doing so. Well, he managed to save money by the normal process of the initial gate assessment that is going on: by cutting the number of warheads and of tubes. That would have been done, irrespective of who the Government were, as part of the assessment phase of the deterrent, because both parties are committed to the maintenance of a minimum credible nuclear deterrent.
But again the decision to delay the deterrent was one made for political reasons—for coalition reasons—not for industrial reasons or for reasons of capability. No matter what the Prime Minister tries to say to the House, that decision, on its own, costs this country billions of pounds—it certainly costs in excess of £1 billion and I would say the figure is probably £2 billion. So for the purposes of keeping peace in the coalition for the next five years, we have thrown away between £1 billion and £2 billion on the deterrent. The Prime Minister accused us, with a degree of justification, of shirking hard decisions and pushing things to the right, but while he was saying that—while those words were falling from his mouth—he was doing exactly the same thing. That is one reason why this is not a strategic defence review but a political fix and a spending review, and most certainly with regard to Trident.
As a result of that, my party—I know that the Liberal Democrats will have to do this—may well have to consider whether or not we maintain our position on Trident. We set the position in 2006 and we held to it. We did not try, as the Liberal Democrats did, some short-term political fix to pretend that we had another way. But if no decision is to be taken for another five years and if the cost of a like-for-like replacement of Trident will fall wholly and solely on the defence budget, at the cost of other military capability, we will have to think seriously about whether there is another way. We will also have to use the time, the expertise that exists in think-tanks and some of the information that will come from the armed forces themselves, now that the pressure is on and they are paying for the deterrent in alternative capability, to see whether there is some other way of maintaining Britain’s deterrent without the huge cost that will come at the expense of the rest of our armed forces.
If, as the previous Government said in their own study, the current Trident replacement was the most efficient and cost-effective way of defending Britain against a unique existential threat, and if the reason for having the deterrent in 2006, as set out in the previous Government’s White Paper, was that we could not predict the threats in the next 50 years, what has changed since the election?
The answer is a treaty that the right hon. Gentleman has just signed with France; technological capability going forward; another five years; and a need to analyse the cost-benefit as against the other defence benefit that will be lost. It is all very well for the Foreign Secretary to say there will be no strategic shrinkage, but the Government have embarked on a fairly substantial degeneration of the military capability in this country that underpins our strategic position in the world. It may well be that Trident remains the most effective option and that a continuous at-sea deterrent is still essential, but with another five years we will have to examine that. Other people will examine it and if we do not, we will be seen to be putting our heads in the sand and not prepared to undertake a proper analysis of the choices that we face.
I have one further point to make, and it relates to force generation. The Secretary of State will know that his personnel costs are rising every bit as much as his equipment costs. The equipment costs catch the headlines, and people talk about them and the press get excited about them, but the personnel costs are rising every bit as fast. The Commandant General of the Royal Marines addressed a meeting in the House of Commons just a week or so ago, when he was able to say that the Royal Marines could generate deployable capability more cheaply than the infantry. If he can stand on his feet while he says that, something needs to be examined in the way the Army force- generates. The Royal Marines’ training is much longer and is therefore a lot more expensive. In addition, the Royal Marines’ capability is arguably considerably higher, so if it is cheaper as well, something is wrong and this needs to be examined.
One important job that the Secretary of State needs to do, and one that I started to get into, is to deal with how the Army force-generates, although he will be hugely resisted if he does so. If he is going to keep that minimum ongoing deployable capability force of 6,000—or whatever he said is the figure he is trying to maintain—he is going to need a 90,000-strong Army, so that corner needs considerable examination. I urge him to do this job, because it is necessary if we are going to get value for money and motivate the very fine people who make up our armed forces.
So far, this has been the best informed and best defence debate I have attended in this House. As the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) knows, I had a very high opinion of his tenure of office as Secretary of State for Defence, and it is a pleasure to follow him. He spoke with his habitual integrity and persuasiveness. I also wish to welcome the shadow Secretary of State for Defence to his position. As he knows, I also have a very high opinion of him, to the extent that I was a bit surprised that he did not stand for the leadership of his party. [Interruption.] I have ruined his chances now. I hope that, contrary to his own wishes, he will be in that position for rather longer than his predecessor was, because we should not have too many changes of position in these very important places.
The first and most important thing that the Ministry of Defence did was to start a strategic defence and security review, so the first and most important thing that the Select Committee on Defence did was to begin an interim report on that review. After we have done more work on our current inquiry into Afghanistan, we will be resuming our inquiry into that review. We have not yet done that, so what follows are my own views, rather than those of the Committee.
The 1997-98 review took place in a benign economic climate, whereas this year’s review happened against bank meltdown and the simply dreadful economic consequences. That is why the Government decided that the defence and security review had to coincide with the comprehensive spending review. As a result, it became primarily a spending review and, secondly, a defence and security review. Is that a bad thing? It is absolutely essential to get the country’s economy right. What won the second world war was the United States’ economy, and the same applies to the cold war. The greatest weapon that a country can have for its defence is a strong economy, and any business man knows that the key to having a sound business is keeping one’s costs under control. If the Government had done nothing, instead of paying £43 billion a year in debt interest alone, by the end of the Parliament we would have been paying nearer £50 billion a year. As the former Chief Secretary, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), said, there is no money left.
The Defence Committee recognised all that, but we also wanted to look at the process of the review and we concluded that it was, pretty much, rubbish. This review took five months, whereas the highly regarded 1997-98 review took 13 months. The haste of this review meant that an opportunity to consult the wider public, defence academics, the defence industry and Parliament was missed.
I know my right hon. Friend’s views on this matter, but does he accept that the review was the first stage of a process that will require a great deal more work? Both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence have made that point. It is merely the architecture behind the transformation of defence that will take place, so an ongoing defence review will be needed all the time; indeed, there is to be one every five years.
I accept what my hon. Friend says and I listened with great admiration to his earlier comments. There is a lot of work to be done, as the Secretary of State has made plain, and I hope that my hon. Friend will play as valuable a part in it as he played before the election.
My greatest concern about defence is that the British, and perhaps the European, public believe that defence is a job done and that the end of the cold war meant the end of the need to spend serious amounts of money on defending our interests. They think we can rely on the Americans to protect us, but they are wrong: the Americans will protect us only for as long as it is in their interests to do so. Until our constituents demand that we spend more on defence, no Chancellor of the Exchequer will wish to do so, but that will not happen until the public are properly engaged in talking about defence or until they understand its importance and purpose. If one conducts a defence review behind closed doors, while everyone is away on holiday and at a pace that would startle Michael Schumacher, no such understanding will arise. Let us hope that the next one comes across better.
Given all my criticisms of the process, the result was far better than I expected. First, the Secretary of State for Defence did an absolutely valiant job of fighting his corner and I doubt that he alienated the Prime Minister or the Chancellor in the process—he was doing his job. Secondly, given that the Secretary of State started with a defence posture and budget that were both utterly incoherent and unsustainable there was a surprisingly strategic feel to the outcome, the thrust of which seems to be that we shall be gambling our security in the short term in exchange for its enhancement in the longer term. That is preferable to the reverse, provided that we always have at the front of our minds the need not to fail in Afghanistan.
Thirdly, despite the tightness of the settlement, there was a recognition of the changing and unpredictable nature of the threats we face. There was extra money for cyber-security and a recognition by the Secretary of State personally regarding the threat from electromagnetic pulses. I expect also that there will be extra money for space security. Those are some of the new threats.
I think that is superb. The real problem that having smaller armed forces will bring is an absolute requirement to get our intelligence tip-top. We have been utterly surprised so many times in history. We have to make our intelligence much better, so that we reduce the chance of being surprised again. For example, why do we have so many intelligence agencies? I would bet my bottom dollar that we will be surprised again, but we have to reduce the risks as much as we can. That is as much a part of the review as anything else; indeed, it is probably one of the most important factors.
I agree. My hon. Friend talks about the number of intelligence agencies we have, but he might like to look at the United States, which has such a plethora of intelligence agencies that it gives one a headache simply to look at a wiring diagram. Nevertheless, he is quite right: some of the threats we face are unpredictable. We are useless at predicting where threats will come from, or where we may need to be deployed, and for that reason we have to be adaptable.
My overall view of the review is that it is 80% common sense, pragmatic and broadly agreed upon, and 20% controversial, risky and able to generate headlines in the media. The success in pulling together the 80% that is agreed upon should not be overshadowed by discussion and argument over the 20% that is not, but that is what sells newspapers.
Let me give one example in relation to the French-UK treaties that were signed this week. I am in no doubt that they are a good thing, and that we are moving in the right direction. I have a reservation relating to the aircraft carriers, but I repeat that the treaties are a good thing. Actually, I believe that we should go further and give reality to the treaties, so that the warm words that they contain might be translated into tangible progress in training, doctrine, equipment-sharing, acquisition and research with our good friends and allies, the French. My reservation about the aircraft carriers, however, has been wrongly depicted as some great showdown between myself and the Secretary of State. I shall explain my reservation.
When the SDSR was announced last month, the Prime Minister said of the aircraft carriers:
“We will build both carriers, but hold one in extended readiness.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 801.]
And we all know that “extended readiness” in Ministry of Defence-speak means exactly the reverse. But, in the press conference after the signing of the treaties this week, my right hon. Friend referred to our “carrier”. As I understand it, we have not yet decided to sell one of the two carriers, and I hope that we do not. To talk of our “carrier” might be to build an expectation that we shall definitely mothball and almost certainly sell the other one. It is pre-empting a discussion that needs to take place much later, when we can see the economic circumstances of this country and, more importantly, the threats against us.
Two carriers would be a good idea, and no carriers would be a fairly good idea, but one carrier? Surely not. Every time it went into refit would we not prove to the Treasury that we were able to struggle on without it? Furthermore, are we really yet close enough to the French position that we can utterly rely on being allowed to use theirs? The answer is no, not yet. Our deployment to Iraq took place in the last decade. I do not say that we never will be close enough to the French, because I hope and expect that at some stage in the reasonably near future we shall, but it will come about only after a decent length of time operating alongside them, and after the treaties have been given detail, teeth and funding, none of which has yet happened.
How about another idea? How about deciding between the two of our countries that the French will contribute to the cost of the second carrier and, in return, have the right to use it when their carrier is in refit? That would mean that the two countries had three operational carriers between them, which should surely be acceptable. Having said all that, let me repeat that the French treaties are, in the words of “1066 and All That”, a “Good Thing”.
Of course, it is easy to mock the SDSR: “If only it had not been necessary to scrap the Ark Royal! If only we could have kept on the Harriers! Perhaps we could get by with some inflatable Harriers”—all that sort of jolly joking. However, the consequence of having to find money is that the alternative is to salami-slice all that is left and destroy the fundamental effectiveness of our armed forces in the process.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has had the courage to take some very difficult decisions. My guess is that in the decision between the Tornadoes and the Harriers, the fact that the Tornadoes have an air-to-ground strike capability was what saved them; we might well need that capability sooner than the Typhoon can provide it, and there must be questions about why that has been delayed for so long. Why did we need to scrap one or the other, the Harrier or Tornado? The cost of the logistics of keeping another type in the air is huge—billions of pounds; a billion here and a billion there, and soon we are talking about real money.
The noble Lord West described the decision to scrap the Harrier as “bonkers”. That would be easier to accept if, when he was in a position to do something about the bonkers economics of the Ministry of Defence, he had tried to do something to put it right. Instead, he drove forward the carrier decision, which he must have known was unaffordable.
How did all this come about? First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) set out so convincingly and with such great knowledge in his speech, there is the awful system of perverse incentives inside the Ministry of Defence. I congratulate the noble Lord Hutton on commissioning the Bernard Gray report. Those perverse incentives did not begin under a Labour Government; they have been around for decades, and I must bear some part of the blame for them myself.
Secondly, there is the disgraceful command from No. 10 that before the election there was to be no more money, but also no bad news about base closures or programme cancellations. The former Secretary of State for Defence did his valiant best to try to take some real, hard decisions, but he was thwarted at every step of the way by the Prime Minister of the time and some of his Ministers. In the private words of one of his Ministers at the time, the problems were to be chucked over the fence, into the responsibility of the next Government. I have been Chief Whip, and I am not often shocked. But I was certainly shocked when that remark was reported to me.
I still have considerable concerns about the strategic and defence review. I am very concerned about the gap in vital capability if the Nimrod aircraft go. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex, I am very concerned about the overall size of the fleet, which will be tiny in future; the unquantifiable influence exerted by the Royal Navy when a smart ship sails into a foreign port will be rarer and rarer. For the next 10 years, the strategic defence and security review will rely heavily on our enemies giving us advance warning of an impending attack. The enemy have a vote in all this; let us hope that they are polite enough to do that.
There will be other concerns. Service families watching this debate will fear redundancies, uncertainties and upheaval, having given themselves and made such sacrifice for their country. The same will apply to civil servants, who have also given outstanding service, and to the defence industry, which has done so much to support our defence efforts. All this will have substantial effects on whole communities—for example, in Scotland. We must do our best to mitigate those effects.
Whatever the concerns, one thing is absolutely clear. We have now had the defence review and we must now make it work. In my view, there is only a limited amount to be achieved by blaming the Labour party for the ghastly mess that it left us or the coalition for the hasty and secretive review that it has brought in to put it right. We now have a plan and we must scrutinise it, but we must leave defence on a stronger footing at the end of the process than it is on now. We must make it work for the good of the country.
Order. Hon. Members will have noticed that no time limit has yet been set in this debate. I ask the 14 Members who still wish to participate to show some restraint and consideration for those who will try to catch my eye after they have spoken. We will do our best to ensure that everybody who wants to speak can, but it will not be possible at this rate unless there is some restraint.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in today’s debate. Following the precedent set by the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames), I pay tribute to those who have paid the supreme sacrifice in our armed forces and who laid down their lives so that today we can have this debate and enjoy the relative degree of freedom that we do. In particular, I am thinking of the soldiers who served in Northern Ireland over a number of decades, and those who lost their lives protecting the community there.
We had a debate yesterday in the House on the Saville inquiry, and there was much criticism of the actions of the Army in Londonderry in 1972—but that must not become the mark of the Army’s contribution to Northern Ireland and to the relative degree of peace that we enjoy today. The Army did many valiant things in Northern Ireland, and many people are alive today because of its contribution. I would also say that the Army has learned much from its experience in Northern Ireland. I hope that, whether in Afghanistan or in the other parts of the globe, it can put that experience to good use.
It is a matter of concern that recently the head of MI5 warned that the threat from dissident terrorist groups in Northern Ireland is on the increase. We are discussing today a strategic review not only of defence but of security, and I want to highlight the continuing threat, because not only is it posed in the cities, towns and villages of Northern Ireland but it has the capacity to extend to other parts of the United Kingdom.
Yesterday in the Belfast Telegraph there was an interesting interview with some of the so-called leadership of a new dissident group that described itself as Oglaigh na hEireann, which is Irish for the army of Ireland. It is the latest version of the Irish Republican Army, and it draws together disaffected elements from the Provisional IRA, the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA. Significantly, among the new recruits are bomb makers who have developed a capacity to explode bombs in a way that is very dangerous. It concerns me that although, of course, our focus at times is on our role in Afghanistan and on the threat from al-Qaeda and other militant groups, there remains here at home in the United Kingdom a potent threat from such groups. It is estimated that the new group has about 600 members, some of them new but many of them with experience of involvement in terrorism over a number of years.
We should not underestimate that threat. I do not want to give the group a status that it does not deserve, but the reality is that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been reduced from 14,000 officers at its peak during the troubles to the current level of just 7,000, who alone have to deal with that terrorist threat, supported by the security services but without the support of the Army.
I am worried by the right hon. Gentleman’s comment that there might be 600 people in a new terrorist organisation in Northern Ireland. That is a significantly large terrorist group, particularly if substantial numbers are active. That worries me a great deal. Is he absolutely certain that it is anything like as large as that? If it is, that is a big worry.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and for the contribution that he made while serving in the Army in Northern Ireland. I know that he experienced some terrible events that occurred during his time there. The figures that I quote come from the security services and from the Police Service of Northern Ireland; they are not something that politicians have dreamed up for the purposes of scaremongering. I do not share these remarks with the House to scaremonger, but merely to say that, in the context of our strategic review, we must keep an eye on a growing internal threat in the United Kingdom that may have consequences for the capacity of the PSNI to cope with it alone without the support at least of specialist assistance from our armed forces. We still have that capacity based in Northern Ireland, and it may be more needed than was envisaged when Operation Banner drew to an end just a few short years ago.
At the end of Operation Banner—as the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), will recall—commitments were given at a political level that a significant garrison would be retained in Northern Ireland. It therefore concerns me that there is talk of 19 Light Brigade, who are headquartered in Thiepval barracks in Lisburn in my constituency, being transferred back to the mainland. Similarly, there is talk of 2 Rifles, who are part of 19 Light Brigade and based at Ballykinler in County Down, and who recently served with distinction and great loss in Afghanistan, being transferred back to the mainland, with Ballykinler no longer being used as part of the garrison establishment in Northern Ireland, although its ranges and specialist training facilities would still be available to the Army.
This causes concern to us in Northern Ireland, as we very much value the presence of the Army in our part of the United Kingdom. Although we still have 38 (Irish) Brigade headquartered at Thiepval barracks, the presence of 19 Light Brigade has been important; they have done some valuable work with the local community. I would be worried if there were a move to transfer the brigade headquarters away from Lisburn back to the mainland. When the Prime Minister made his statement to the House on the SDSR, I sought an assurance from him that the cuts in troop numbers would not result in a reduction in the size of our front-line infantry units, and he gave that assurance. At the moment, 1 Royal Irish and the Irish Guards are deployed in Afghanistan, currently on operational duty in Helmand.
We in Northern Ireland are very proud of our long and historical tradition. It may not go back 800 years, but it certainly goes back over many hundreds of years. There is a tradition of Northern Irish men and women serving in our armed forces. Someone mentioned the Duke of Wellington, who is only one of many I could mention. Montgomery, and others of Northern Irish extraction, have made major contributions to our armed forces. We want to ensure that that tradition will continue and be respected. If I may be so bold as to speak for absent Members from Scotland and Wales, the regional contribution of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to our armed forces at all levels is to be valued. That is true not just of the units that originate from those regions but of members of all units at every level of our armed forces. They are members of the British Army and proud of the British tradition as well as of their regional identity. I hope that those identities will be respected as the SDSR is taken forward.
I support the remarks of the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) about the review of the reserves. I hope that the thrust of that review will be to strengthen the role of the reserve forces within our armed forces. He made some valuable comments in support of that move, which would bring the UK into line with other countries where the reserve forces play a greater role.
For the record, some 24,000 reservists have been mobilised on or in support of military operations since 2003, which is quite a remarkable contribution. To make the greatest contribution to our armed forces, the reserves need to be properly structured for future conflicts. That will make the best use of their skills, experience and capabilities, while at the same time moving us towards a more efficient structure. I understand that as we are having this debate, some 929 reservist personnel are on current operational duties. We wish each of them well. Their contribution is valued, and we want it to be strengthened because they have skills and specialisms that can provide valuable input into what our armed forces are doing.
The concept of conflict prevention, which is mentioned in the national security documents that have been published, is important in the context of the SDSR. If we are to have a smaller military capacity in future, we want to ensure, with our international partners, that the prospect of conflict developing is diminished as best it can be. In recent years, in the light of our experience in Northern Ireland, I have had the honour of working with people in many parts of the globe who are facing conflict. We have sought to use the benefit of our experience to help them avoid conflict or resolve it where it occurs. Just two weeks ago I spent some time in Cyprus talking to people from the north and south of the island about the situation there and the need for a political settlement. We have worked with people from the Iraqi Parliament, from Moldova, from Kosovo, from the Basque region in Spain and so on.
The UK has an important role to play in conflict prevention. Despite all that has happened in the past, it is still very much respected, and in many respects we can give a lead to the international community by working with others to prevent conflict where possible. I received an invitation recently to attend an event here in Parliament on the situation that is developing in Burundi, and I have discussed other countries where there are early warning signs of the risk of conflict.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and he is absolutely right. I also support what has been said about the BBC World Service, which is another valuable contribution made by the UK. Addressing conflict issues is about much more than just our military capacity; it is about what we can do to help people who find themselves in conflict or potential conflict situations, and the BBC World Service is an important component in that.
The UK can make a valuable contribution to conflict prevention, and I hope that we will be able to draw on our experiences around the globe, including in Northern Ireland. I hope that we will be able to draw on our experience of conflict to make a contribution to conflict prevention.
My colleagues and I welcome the publication of the SDSR. I am not one of those who criticises the fact that it contains a number of other reviews that need to be taken forward. I support what the Defence Committee Chairman, whom I am privileged to serve under, said about moving in haste. It was right that we took a little more time in the SDSR to look in more detail at reserve forces and other key elements, to have a more focused review and to make proposals. I welcome this debate, and my colleagues and I will continue to make a contribution as the debate goes forward.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) made an important point about the potential threat in Northern Ireland. He underlined much of what I will say, in that we simply cannot rely on events panning out in a certain way. In Northern Ireland in the mid-1960s, for instance, we could never have foreseen that events would start deteriorating very quickly in the late 1960s.
In a way, I feel that I am going full circle. Forty years ago, when I first got involved in politics, one of the things that propelled me into politics and away from the Royal Navy university cadetship that I had at the time was the debate about the Royal Navy, the then Labour Government cutting the number of aircraft carriers and the resignation of the Navy Minister. In the early 1980s, I started working with my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who, by the way, would have liked to have taken part in the debate but for attending a funeral. He is one of our foremost thinkers on defence, and we set up the Coalition for Peace through Security.
At the time, a fierce debate was raging about the Royal Navy. Keith Speed resigned as Navy Minister because he felt that the Navy was under threat. At the time, it had 66 destroyers and frigates. Within a year of his resigning, the utterly unexpected happened—the Falklands were invaded and we needed no fewer than 23 frigates and destroyers to retake them. By the way, this very day, Cristina Kirchner, the President of Argentina, has pledged an “eternal fight” for the Malvinas. It is extremely dangerous, therefore, to assume that we will see a particular scenario over the next 10 years.
I very much admire my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), who is the Father of the House. He gave an important speech to the 1922 committee last week. Such speeches are supposed to be private, and I will not, of course repeat it. However, I want to repeat just one interesting point that he made—it is so good, I cannot resist the temptation. He said that when he left the employment of Anthony Eden many years ago, Eden gave him a framed copy of the Locarno treaty. The treaty represented the high point of the belief between the wars that peace was assured. Of course, we all know that it was not.
There was a disastrous tendency between the two world wars to believe in what was called the 10-year rule, which assumed that there would be no war for another 10 years. In the 1930s, Lord Hankey criticised the 10-year rule, to which we are apparently returning. He asked who could have foreseen in the spring of 1914 that the world would be convulsed by a world war within a couple of months. If we look back at history, it is clear that any 10-year rule or academic scenario that suggests that we do not need the aircraft carriers for 10 years is extremely dangerous. I am therefore very dubious of any confident statements on how the world will look in five, seven, eight or 10 years’ time.
We are, after all, a maritime nation. I agree that for many periods in our history, the Army has been neglected, but never the Royal Navy. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and in the early part of the 20th century, it was considered essential as a maritime nation dependent entirely on trade—as we still are—to maintain a significant Royal Navy. I echo some of the comments that have been made on Royal Navy planning. We will be left with just 19 serious major ships, and we are hugely dependent on them. We will need to deploy large numbers of them to protect the aircraft carrier—or carriers—and we should be extremely concerned about that situation.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the great worries in Asia? Japan has 4,000 islands, many of which are vulnerable, especially to China. There are concerns elsewhere about the fact that China, which has said it is interested only in territorial self-defence, is now building three aircraft carriers, and fourth and fifth generation aircraft-based attack vehicles, and looking for naval bases in the Indian ocean. Britain and Europe disarming themselves and leaving everything to the United States sends a very worrying message in relation to possible future nationalist adventurism in that part of the world.
I entirely agree with that.
Again, we should look to history. Had Spain declared war on us in 1940, we probably would have lost Gibraltar and the second world war. It did not declare war because it was deterred by the existence of the Royal Navy—Franco knew that it would immediately take the Canary Islands. Of course, Spain is now a friend and a member of the European Union, and there is no likelihood that the Spanish will ever declare war on us or seek to take Gibraltar by force.
Incidentally, following directly on from that, Spain now has two carriers with Harriers, as does Italy; the USA has 11 carriers; and India, Thailand and Brazil each have one carrier with Harriers. With this review, we have unilaterally destroyed our carrier capability for 10 years. That is unilateral disarmament, and I am extremely concerned about it.
I am also concerned about the decision on Nimrod. There has been a lot of talk about the cost, but very little about how we will maintain that capability, although the Secretary of State referred to that today. I was under the impression that we needed Nimrod as an early-warning surveillance system, particularly to protect our nuclear submarines, and particularly as they are returning to base. Some assurances were given to us today. I know that the Secretary of State cannot go into any great details because such matters are sensitive, but the House is entitled to ask why Nimrod was developed for all those years. Why is it suddenly considered necessary to cancel it just because of its cost?
Exactly. I know that parliamentary questions have been asked, but the House must tease out more information on maintaining early-warning capability. I know that this is not an exact historical comparison, but if someone had said in 1938, “Oh, this radar programme that we are deploying on the south coast is terribly expensive. We’ve wasted enormous sums of money on it and there are all sorts of pressures on our budget, so we should get rid of it,” we simply would have lost the second world war. I know that that is not an exact comparison, but we should always be aware of the lessons of history. In defence, whether we are talking about Northern Ireland or piracy, we simply cannot rely on the same situation existing in eight or nine years as exists now.
I am also extremely worried about the decision on Trident. The decision not to push through the main gate on Trident before the next general election is very dangerous indeed, because I believe that it was taken for fundamental political, not military, reasons, and because of the possible result of the next general election. What happens if the Labour and Conservative parties are level pegging, and there is a bargaining situation, as we had this year? I am confident that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would not be prepared to enter into a coalition with the Liberals if the price was getting rid of Trident, but can we be so confident about the Labour party? The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), whom we all greatly admire for his time in office, made a significant intervention when he said, “Well, now that Trident’s been put on the backburner, perhaps we should reconsider; perhaps there are cheaper options. It will be five years in advance.” So the political decision to delay Trident is worrying and dangerous.
I do not say that as someone who is fanatically in favour of Trident. I managed to blot my copy book with the Conservative parliamentary party as soon as I arrived in the House—I have succeeded in doing it again and again ever since—when I and my hon. Friend the then Member for Wells tabled an early-day motion questioning whether there were not cheaper alternatives to a ballistic missile system, and suggesting that we could consider cruise missiles off nuclear-powered submarines. My right hon. Friend the then Prime Minister was none too pleased with both of us. So I have always been sceptical about maintaining ballistic missile systems in a post-cold war age, and more and more people like that will be coming out of the woodwork the longer we delay main gate.
Some have said, “If a future Labour Government wanted to cancel Trident, they would cancel it anyway, whether it had been through main gate or not”, but why have we not cancelled the carriers? It is because the admirals were determined to force them through main gate before the election, knowing that after it, there would be enormous political and financial pressure to cancel them. If, therefore, Trident has not gone through main gate before the next general election, it will be thrown immediately into the political mix and it will be much easier to cancel it. I have noticed that the president of the Liberal Democrats, who has been quoted in the Evening Standard, has been crowing that they have achieved a major political victory in delaying Trident. So as much as I love my coalition partners, we should be aware of what could happen in the future.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) has done a wonderful job as Chair of the Defence Committee—he is shaping up to be a superb Chair—in questioning the decision on the future shape of the carrier fleet. I am not a Francosceptic; I am a huge Francophile. Both my parents were brought up in France, I went to a French school, and I speak French, so I am all in favour of every kind of co-operation with the French—
But, indeed. Hon. Members and the public are right to be wary about such co-operation. The public do not really understand—and why should they?—a lot of these details about joint strike fighters, Typhoons and Tornadoes. However, they can visualise aircraft carriers without aircraft, and they can visualise sharing an aircraft carrier with the French, and they do not like it—and they are wise not to like it. We all know what would have happened had we been sharing an aircraft carrier with the French during the Falklands war or the Iraq war. We simply cannot foresee—
I want only to make the point that when the Falklands were invaded, the then US ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, supported Argentina to begin with, but the first call that Mrs Thatcher got that Saturday morning was from Francois Mitterand, pledging support and revealing all the secrets of the Exocet and the Super Etendard. There are many differences between us and the French, but on the Falkland Islands, they were with us, and to begin with the United States was not. That should be put on the record.
Fine, but we must remember, I am afraid, that it was a French Exocet that sank HMS Sheffield. I do not doubt for a moment that it is a wonderful idea to have increased co-operation with the French on procurement and to work together more closely, but on this basis it is an extremely dangerous decision. My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire was right. There is no way in this debate that we can change the decision on the Ark Royal, the Harriers or Nimrod, and I do not think that I will still be in this Chamber when the two aircraft carriers retire, because I will be about 120. However, for the next 10 years, we can together mount a campaign. Its nature must be clear: that we would make ourselves ridiculous, as one of the world’s greatest maritime nations, if we built the greatest and most powerful ships we have ever constructed and then sold one of them to India, Brazil or elsewhere.
As my right hon. Friend said, extended readiness is not good enough. Our commitment, as with Trident, must be that at all times an aircraft carrier will be available. That means that we must keep our two aircraft carriers and ensure that when one goes in for a refit, the other is available. We remember how long the refit of Ark Royal took and its cost. The refits of the new class of aircraft carriers will take even longer and be even more costly.
No, I will not keep going, because others want to speak, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who no doubt has an important speech to make.
We are entitled to speak up about our concerns for the future of the Royal Navy, bearing in mind that we are a maritime and trading nation, and we must continue the campaign for the future to ensure that we have a strong and viable Royal Navy that can protect this nation, as it has done for centuries.
The word “strategic” is in the title of the document, but we have heard several examples of how it is not a clearly formed strategy at the moment. At the end of his thoughtful speech, the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), explained where we are now and said we needed to form a clear, strategic view of where we will be in future, and that is a job that we must all do.
The debate has been a little deficient—this is understandable because we are considering the matter from the point of view of defence—for the reason that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) gave. The review is supposed to be about defence and security—that is what the annunciator screens say—but the security part is clearly deficient. The document on the national strategy from the National Security Council is all very well as far as it goes, but it is not clear to me where our foreign policy is in this debate; nor do I think it is clear where the home services stand in terms of the Home Office, policing and so on.
Some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman are telling. The only way to deal with the problems is not with large toys and pieces of kit, but with good old-fashioned police work and intelligence. There must be correct mixture of capability, including people as well as machinery. The cross-governmental aspect of the review was encouraging. In the Defence Committee during the last Parliament, I said that we were in effect already having a defence review, but in an ad hoc and unguided way that was not very helpful or useful. It should have been put into a proper structure much earlier. That is the missed opportunity because the review does not cover the whole of the subject in the title—strategic defence, including security.
There are many parts to the review. I echo some of the points that have been made about Trident. As I said back in July, we cannot take Trident out; well, we could formally, descriptively and all of that, but in reality we cannot, so it was all nonsense. Whether that was said for political reasons to do with the coalition partners is for history to show. There is probably a lot of power in those arguments, but the reality is that it was nonsense to try to proceed in that way.
The other thing that disturbs me is that some parts of the review have not been mentioned today. The lack of clarity about a defence industrial strategy is hugely important. I know that there will be a Green Paper, apparently by the end of this year. It is now November the something-or-other, so I do not know what is meant by the end of this year. I must tell the Minister that I hope we see the Green Paper before the recess comes; otherwise we will have no opportunity to consider it. Apparently there will be a White Paper some time next year, and then something beyond that. What key capabilities are we going to focus on? What direction are we giving to industry? Where is the strategy? Where is the plan? It is not there. We have to form it, and it is to the benefit of us all that we do so.
There is also the reform group—or whatever it is called—that has been set up to transform the Ministry of Defence. We had the reform acquisition strategy before the election. I wrote all this down so that I would not get it wrong, but at that time the Ministry of Defence said, “Well, don’t worry about it, because we’re transforming ourselves. We have the PACE programme”—performance, agility, confidence and efficiency—“the defence acquisition ‘Terms of business agreement’ process, the equipment and support plan, the acquisition operating framework, and the capability delivery practitioners guide.” We were told that the MOD had lots of other things, doubtless all recommended by a legion of consultants of various sorts—not medical consultants, but business consultants—about internal process. That methodology will clearly be part of the MOD’s review.
A number of reviews have been mentioned in other respects. The points that have been made today about force generation are important. I attended part of the presentation by the Marines about how they do things. They give clear costings, and they were not shy about saying what things cost them or how much time they took. The hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) made an excellent contribution to the debate about what needs to happen with MOD processes. However, as all that unfolds and we do the work, my concern is where we are in that process. Who even is this “we”? What I have seen so far is a process that went forward over the summer, but which did not really involve the public or Parliament, as the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire said. In fact, there was a very narrow discussion among a narrow group of people, and it was therefore not as well informed as it should have been.
Scrutiny and involvement in the process are important, as is transparency. There was a review of Trident. Apparently something came out of the end of that review, but I have no real idea what process was used or what the results were. We need to understand better what is going to happen in that process if we are to end up with a better strategic review, which can serve as the overarching architecture, as the hon. Member for Mid Sussex put it. The review may well be the framework for that debate, but it is not the debate itself, nor is it the end product, and to that degree it is deficient.
I shall finish now, because I know that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who is carrying the entire weight of the Liberal party today, needs to speak.
Yes, but he is the only one here to make it.
There are issues to do with particular aspects of the review. I have concerns, partly because my local economy is affected, but the decision on St Athan and the training there is worrying. It is particularly worrying because, as the Chancellor and others have said, one way or another we have to find different ways of paying. We are talking about a private finance initiative. I have to say that I am not the greatest supporter of private finance initiatives in general, but what has happened prompts the question: why, having gone through a due diligence process pretty recently, was the facility not thought to be good enough? We now have a decision that that is not going to happen, but what is going to happen? All we have now is a vague declaration that something else will happen. The big question is about the training. It is about the people, and it is important that this aspect should not be lost in the review, with all the discussions about large pieces of equipment.
I could say a few words about the carriers, which we discussed on a number of occasions in the Defence Committee during the last Parliament. At one point, there was talk about having three carriers—my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) would like to hear this, but he is not in his place—but that was on the basis of having two British carriers, with the French perhaps buying one off us and our making it for them with their Slingshot deck on it. All these discussions were going on, so this is not an entirely new argument, although it is new in some respects.
I thought a remark in yesterday’s edition of the Financial Times was prescient. It pointed out that if the Ministry of Defence gains the savings it declares it is going to get, it would be a good thing if they went back to the MOD, and did not just get lost in the coffers. If there is a dividend, the MOD should have it, not the Treasury.
One issue raised by the treaty is whether markets, including the French defence market, would be opened up to British companies. Given my hon. Friend’s long membership of the Defence Committee and his close interest in defence matters, does he recollect whether the French have ever bought anything that does not have a main French component to it?
I may be old, but no—that is the short answer, and it might go back longer than me. The French have a particular view about their sovereign capability, so my hon. Friend raises an interesting issue. The Defence Committee was asked to consider the trade treaty with the United States, and did some pre-work before it was agreed. The Americans have only just agreed to the treaty—it took them three years to ratify it. Included in it was important stuff related to technology transfer and the joint strike fighter. Yes, some other nations take a very parochial view: they claim to be free traders, but they often behave in a very—how can I put this? —protectionist fashion. That balance is always there. What comes out of it, I do not know. It will be interesting to find out what lies behind some of the declarations and whether it will change that form of acquisition.
I have a few small questions for the Minister. One is about helicopters and search and rescue. This may be a small aspect of defence, but it is very important, particularly in Wales, because we have to spend a lot of time calling people from Culdrose to come and rescue mostly English people off Welsh hills. In that sense, people in England have an interest in what happens in Wales as much as Welsh people do. It gives rise to a question about particular capabilities within the review. This service is under review and there are lots of individual programmes on which we need more clarity.
Some of the decisions are about timing. It is all very well saying we will have a defence review every five years. Let me tell Government Members that they will have an iteration in 2012 and another in 2014—whether they like it or not. That is because there will be political change in Afghanistan, and there is already political change going on in America. They should not try to pretend that this will work on some prescribed artificial timetable that might seem desirable today, because it will not. Events, dear boy, events—and some of those events are largely predictable because of watersheds in the political timetable set for us elsewhere as well as here. I hope that whatever the review going forward will be—in all its different component parts—it will be open. I hope that Parliament will be directly involved in the process.
Let me first declare my interest, which is set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard), and I am really pleased that he has rejoined the Defence Select Committee, which, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), has an extremely impressive membership. I know that the Committee will do a great job in holding the Government to account, which is indeed its function.
The first duty of the state is to defend national security and the national interest. Even in today’s defence debate, we have to admit that the chief threat to this country is not military at all, but economic. It is, of course, against that backdrop that we have had the strategic defence and security review.
I might be accused of being sycophantic, but I will say this nevertheless. I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done a first-rate job in marrying our need to ensure that the country returns to an even keel economically with the ongoing need to ensure that we prepare for all foreseeable threats to the country, particularly in a world that is ever-changing.
Much has been said about aircraft carriers, which are close to my heart. I spent 18 years in the Navy, and developed a healthy respect for them during that time. During most of my career, the Harrier jump jet took off and landed on aircraft carriers. It must be said that they were rather short. I think we should bear in mind that, while STOVL—short take-off and vertical landing—has many virtues, its chief virtue is as an expedient for countries that have short aircraft carriers. I listened with interest to the remarks of the former Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), and noted his concern that we should be able to land on small plots of land. Nevertheless, the chief virtue of the aircraft carriers is connected with the fact that for several years—indeed, for decades—we had to make do with carriers that were smaller and more economical than we might have liked.
We are now to have two impressive aircraft carriers, which will be larger than the Charles de Gaulle. Their size will approach that of some of the largest ships in the American fleet that we admire so much. It is absolutely right for us to have craft that are fitted out to accommodate the naval forces of our two greatest allies, the United States and France, and I welcome the fitting of the “cats and traps”, which will provide us with that interoperability.
It strikes me as bizarre that the previous Government should have ignored the obvious desire and need for aircraft from those two nations to use our aircraft carriers, whether or not there is a formal arrangement with France to share one of them, and I am exceptionally pleased that we will now be able to do that. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary on the important work he has done, both in opposition and in government, to strengthen the links with France. It is quite wrong to say that that has happened since May. As one who was on the Defence Front Bench until recently, I know that it was a recurring theme throughout my three years there. We have a great deal in common with our neighbour, and it is not just about our willingness to pay for a defence umbrella under which others in Europe are content to shelter. Both countries, while slipping down the league table of global significance as others rise, have residual interests overseas, although France, of course, has rather more than the United Kingdom.
I congratulate the Government on resisting the temptation to close some of our remaining overseas assets. In particular, our removal from the sovereign base areas in Cyprus would have been most unwise, given the strategic situation. Akrotiri and Dhekelia offer a combination of barracks, training areas, an airfield and a seaport that is peerless, not to mention other assets in the Troodos mountains that are beyond the scope of the debate. Those of us who have had the pleasure of serving in Cyprus will attest to its importance, and to the totemic significance of any east-of-Nicosia moment that the Defence Secretary may have been forced at least to contemplate.
Inevitably, much has been said today about bombs and bullets, but I must confess that my interest is now, and has always been, in our military software, by which I mean the men and women of our armed forces. Tempting though it is for policy makers to become obsessed with equipment, not least when there are jobs and constituency interests to be considered, we must always bear in mind the greatest single factor: the bloke with the gun or, increasingly, the metal detector on the front line. I think that the SDSR has done that.
Importantly, the White Paper makes it clear that an armed forces covenant will be formalised, and I imagine that that codification will feature prominently in the Armed Forces Bill. The military covenant made its debut in April 2000 in a rather dusty Army publication, “Army Doctrine Publication Volume 5”—a snappy title! We can, however, find examples of such a covenant going back to ancient Greece. It was certainly considered in Roman Britain too, with the distribution of bits of land to those who had served in the Roman army, and it continued to the reign of Elizabeth I, who formally codified a system of pensions for those who had been disabled in action. Ironically, it rather fell apart during Cromwell’s military Protectorate, but it has been an unspoken theme of service throughout our history.
Whether or not the author of the military covenant knew it, it was at the extreme end of the spectrum of psychological contracts identified by Harry Levinson in 1962, following his study of the Midlands Utilities Company in the American midwest. The point about such contracts is that they are unspoken and unwritten. In an age of lawyers, that has a certain appeal. We are now considering codifying the military covenant and putting it in writing so that people will be able to rely on it as of right, and potentially, of course, in a court of law.
If we are rather reluctant to go down that route, we must consider the developments of the early 1990s. Many of us will recall NMS—the new management strategy—and the new managerialism introduced into the Ministry of Defence, and the impact that had on the relationship between leaders and led. Commanding officers morphed into budget holders and military units into cost centres. The relationship between commanding officers and those they commanded was subtly changed. In that context, it is right and proper that we should look at articulating the psychological contract of the military covenant in statute. I look forward to seeing the form in which it is introduced in the forthcoming armed forces Bill.
The insurgents in Afghanistan have proved capable of being flexible in their tactics. The Taliban lost, as they were bound to, in the head-to-head early conflict in Helmand and Kandahar. They then shifted to the use of IEDs, and that proved very successful, as all of us will know who have spent time in Birmingham and at Headley Court and who represent constituencies with a military element. The Taliban’s tactics are now changing once again. They are developing their own brand of Sharpe’s Rifles, chosen men who are rather less appealing even than the men of the South Essex.
It is worth bearing in mind the threat that still exists, and is likely to continue to exist, from IEDs. They are a mortal threat to our men and women and a bitter fact of life for the civilian population. I know that the Government have taken a real interest in this and that the Prime Minister has taken the trouble to familiarise himself with the workings of the Vallon metal detector that is currently used by our troops.
I am pleased to note that a contract has now been let to improve the collective counter-IED training of our troops, especially as it has been let to a firm in my constituency. We have a digital record of aptitude and performance in training, and it has been shown to be extremely variable. Will the Minister ensure that the value of that highly granular information is exploited further so as to allow us to assess post-deployment how effective the new training has been, and perhaps refine it further? Will the Minister also say what further personal protective equipment our troops are to have to reduce the toll taken by IEDs?
For servicemen with children there are few issues of greater concern than education, and that is rightly cited in the White Paper. The Department for Education has been consulting on a pupil premium for service children. There is no doubt that schools with substantial numbers of service children are at a distinct disadvantage because of the extra costs involved in their education. I would cite the New Close primary school and the Avenue school in Warminster as prime examples of that. If we are serious about the concept of “no disadvantage” from military service, we must ensure that the extra costs relating to service children are properly reflected in the funding formula.
I have an abiding interest in military health care, so I am very pleased to see a substantial reflection in the White Paper of the importance of doing more. I am particularly keen to see improvements in military mental health care, and I very much welcome the fact that that is cited specifically in the White Paper. However, it is important that we bear in mind that it is not just about combat stress and post-traumatic stress disorder, and that we need to look more widely at mental health issues, including those relating to service families and issues such as alcoholism and the overuse of alcohol, depression and so on.
It is important that we are far more proactive in dealing with combat stress, because most people, including the general public, would accept that of all those conditions the ones that the military has a direct hand in causing need to be addressed as a priority. Although, numerically, the incidence of PTSD—combat stress—might not be vast in the great scheme of things, men and women experience it by virtue of their exposure on the front line, so if we are serious about the military covenant, we must do our utmost to reduce the chances of it occurring in the first place and to manage it when it does. The key to that is being proactive and ensuring that we look for people with problems before they wait, often for many years, before seeking out medical attention. It is important to go where young men and women are if we want to find out whether they are having problems and to signpost services where they are available—and that means going online.
I very much welcome the extra mental health professionals whom the Government have announced they will recruit to improve mental health care for this community. I also welcome the prospect of a veterans’ information service, by which we will inform veterans, after they have left, of the services available to them, and not simply cut them free and let them go, as we have done in the past.
I know of the hon. Gentleman’s particular interest in medical services and mental health. He will be aware that the British Medical Association has made suggestions on improving general practitioners’ understanding about the medical treatment of those who have served. Does he have a view about that?
Yes, I do. I commend the BMA for its efforts, as I do the Royal College of General Practitioners, which has recently put out a leaflet trying to apprise GPs of the problems that may be faced by patients who have served in the military. That is not an easy task. Most GPs are faced daily with a whole pile of stuff and will jettison most of it, so getting the message across to them is extremely difficult, given that a relatively small number of their patients will have served and may have a problem as a result of their service. That is not to say that we must not do what we can to raise the prominence of this issue.
In conclusion, may I say how much I welcome the emphasis in the White Paper on the military covenant? It is essential that we try to codify it in some way, and I look forward to it becoming a far more prominent part of the way in which we think about the service community and veterans in the future.
As we approach the defence and security review and discuss how we are going to ensure our future defence and security, one thing that we must be very conscious of is the fact that this is not just the responsibility of our military. My father was in the merchant navy in the last war and was on a merchant vessel going to Russia. His ship was sunk by German submarines and he then spent considerable time in Russia, suffering extreme privations as a result of that sinking. That might be one reason why I am interested in maritime security.
Another reason might be my coastal constituency, and the fact that my friends and neighbours are involved in search and rescue operations on a daily basis. Seeing how the mood of the sea changes is part of our daily life. I do not have any military bases in my constituency, but there are hopes that it will play a key part in the future development of RAF St Athan and the joint training college that was to be established there. My local authority spent a considerable amount of money preparing for that, and still hopes that something positive will come of it. As a member of the Defence Committee, I am aware of the central strategic role of the Royal Air Force in intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capability. My colleague on the Committee, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), has mentioned the importance of intelligence in any future war, and the RAF and ISTAR are certainly critical to that.
I want to focus on the unbelievable, short-sighted and downright dangerous decision to cut the Nimrod aircraft. I cannot believe that the decision came from the Ministry of Defence: it must have been a Treasury-led decision, because only a bean counter could have made it. I honestly cannot see why else it would have been made.
Last Sunday I was at Rest bay in my constituency, where people had come from across south Wales, as well as from north Somerset and north Devon, because of the proposed loss of the search and rescue capability at Chivenor, which rescues people across those areas. We do not know what is happening in that regard and I urge that we should consider seriously our search and rescue capability, particularly on our coasts and for our mountains. That Sunday gathering was attended by experts in the field. I spoke to Phil Missen from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Ian Coles from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, both of whom expressed concern about Nimrod being cut.
Back in my office, when I was preparing this speech, I had my own little personal cyber-attack. As I was typing away, I received an e-mail in my inbox from Michael Hiscocks in my constituency. It said:
“With the cancellation of the Nimrod, how does the RAF intend to conduct long range surveillance of the sea, not only against the submarine and surface threat, but also long range search and rescue that the Nimrods and her crews so ably carried out over the years?”
That one paragraph written by a member of the public in an e-mail to a member of the Defence Committee, who happens to be their constituency MP, asks the major question that must be dealt with in today’s debate.
In his leaked letter to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Defence made it clear that the primary objective of the strategic defence and security review is to set direction, and that decisions should be based on the risks and threats to the security of our country now and in future. He made it clear that the review should not merely be a cost-cutting exercise, and said that the primary duty of the Government and the SDSR was not to undermine the UK’s ability to defend itself. He also said—I am sorry that he is not here now—that the Government’s words would be “thrown back” at them. Well, I am going to throw some words back at him today for getting things wrong. I do so despite the huge respect I have for him, as he has done an excellent job so far. However, we in the House must support him in getting the decision about the Nimrod MRA4 changed.
The Nimrod MRA4 has several key functions. It forms part of military operations, is an advanced reconnaissance tool, helps to ensure the safety of civil national infrastructure, assists in maritime search and rescue operations, and assists in the defence of our dependent territories. The Secretary of State also said:
“Deletion of the Nimrod MR4 will limit our ability to deploy maritime forces rapidly into high-threat areas, increase the risk to the Deterrent, compromise maritime CT (counter terrorism), remove long range search and rescue, and delete one element of our Falklands reinforcement plan.”
So, we all agree: the cancellation of the Nimrod has left the UK with a grave gap in its maritime patrol capability.
As a maritime nation—and we do remain a maritime nation—monitoring and defending our sea is a critical element in the maintenance of our security. The Nimrod’s maritime reconnaissance capability was to have protected our nuclear deterrent, our nation’s ultimate defence, and supported royal naval vessels and submarines in our waters and way beyond. The Nimrods were to have fulfilled a hugely important civil role, providing 24/7 search and rescue services for seafarers, as well as defending vital national infrastructure. Our nuclear power stations and our North sea oil rigs would have all been defended thanks to the Nimrod.
We have talked about working closely with our allies to ensure that we have access to the equipment, training and personnel that we need as a necessary part of our defence, but we cannot rely on our allies to pick up on the capabilities that we will lose by not bringing the Nimrod aircraft into service. The Nimrod MRA4 has far greater capabilities than the aircraft that our allies either use now or have planned for the near future. It has world-leading anti-submarine warfare technology—a particular strength in the UK. We have that strength because of our history, and because submarines carry a vital part of our national security. So there we are: submarines carry the most vital part of our national security, and we are going to scrap the means of protecting them.
It worries me that our defence capability is up for sale. We are selling off some of our defence industry’s crown jewels, and selling on to potential enemies—we do not know where they will be—those capabilities at a time when we are in desperate need. I totally object to that, because anti-submarine warfare is not a relic of the cold war. If we are to protect our aircraft carriers when they are deployed in high-risk areas, who will provide the air cover? We recently lost track of a Russian submarine in the Atlantic for three weeks. We cannot rely on allies who are comparatively poorly resourced, or hope that they will buy the Nimrods, save us the money and provide us with the security.
The Nimrod’s civil use must be emphasised, too. Let us look at the history of its search and rescue capability. When the Fastnet yacht race was hit by storms in 1979, and when the Alexander Kielland oil rig overturned in the North sea, Nimrods provided vital cover. They also did so during the Piper Alpha disaster and, just recently, for the Athena fishing vessel, which needed the Nimrod’s capability because Sea King helicopters could spend only 20 minutes hovering above the vessel. We must remember that we have an international obligation to provide long-range search and rescue missions. We will not be able to adhere to the international convention on maritime search and rescue, which we signed in 1979, if we cancel the new Nimrod.
Let us also remember the use of maritime surveillance capabilities against drug smuggling, human trafficking and piracy. The new maritime patrol aircraft, of which the Nimrod was the mainstay, had the capacity to counter drug-running operations in the Caribbean, fight pirate activity in the gulf of Arabia and form a crucial part of maritime counter-terrorism operations.
It has been a long time since the Conservative Government needed to reinforce the Falkland Islands. I pay particular tribute to the speech made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), who recognised the vulnerability of the Falkland Islands, particularly given the growing demand for energy. The UK’s claim to energy resources in the south Atlantic, which are being explored as we speak, must be safeguarded. The Nimrod provides the only capability that could deploy to the Falklands within 48 hours. It can provide early indicators and warnings for forces that follow. The Royal Navy would take three weeks to deploy there. That is 48 hours for a Nimrod, but three weeks for the Royal Navy.
The Nimrod MRA4 has not been cleared for overland operations, but it does have a tremendously sophisticated suite of new sensors that would make a good surveillance and support asset for land operations. I fail to see why our security and defence capability has been reduced by the removal of this asset. It has the capacity to provide maritime eyes and ears at long range—up to 4,000 miles. Where else do we have a 4,000-mile capability for intelligence? It can move very rapidly—within two hours—and with persistence it can fly for 12 hours without refuelling. No other asset has that capability.
That is not a matter for me. As a member of the Defence Committee, my objective is to look at what the Government propose and ask whether they are providing the best defence and security for the UK. Removing this platform is not in the best interests of Britain’s defence and security. I defy any Member to contradict me—and the Secretary of State for Defence, who said exactly that in his letter to the Prime Minister.
I acknowledge that the procurement history of the Nimrod MRA4 has been difficult. But past problems bear no relation to the decision not to bring it to service. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), made it clear that the decision to cancel the project was based on the future support costs of the aircraft—not the past spend, but the future costs. Considering what we have spent on research and development, the capability that we have put in place and the versatility of the aircraft, saving the modest future running costs is short-sighted.
If we really cannot find the pocket money that we need for those running costs, why do we not at least consider mothballing rather than selling off? Let us mothball, so that when the Treasury wakes up to the enormous capabilities that we would have, it can bring the Nimrod back into operational service. In the meantime, we must make sure that we do not lose the skills of the Nimrod aviators; there must be ongoing training and skills development to make sure that the capability is retained.
The Under-Secretary also said that the Ministry of Defence had
“sought to mitigate the gap in capability”
produced by the early retirement of the Nimrod MR2, through the use of a range of other assets:
“Type 23 Frigates, Merlin Anti Submarine Warfare helicopters and Hercules C-130 aircraft, and by relying, where appropriate, on assistance from allies and partners.”—[Official Report, 28 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 451W.]
This was meant to be a short-term solution while the new Nimrods were developed, and we now need to know what longer-term plan will be put in place. How long are we going to rely on a patchwork of aircraft to fill the gap left by the Nimrod?
The decision not to cancel the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent has demonstrated a belief in the need for us to maintain a constant and secure independent nuclear deterrent, yet we cannot provide the reconnaissance to ensure the safety of those submarines and of our nuclear deterrent.
We are going to get rid of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers as well, it seems, and we are cancelling the aircraft that would defend the carriers. It does not make sense. We have talked about asymmetrical warfare and the threat to our nation from individuals and groups rather than nation states, yet we are going to reduce our capability to protect national infrastructure and essential offshore assets, particularly our energy capabilities.
The Secretary of State concluded his letter to the Prime Minister by saying:
“Cuts, there will have to be. Coherence, we cannot do without”.
Not bringing the Nimrod into service does not represent a coherent approach to the defence of our country. I hope that the Treasury will listen and that the Ministry of Defence will yet again argue for this piece of equipment so vital for our defence and security.
I commend the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on alighting on a vital capability. There was one thing that she did not say about it: if it were deployed, it would be the envy of the Americans, such is the sophistication of the capability. It is also a valued asset of many of our European NATO allies and I hope that even now, at this eleventh hour, there might be ways to explore how we can share the burden of the capability so that it can be retained. I fear that that underlines how the defence review was done in a rush and that, whatever the thinking in advance, it ended in the inevitable collision between the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury which, as the letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the Prime Minister advertised, threatened to be even more destructive than it was.
I would further underline, as the Secretary of State admitted, that the review has been distorted by our activities and the burden of operations in Afghanistan. To that extent, the review is raiding future capability to sustain current operations, which is an unstrategic approach. I fully accept—I think we have to understand the predicament faced by those on the Treasury Bench—that the Government have inherited a very difficult situation and not just in the Ministry of Defence. Of course the national deficit has to be addressed, but there is a deeper malaise at the heart of the dysfunctional relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the rest of Government and, indeed, in dysfunctional relationships at the MOD.
As shadow Secretary of State for two years and a member for four years of the Select Committee on Defence, I watched with increasing perplexity post-9/11 our first Afghan deployment, the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent deployment to Helmand, as chaos grew due to policy that was increasingly reactive to events and less and less in control of them. There was increasingly an apparent lack of strategic thinking behind what we were doing. As we started calling for NATO to develop a new strategic concept, I began to ask myself who held the UK’s strategic concept and whether there was one. That was the starting point for the Public Administration Committee’s inquiry once I was elected its Chairman in this Parliament. Our report entitled, “Who does UK National Strategy?” is on the Table and tagged for this debate. The evidence, I am afraid, was more disturbing than I had imagined.
The word “strategy” itself has become corrupted. It has become a tool of management-speak for consultancies and people who do not really know what they are doing when they use it. We heard evidence from Sir Rob Fry and Commodore Stephen Jermy, who were both involved in decisions in the Ministry of Defence about the deployment to Helmand. They said that it was driven primarily by military concerns, without any strategic thinking going on in Whitehall about the reasons for it or its consequences.
In one rather telling piece of evidence, Peter Hennessy, shortly to be ennobled as Lord Hennessy, says that politicians too often reach for the word “vision”, and that we should be ready to excise that word with our red buzzer, because it is an excuse for a politician to disconnect his aspirations and the sunlit uplands that he dreams of from the reality of the world in which he, and the civil servants who have to deliver the policy that he is seeking to deliver, have to live.
We found that Whitehall Departments each have their own version of strategy, with their own strategy units, but none of them knows what they are meant to contribute to national strategy, if they even knew what that was. That applies to the Treasury in particular. There is no doubt that the main strategic effort of this Government has to be deficit reduction, but I think that, as far as the Treasury is concerned, it is the Government’s sole strategic effort. To have a sole strategic effort is strategic blindness, not strategy. It may be a necessity to have that imperative driving the whole Government at this time, but other strategic priorities have to be recognised.
Strategy is not just about reconciling ends, ways and means. It is not about having a document that is published as a Command Paper and stacked on a shelf afterwards—job done. Strategy is a state of mind. It is a process of thinking that has to be ongoing, has to be done continuously, and has to be continually adapted. A grand strategy, or a national strategy, is about reconciling all the instruments of statecraft to the main ends of promoting the security, peace and prosperity of the people of these islands. It is evident that both the national security strategy and the defence and security review lack strategic thinking—the consistency of analysis and assessment that is necessary to give them strategic coherence.
The problem is that the work simply has not been done, because Whitehall lacks the capacity to do it. There are no people working for the National Security Council or the strategy units of different Departments who are tasked with doing or trained to do such work. Some people say, “Strategists are not trained, they are born”, but that is like saying that a great gymnast is born a gymnast. Of course, someone has to have talent to be a great gymnast or a great concert pianist, but they also have to put in the work and the training in order to be successful before they give that first recital. There used to be a six-month civil service course on strategic thinking; at the moment, it consists of one module of one week’s training.
That lack of strategy is evident in all the contradictions in the documents. The national security strategy says that it is the first duty of Government to protect our people. Well, that is clearly not so. The first priority of Government is not defence. Health, pensions, schools, the Department for International Development, and even the European Union budget have taken priority over the defence of these islands in the comprehensive spending review.
The words “national interest” are sprinkled liberally throughout the documents. They are mentioned 26 times in the national security strategy and six times in the SDSR, and were even mentioned once by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in his comprehensive spending review statement—but that was only in connection with justifying the increase in spending on overseas aid. In all those mentions, there is very little definition of what our national interests actually are. When I tabled a parliamentary question to the Prime Minister to ask him, he referred me to paragraph 2.12 of the national security strategy:
“Our security, prosperity and freedom are interconnected and mutually supportive. They constitute our national interest.”
That is really sub-GCSE stuff. If that is the depth of thinking that has gone into an assessment of our national interests, we can hardly expect much coherence from the Government’s documents.
The real inconsistency at the heart of all three of the Government’s reviews is the attempt to reconcile what the Foreign Secretary has said about having no strategic shrinkage and expanding our influence on the world stage with the savage defence cuts that will lead to a reduction of one third in our deployable capability. That is what the defence planning assumptions actually show. There has been an attempt to connect the Foreign Secretary’s vision of our foreign policy with the reality of the deficit reduction programme, but it has not been achieved.
Our Committee concluded that political strategic leadership is essential if we are to have a coherent national strategy. Strategic thinking is vital, and we need to examine all the threats, possibilities and opportunities, not just certain threats and contingencies. Within Whitehall we need challenge, with alternatives coming up through the system and people conducting thorough analysis. Ideally, we want a national centre of strategic assessment, protected for secrecy in a similar way to the intelligence services and able to provide a permanent resource to Ministers.
I am grateful for the question, but I will continue. [Interruption.] With respect, that was not the purpose of the Committee’s report. We were not trying to write a national strategy; we were simply trying to advertise the fact that the capacity for developing a coherent national strategy does not exist.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is on to something, and I know that a number of people are examining his report. Why does he think that we as a political class have shrunk to pragmatic reactions, rather than daring ones? Does he think politicians would be rewarded or punished if they dared to be strategic?
The right hon. Gentleman asks an interesting question, which has been raised with me before. There are two reasons why politicians fear such a challenge. The first is that politicians who are busy running their Departments do not like people running into their offices with contrary ideas and imperatives. The other reason is that if they ask for alternatives to be developed, they say, “Whatever you do, don’t put it on to a piece of paper and don’t e-mail it to anybody, in case it leaks out.”
We are embarked on a deficit reduction programme that depends on a certain economic out-turn. I just hope that the Treasury has run through the alternative plans B, C and D, in case things do not turn out as we expect. The problem is that we have got into the habit of thinking in closed systems. Economists in particular work in mathematical equations and like tame, predictable problems. Economics is all about prediction and certainty, with the intention of being vindicated by what happens. We live in a world in which problems are not tame but wicked and unpredictable. As we face greater and greater global challenges, we must be more prepared for the unpredictability of the global security, economic and geopolitical environments. We therefore need the capacity for strategy.
I shall give a brief example. I gather that after the global banking crisis started, Her Majesty the Queen asked how nobody had seen that it would happen, given that it was so big. The answer is that one body did foresee a global banking collapse being a major security threat to the UK. It was the advanced research and assessment group, based at Shrivenham, and I am afraid that in March the right hon. Member for Coventry North East as Defence Secretary closed it down, to save £1 million. [Interruption.] It was such a small cut, he did not even realise it was being made. I have no doubt it did not cross his desk. It was shut down because it had made enemies by telling truth to power, and that is the capacity that needs to exist in Whitehall.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in the debate. As a new Member, I have to say that there have been a number of distinguished and knowledgeable contributions from both sides of the House.
Along with every other Member, I would like to place on record my admiration for the work of our armed forces and for those who work for the Ministry of Defence, particularly at this time. Since being elected in May, I have had the privilege of meeting constituents who have served, or are serving, in the armed forces. A number of constituents work for the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces in a civilian capacity. Too often—although not this afternoon, I am pleased to say—they are dismissed with pejorative labels, when the reality is that they often do important work of great value to the armed forces, and some do so in dangerous circumstances.
As the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) said, the previous Government announced the first ever strategic defence review within a month of taking office in 1997 to determine the future of the UK’s defence policy. At the time, the then Defence Secretary, now Lord Robertson, who is one of my predecessors in the Hamilton part of my constituency, said:
“Hundreds of experts from within the MOD, the Armed Forces and elsewhere have given a great deal of time over the past year to produce the most significant reshaping of our Armed Forces in a generation…It is absolutely right that we should have consulted so widely”.
As the right hon. Gentleman noted earlier, that review took 13 months. It was comprehensive in its scope, forensic in its detail and rooted in the needs and priorities of our defence. It would obviously be foolhardy to measure such exercises by such shallow criteria alone, but the strategic defence review in 1998 ran to 390 pages. Given the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) at the start of the debate, I should say that I am not sure how many of those pages were blank, but I am sure there were a lot fewer of them, proportionately, than in the recent strategic defence and security review.
There is a real contrast between the two exercises, not only in the time taken and the depth of content in the reports, but in the detail and the consultation undertaken, which leads many of us to express real concerns about aspects of the current review and the consequences that we will all have to face as a result.
I would like to point out one contrast between the review then and the review now. We now have the National Security Council, which is bringing in a lot of information from various Departments, such as the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that improvement on the process that the Labour Government followed between 1997 and 1998?
I was just going on to say that there are differences in the circumstances in 1997 and now. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) has talked about some of the security aspects of the review, and I am sure that he will go into that further if he catches the Deputy Speaker’s eye.
Obviously, the economic circumstances were more benign in 1997 than they have been recently. Reviewing defence requirements in 2010 is not an unnecessary exercise, but as the Secretary of State’s own words in his correspondence with the Prime Minister exposed, perhaps brutally:
“this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR and more like a ‘super CSR’”.
The strength of the link between the defence and security review and the comprehensive spending review has been widely acknowledged as a deficiency in the strategic nature of the defence and security review. Given the explicit link to cost, it is even more important that the SDSR approach should have been thorough.
That brings me to a specific concern, which has been raised by a number of constituents. Perhaps the Minister will have time to address it at least in passing in his closing remarks. The decision to rebase our forces from Germany is in principle welcome. The presence of UK armed forces on mainland Europe was at one time necessary, but perhaps the need is no longer so pressing. The aim to return half our personnel from Germany to the UK by 2015 and the remainder by 2020, as page 32 of the review states, is laudable, and I am sure there will be very little opposition. However, the lack of detail on how that will be achieved undermines the nature of the review and its thoroughness. In response to a number of parliamentary questions, the MOD said that more detailed work will be required and that it is too early to say what the financial impact will be. It troubles me that the Government have taken such a decision in the context of a cost-influenced—if not cost-driven—review exercise without considering the cost.
One estimate is that the eventual cost could be many millions, and I believe that the Minister is on record as saying that there will be a long-term saving, but there is little detail on when that saving will be achieved or on the figures on which any projection of savings is based.
I had responsibility for this matter as a Minister and we looked at rebasing from Germany. The estimate back in 1994 when we brought most of the RAF back was something like £5 billion. Under the treaty, there is a responsibility to write to the German Government to inform them that we want to withdraw. I made some inquiries this week and found out that that has not yet happened.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which I think brings to bear an important aspect of the matter that has not been addressed—I look to the Minister to do so in his closing remarks.
I am raising the issue of rebasing not to devalue the point that defence and security interests should be paramount, but to illustrate that even when it appears that costs have been prioritised, as in the review, there is insufficient detail. That leads to concerns that other matters have not been considered in sufficient detail. Specifically on rebasing, it is unfair on returning personnel and their families to announce their return to the UK without providing detail to allow them to prepare. What does the Minister say to a family who have lived and worked in Germany for the past 20 years and who now face the prospect of a return to the UK in five or 10 years? On what criteria will decisions on when to return troops be made? What assessment has been made of the suitability of using RAF bases that are no longer used as such for housing Army personnel? There are a series of unanswered questions and we need answers—if not this afternoon, soon.
The detailed work of which the Minister spoke in his parliamentary answer—it was a vague but not necessarily unhelpful or unrevealing answer—should have been carried out before, or at least parallel to, work on the strategic review. An SDSR that takes no account of the cost of rebasing troops from Germany to the UK and no account of where service personnel and their families will be housed, and that gives no detail on exactly how the draw-down of personnel from 20,000 to zero in 10 years will happen, has a gaping hole in the middle of it. I hope the Minister will respond to at least some of those points in his remarks.
I should first like to associate myself with the tribute paid to our armed services and their families by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames)—a family member of ours is on a second tour of duty in Afghanistan. I am also delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), because among the key terms in the review are “strategy” and “strategic thinking”. Although I am not an expert in every aspect of the armed forces, nor on every aspect of procurement, I have been involved, through the centre for defence studies, in the international framework and landscape in which our country must operate in future.
Some would say that the last century was dominated by the politics of ideas, whether communism, terrorist ideology or issues of nationhood, including in the Balkans. I believe that this century will be dominated by the politics of economics. The ability to satisfy the demands of domestic audiences will shape international politics, and may well make international engagement more vicious and less high-minded than previously. Even in countries where democracy is not exactly the byword, such as China and Russia, the economic needs of domestic populations will determine international policies and strategies. Britain will be no different.
This more competitive and aggressive economic climate will be based around access to resources and global trade. We are particularly vulnerable to threats to globalised trade: we import 50% of our food, the prices of which are expected to rise by 40% over the next 10 years; we will be importing by sea more than 35% of our gas supplies, while energy costs will rise and be subject to greater politicisation; and imported minerals such as chromium, cobalt and manganese are crucial to the future of our electronics businesses. These minerals are a finite resource, and we will no longer be competing for these resources just with our natural allies. We and the rest of the world are totally interdependent, and the rest of the world is getting a whole lot more acquisitive and competitive.
What are the threats that our defence capacity must address in this economic paradigm? Piracy is one. The Somalis are merely adopters of an old entrepreneurial business. With food price spikes, the increase in energy costs and limited mineral resources, it is calculated that the impact of piracy has only just begun. Last year alone, 217 merchant ships were abducted by pirates, and this was not just confined to the horn of Africa. The British Chamber of Shipping has stated:
“Climate change and scarcity of resources will bring unknown and destabilising influences at sea – as we all fight for vanishing resources.”
However, it is not only sea routes that could be disrupted. I believe that there will be an increase in land piracy. I was involved in the Caucasus and worked on the pipeline policy across central Asia, and I believe that there will be an increase in land piracy, such as energy pipeline hijacking and the illegal sequestration of essential mineral resources, which could fundamentally disrupt our domestic economy.
The MOD has an important role to play, in relation to special forces with specialist knowledge, logistical assistance to support countries whose mineral resources are at risk or vulnerable to criminal or state-sponsored sequestration, the global reach from our aircraft carriers, our frigates playing their part in keeping trade routes open, and minesweepers securing key pinch points across the globe. Neither can we underestimate the diplomatic value of our military when it supports other military forces around the world. It is respected by the world and can secure our trade routes and aid the capacity of other countries to secure theirs.
That is how our constituents will judge the defence of this country. Will there be affordable food on our supermarket shelves? Will we be able to keep the lights on across Britain?
Most certainly. However, my point is also about how we look at those risks. We must start looking at them from a domestic perspective. We are part of the globalised trade environment, and if globalised trading is threatened, our domestic economic capability, our recovery and everything about our growth is threatened. When we talk to our constituents about the strategic defence review, and the budget that defence requires, we must make the case that it is about ensuring that we do not get into an inflationary cycle of rocketing food prices, that energy arrives in this country safely and without the increased cost of convoys and supply from unstable countries, and that our high-tech businesses can access the critical resources that will keep Britain open for business.
The free movement of global resources will be the prize, and must form part of the strategy. I am encouraged by the strategic defence review, and the fact that at the heart of the illustration of how we take the defence review forward, strategy and policy are guiding us. I hope that we will all take note of the recent report on strategy and on thoughtful planning that has just been published. I believe that we have got the framework right; we must now get the texture right, as well as the context in which this country will have to survive in future.
It is a pleasure to follow the excellent speech of the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys). She rightly widened the debate beyond the defence part of the defence and security review to include other aspects of global policy that affect the security of our country. That is what I intend to do in the brief time available, and I shall try to follow her example in not taking up all my allocation.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) correctly predicted that I am here not to increase my knowledge of defence, although if I had wanted to spend four hours listening to the country’s experts on defence, this would be the place to be. It has been a fascinating debate. As the Chairman of the Defence Committee said, we have in this House people who know a huge amount about the subject.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) on his appointment as shadow Secretary of State, and all the Front Bench team.
In the time available, I want to raise three aspects of the review, the first of which is security and the importance of recognising the counter-terrorism agenda within the wider defence and security strategy. I shall probably make a loyalist speech as far as the Government are concerned, certainly compared with some of the speeches from Conservative Members, because I fully support the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy in the security review.
The third and fourth parts of the review document deal with counter-terrorism and acknowledge this country’s success over several years in joining up various aspects of government. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) is here, because he was co-author of the Home Affairs Committee report that strongly recommended the establishment of the National Security Council, which the previous Government strongly resisted, although I never discovered why. As soon as the new Government took office, they accepted the Committee’s recommendation, and we now have a Committee that spans all Departments and all the experts who sit under the chairmanship of the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister and can draw all the strands together to look at the security of the country as a whole.
My second point is about the counter-terrorism budget, and I believe that the review document preserves that budget. From what I have read of it, there is a commitment to ensuring that the previous Government’s initiatives and the new initiatives proposed in the strategy are pursued. That means—I hope—that the fears of people such as John Yates, the head of counter-terrorism in the Metropolitan police, will not be realised. The House will recall that in a closed session of the Association of Chief Police Officers conference earlier this year, Mr Yates raised the possibility that the counter-terrorism budget would be cut. I think that the review preserves that budget. Indeed, from the opportunities that I and others have had to probe the Government on the issue, I think that that aspect of the home affairs budget is to be preserved, although perhaps the Minister will confirm that when he replies to this debate.
My final point concerns Yemen. I should declare my interest: I was born in Yemen and I spent the first 11 years of my life there. I have led parliamentary delegations to Yemen over my 23 years in this House, and the only reason we have not visited this year is the security situation. However, I plan to go in the next few months with other Members of Parliament, and if anyone would like to come—including you, Mr Deputy Speaker—we would be delighted to take them. My concern is that people outside this House have talked about Yemen as though it were a failed state. It is not a failed state; in fact, it is probably the most democratic of all the states in the middle east, with the exception of Israel. It is, however, a country that is capable of failing, which is why we need to give it enormous support. We need to engage with the Yemeni Government and the Yemeni people. We need to ensure that our international development budget is increased, and not kept to its current levels, because even though Yemen is one of the most beautiful countries on earth, it is also one of the poorest. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—as the branch of al-Qaeda in Yemen is called—is determined to feed on the poverty of the Yemeni people and make the case to them that nobody is interested in what happens in Yemen.
The hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) paid tribute to the security services and the authorities at East Midlands airport when the Home Secretary made her statement on Monday. As the constituency MP for the airport, he will know of the concern—indeed, the shock—of local people that a package that started off in Yemen should have gone through Germany and ended up at East Midlands airport. While we have been sitting here over the past four hours of this debate—I am not saying that I have been sitting here for that time; rather, the House itself has been sitting—the French Interior Minister has made a statement. He has said that it is thought that one of the bombs—we do not know whether it was the one on its way to Dubai or the one going to East Midlands airport—was going to be detonated within 17 minutes of its being found.
There is a serious problem, but what do we do to help Yemen? We do not cut off all its freight, and we certainly do not want to stop people coming here from Yemen. Instead, we need to give Yemen the security equipment that we promised at the London conference in January. Prime Minister Gordon Brown called a conference of the Friends of Yemen, who were given certain assurances, one of which was that equipment would be sent to San’a and Aden. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head, but the answer is yes, and other Ministers have confirmed that to me. There was an assurance that security equipment would be given to Yemen, so that it could perform the task that is being performed at our airports in this country, thereby preventing packages of that kind and any passengers carrying such devices from leaving Yemen.
My message to the Government is that if we are talking about the security of our country, we have to remember that security does not stop at our borders. The hon. Member for South Thanet talked about piracy off Somalia, another country that is in great difficulties. What do we do? We do not leave those countries on their own; we engage with them and ensure that they have support. As part of the review, I hope that we will understand that issue. If we do, not only will the people of Yemen and the world be safer; more importantly, the people of our country will be, too.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this extremely important debate.
I thank the Secretary of State and his colleagues for the work they have done on the strategic defence and security review in extremely difficult circumstances. It has been said on many occasions that the state of the public finances, together with under-investment in defence over a considerable period, has put this Administration in a near-impossible position, yet the outcomes of the SDSR are tough and realistic but forward-looking. The SDSR and the national security strategy have, by and large, been well received. I think that their common theme is flexibility and adaptability.
My hon. Friends the Members for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) and for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) said that, after this debate and its due consideration, it ultimately comes down to the individuals who are on the front line. That being the case, I want to talk about defence training.
Naturally, I was disappointed that the Metrix consortium plan for a single tri-service defence training establishment in St Athan in my constituency was not viable. I am pleased, however, that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have said that St Athan remains the preferred location for the defence training solution. Decisions such as this cannot be taken in isolation, and the communities surrounding St Athan recognise that fact.
I have had the opportunity to question in private and in more detail the Secretary of State and some of his colleagues, and I am grateful for their responses, some of which it would be inappropriate to share here. I have gained a better understanding of the reasons for the failure of the Metrix consortium. I look forward to further meetings with the Secretary of State and his colleagues to try to establish what St Athan can do to put itself in a strong position as we go forward with the defence review. As a strong supporter of the plan, I am disappointed that Metrix could not deliver a commercially robust proposal within the desired time scale. Clearly, I would have welcomed a £14 billion investment in my constituency, but it must also be right for the nation and for the nation’s security needs.
Questions have been raised by constituents about the appropriateness of providing training through a private finance initiative scheme under a 30-year contract. This raises and highlights two key points, the first of which is whether defence training should be conducted by a private firm. I am a fan of PFI in general. The transfer of risk is a key benefit of PFI, but in defence terms the public purse will always have to carry the risk and bail out any failure. That raises questions about whether PFI is appropriate for defence.
The second issue is the term of the contract. The public purse will be hit hard unless all details are specified and agreed at the signing of the agreement. It is difficult to know what will be all the requirements over a 30-year contract; our technical training requirements 30 years ago were very different from what we need now. That demonstrates the difficulty of planning over a 30-year period in a PFI contract, especially as the nature of the risks we face these days changes at a much quicker pace. It would be useful to have the Secretary of State’s and the Minister’s views on the timing and particularly on the use of PFI for defence projects and, most specifically, for defence training.
The training needs of the forces still need to be addressed. The reasons for the previous Government’s defence training review remain. We need to offer our forces the best training possible to protect themselves and our nation when fighting in the line of duty and to equip them with transferable skills when they leave the services. To my mind, that is an essential element of the military covenant. The principle and benefits behind the tri-service training model are still true, and the run-down state of training establishments, as inherited from the previous Administration, is still a matter of concern and needs to be addressed.
The social and economic demands of today’s trainees are far greater than they were in the past, and we need to match their expectations. The positive influence over the different cultures of each individual service that a tri-service facility would bring can only be beneficial. It was interesting to note from the UK-French security co-operation data that there is a plan to develop a joint expeditionary force involving all three services. When I refer to a joint force, I mean that it would involve all three services; it would not necessarily involve the French. Training will be provided. The proposal underlines the importance of co-operation between the services. We also need to offer transferable skills that members of the forces can use when they leave Her Majesty’s service.
It was alarming to read that even in 1999, when the previous Government launched the defence training review—incidentally, the fact that the process began 11 years ago highlights the delays created by that Government—site running costs represented between 40% and 50% of the total costs of the training establishment. That is clearly not efficient spending. Training is currently delivered at nine key locations. A considerable amount of technical training is common to all services, and it obviously does not make sense for identical functions to be delivered over several locations.
I was going to ask the hon. Gentleman earlier what he had been told by Ministers, in secret or otherwise, about why the St Athan plan would not go ahead, but as his speech has unfolded it has become clear what the excuses are. Given that he agrees that St Athan should still be the preferred site and given that PFI is not the right way of financing it, has he received any undertaking that it will be financed by general spend from the Ministry of Defence?
The Secretary of State made clear in his written statement that there would be a statement about defence training by the spring, and that written statement specified St Athan as the preferred location for the defence training solution. We could not ask for a clearer statement than that. However, I also benefited from meetings with Ministers, including the Secretary of State. One of those meetings, incidentally, was offered on an all-party basis, but unfortunately Labour Members chose not to turn up. Obviously, information would have been shared with the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues if he was unable to attend himself.
The hon. Gentleman may be satisfied with that, but I think that the position is still very unclear. It is also unclear where St Athan will fit in with the training that is required elsewhere in the country. It seems that the hon. Gentleman has been handed a Confederate dollar. A better explanation is needed.
If the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) had not left after a bit of a spat because there was a mix-up over the room changes, that information would have been shared with him. It is not necessarily appropriate to share such information in public, although I have been reassured that more information will be given in public as time goes on.
There are also significant opportunities to introduce modern training methods involving the latest technologies, thus enhancing the capabilities of our forces. I would, however, caution against centralising technical training on a single site, as Metrix proposed. I believe that that would pose a security risk that could be managed better on a small number of sites than in a single location. We need a defence capacity that involves not only appropriate equipment, but the training flexibility that makes it possible to respond to an ever-changing environment.
Let me return to the subject of St Athan. As the Secretary of State has pointed out on several occasions, its infrastructure, facilities and location won through during the last consideration. Preliminary site works have been conducted, and planning permissions are in place. Those factors remain, as do the needs of the forces. I look forward to the spring, when the Secretary of State will outline the next steps—within the financial envelope, of course.
There was no problem with the site. It was Metrix, the developer, that failed. However, I hope that the Secretary of State and the Ministry of Defence will recognise the support that the communities in and around St Athan were prepared to give, and the compromises that they were prepared to make. That good will remains, on the basis that the St Athan facility will be used to its full potential.
The debate has been excellent, but I do not believe that it has addressed the aircraft carriers issue in as much detail as it deserves, and I hope to remedy that.
When the Secretary of State and others discuss the nuclear deterrent, great emphasis is placed on the need for a continuous at-sea presence, yet in respect of Britain’s global reach by aircraft carrier we are apparently happy to settle for a presence every now and again. We are building two aircraft carriers but one is to be mothballed, so the second will not be available when it is in refit—or, indeed, when the French are seeking to use it. Therefore, we will have only occasional use of our own aircraft carriers: for us to end up with part-use of one when we are building two does not seem to me to represent the best use of money.
There is no guarantee that we will ever have much access to the French carriers. We will be able to use them only when the French are not using them, or when they agree. There will, of course, also be times when a carrier is being refitted. Therefore, although we are going to the expense of building two carriers, we cannot receive a guarantee that we will have a continuous at-sea global presence by aircraft carrier.
In defending the implementation of the “cats and traps” policy, the Defence Secretary has mentioned that we want to have interoperability with the United States. However, it is unclear whether any agreement has been struck with the United States about our being able to borrow one of its carriers or use its decks, or whether the United States will want to use our carriers if it ends up one short. There is no point in arguing that we want to have “cats and traps” for the sake of interoperability with the United States unless some deal has been done whereby that will be a benefit—but no mention has been made of that so far.
When the Minister sums up, will he tell us whether catapults are to be fitted to both aircraft carriers? If not, we will have aircraft designed for catapults and traps but only one aircraft carrier they can fly off. On the other hand, if we fit catapults to both carriers, we will end up spending half a billion pounds fitting them to mothballed aircraft carriers. Neither of those options seems to me to represent an effective use of money. It would be helpful if the Minister were to tell us whether the French or the United States had asked us in any way, shape or form to fit catapults and traps to our aircraft carriers, or did this situation arise simply as a consequence of the Air Force’s obsession with fast jets?
The Government seem to have an unhealthy obsession with fast jets, and to have inadequately appreciated the additional capability provided to us by vertical and short take-off and landing aircraft. Yes, it is true that they carry lighter weights and can fly less far, but they are also much more effective in providing close air support, as our troops who have served in the Falklands and Afghanistan can testify. As the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), said, we are giving up this capability not just in the short term but permanently; if we scrap the Harriers or do not upgrade them in future, we will lose that entire capability. To base our entire fast jet defence structure on the concept that we must have generation five because at some point in the future somebody else might have it is to focus too much on one element of need. It would be useful if the Minister told us how much each of the “cats and traps” will cost, because if he does not have that figure to hand, this would appear to be a leap in the dark.
The lack of political balance in how the British media treat the various parties is nowhere more glaringly obvious than in the discussion about aircraft carriers without aircraft. Can we imagine the meal the press and television would have made if a Labour Government had for one moment proposed that we should have aircraft carriers without aircraft? I am not necessarily the brightest, but I recognise that the secret is in the name: the concept of an “aircraft carrier” means something that carries aircraft. The fact that we will have aircraft carriers without aircraft—and that the Government have got away almost scot-free with it—represents something of an imbalance. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister announce that he has devised a new system of guns without bullets, rockets without explosives and so on. Those are equally ludicrous suggestions.
The Government have been insufficiently radical in examining structures. I understand that under their proposals the joint strike fighter will be flown off the carriers by joint RAF/Fleet Air Arm groups, crews, pilots and so on. In those circumstances, why do we need a Fleet Air Arm? Why do we need to have RAF pilots flying off aircraft carriers? That is an example of the sort of culture of defence in the forces. I served on the Public Accounts Committee for many years and we constantly got the feeling that the service personnel at the top were all far too cosy, that it was all too much of an old pals act, that they were drawn from too narrow a social base and that they were all scratching each other’s backs. Only 7% of children go to a private school, yet 90% of top generals did—so it is difficult to accept that the forces represent the society that they seek to defend.
Thinking back to my days in the borders, I recall that in some towns the reaction to any proposed change was “Aye been”, on the basis that things had aye been like that, so must not change. Although we must be proud of traditions, we should not be prisoners of tradition. There is an unwillingness on the part of the Government to challenge some of the existing structures, be it the Fleet Air Arm or the need to maintain an RAF. There is no evidence that some of those more drastic options have been fully discussed or thought through.
I wish to touch on the defence industrial strategy, because there has been a lot of discussion about the terms of business agreement—TOBA—between British Aerospace and the Ministry of Defence. That is an ideal example of good practice, rather than bad practice. People could haggle about the detail of the deal, but the concept of the Government making a plan with a firm in the private sector that gives it a guarantee of work for a period that will allow it to invest, in both capital resources and personnel, in return for that flow of work is sensible. We cannot go on with a system of simply buying off the shelf—one here, one there and one somewhere else. Without question if we had not built aircraft carriers we would never have had the capacity to build Type 45 destroyers. That capacity would simply have been lost, because the work force would have been dispersed.
I hope that when the Government come to examine the defence industrial strategy, or whatever their equivalent of that is, they will overcome their tendency simply to buy the cheapest on all occasions, but will look forward and identify what industrial and commercial capacities we want to retain for the long term.
I thank my hon. Friend for the points that he has been making about the skills base. That is particularly important in Plymouth, where proposed changes in base porting and the removal of frigates mean that Babcock will have a huge trough in its work load, which will cause us real problems. Does he share my concern, and my belief that those factors should have been considered before the SDSR, not after it?
Yes, I do share that view. The Government, rightly in many ways, have said—the previous Government said this too—that defence is not simply a job creator for people on the home front, so to speak. The question of jobs and, more importantly, continuing capabilities is a valid part of this whole discussion and negotiation. We could probably always buy almost any individual item more cheaply somewhere else, but if we do that we will end up beholden to someone else for everything. We must identify the capacities we want to retain, as Lord Drayson’s defence industrial strategy did, and then be prepared to enter long-term agreements with suppliers for them. That will involve manpower and personnel planning to avoid peaks and troughs.
In the minute that remains, I want to ask the Minister about base closures. The Government must start making commitments fairly quickly, not only to individual locations but about what they are prepared to do when bases are shut. Will they promise Kinloss or Lossiemouth that they will clean up the land sites and spend money on infrastructure and making those sites available for firms to move in, or are they simply going to pull up sticks and move away? Many of those communities have served the country well for some substantial time, and I hope that we will reward them appropriately, or at least that we will not leave them swinging in the wind.
My final point is about our agreement with the French. I hope that we are going to be as hard-headed about it as they are, and that it will not mean that they take over our industrial capacity rather than our being able to contribute to joint developments.
I thank you for imposing a time limit, Mr Deputy Speaker. That is the first cut of this Parliament that I welcome, because it means that everyone who wishes to speak will have the opportunity to do so.
Let me start by paying tribute to the soldiers of 16 Air Assault Brigade from the Colchester garrison, who are currently deployed for the third time in Helmand province along with others from Wattisham, Woodbridge and various other bases around the UK who are part of the brigade. I also pay tribute to the people back at the garrison, including the families and all the support units. It is fantastic to see the Army welfare provisions and safety nets come into play when 3,000 men and women, but predominantly male soldiers, are deployed overseas—previously in Iraq and now in Afghanistan.
Given the events of the past 48 hours in the United States of America, we should bear in mind that in two years’ time there will be another presidential election, which will be three years before 2015 and the proposed withdrawal from Afghanistan. I have a real fear that the next President of the United States will be not so much a Republican as a Tea Party headbanger Republican. That is a serious issue for the United Kingdom in relation to our joint defence activities.
I welcome the fact that the coalition Government have increased the number of helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles going to Afghanistan. I urged the previous Government to do that, because UAVs are a very important part of the efforts to identify insurgents.
I am delighted with whichever Government provides additional resources to 16 Air Assault Brigade. If the previous Government gave additional resources, I say well done to them, and if the coalition Government have given them, I say well done to them. What our troops need are more resources to help them. In that regard, I was delighted to spend some time with 16 Air Assault Brigade, before some of them went to Afghanistan on their third deployment, on their improvised explosive device training. That was a very worthwhile exercise.
The last aspect of domestic military policy that I want to address is the Army housing modernisation programme. This is an issue that I have been raising with the previous Government for the past 13 years. I sincerely hope that matters will be resolved during the lifetime of this coalition Government. We cannot expect to send our brave men and women to serve overseas when their families back at home live in accommodation that is not up to an acceptable standard. I praise the previous Government for Merville barracks, even though, like others, I do not approve of the private finance initiative. None the less, the barracks is of the standard that we should expect for all our military personnel, and its married quarters—an area in which we are lacking—are also of the quality that we would wish to see.
I shall conclude with the Falklands and related matters in the south Atlantic. The only air bridge between the UK and the Falklands is Ascension Island, but there is another island in the south Atlantic to which this country owes a debt of gratitude, and which has the same strategic importance in the 21st century as it did in the 19th and 20th centuries. I refer to the island of St Helena. There are plans for an airport on the island, and it would be of strategic as well as domestic and economic importance, because it would provide an alternative air bridge between the UK and the Falklands.
As we have heard today, the Argentines still cast covetous eyes on the Falkland Islands, and there is an economic case for placing all the islands of the south Atlantic in one economic and military federation. They are all British overseas territories, with British citizens, and just as successive Governments have protected the Falkland Islands, we should realise that there are other islands in the south Atlantic, too. Ascension Island is a crucial element in Britain’s interests in the area, and it comes under the jurisdiction of St Helena, so I urge the Government to give every support to an airport on St Helena, because of its strategic defence importance.
As a new member of the Defence Committee and, indeed, a relatively new Member of this House, I do not approach these matters as an expert. However, having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), I contribute with some trepidation as a former strategy consultant. He seemed to say that, essentially, there is a lack of strategic thinking throughout government. I suspect that the real problem is the interaction with strategic thinkers and politicians. That is what has bedevilled the process.
I shall make four observations and then some brief concluding comments. Overall, the conclusions of the strategic defence and security review were the best that could have been achieved in the time available and in the circumstances that existed. Legacy issues were the first instrumental factor in defining the outcome of the SDSR, and I make that point broadly, without any intention of launching into a partisan attack. It is absolutely clear that over the period from 1997 to 2007, spending on defence stayed at broadly the same level—2.5% of GDP. However, the number of commitments grew massively, and in that context it was going to be difficult not to delay some decisions or over-spend. The right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the former Defence Secretary, this afternoon disputed the idea of over-spend, but in reality, with that commitment and with the unintended expenditure that emerged, there was bound to be a problem.
I am interested that the hon. Gentleman should be using 1997 as his starting point. Does he agree that some of the cost pressures on the procurement budget were down to the incompetence of previous Conservative Governments? I am thinking particularly of how Nimrod was procured and of programmes such as HMS Astute, to name but one other.
Quite possibly, but we can make cheap points or look at the fundamental problems that go back more than 20 years.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) was looking at the respective contexts for the reviews—the one in 1997-98 and the one this year. The fundamental difference is the economic context. As the chief economic adviser to former Prime Minister Tony Blair said, the Government had a golden economic legacy. That was not the case this time, and that is a reality. We talk about strategic reviews, but they are within the context of the reality of the spending environment. There was no way in which the spending review could have been completed at a time scale different from that of the SDSR. That is just the reality, it seems to me.
There seems to be a legacy, going back to ’97 and beyond, in which decisions were delayed. The decision last year to slow the rate of the QE class carriers was absolutely the right thing to have done in the context of the bigger pressures to release money for Afghanistan, but that will mean that £600 million in extra spending will be required later. The top 15 equipment programmes are £8.8 billion over budget, with a 32-year cumulative delay. These are real challenges.
As a layperson, I look at the situation of Nimrod. I look at how the number of aircraft ordered was reduced from 21 to nine and the cost per aircraft was increased by 200%. When I also consider that it was eight years late, I see that there are fundamental problems in the whole system of government.
The second factor is making Afghanistan the No. 1 priority in the review. We can say with some confidence that the decisions made in the SDSR were completely necessary and absolutely right in respect of our commitments—more than 9,000 troops in the theatre of war. That costs a lot of money. The problem of all defence reviews is that they seek to address the long-term strategic issues. That, however, can never be done in isolation; it has to deal with current realities.
There will be some positive consequences. Those listening to the debate who have family members in Afghanistan can be assured that the full range of training and equipment is now available. Support for families is as it should be and the previous Government took good steps in that direction during their last year in power. The doubling of the operational allowance is also to be welcomed.
I am trying to be as quick as I can. The third issue that I would like to touch on is procurement. Procurement issues are systemic; there is no clear balance of power—or the balance is not right—between the MOD and the defence industry. The relationship is probably flawed. I hope that, as we see the defence industrial strategy emerge—after the SDSR, unhelpfully—we will have a serious examination of what is going on and what is required. I fear that sometimes the political pressures that obviously influence the MOD’s decision making have led it to prop up industry ahead of making the best decisions in defence terms.
I acknowledge the contribution made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson); of course there needs to be an understanding of what long-term capabilities we need to invest in, but that must not always be as a substitute for making the right defence decisions for our country’s long-term interests. Often, we do not have the same person managing the procurement process. There is a change of scope and a lack of ownership. The MOD suffers and the taxpayer suffers, too. That is a critical issue that needs to be addressed.
My fourth point is about the capacity to change, which does not exist across the services in sufficient quantity. One commentator over the summer referred to the SDSR debate—or discussion, or negotiations—as a knife fight in a phone box, which is a pretty horrible analogy but one borne out by an assessment in the immediate aftermath of the SDSR announcements of which services won. I do not think that that is helpful in edifying the consequences and impact on the defence of this nation.
Let us consider some of the specifics. We have heard a lot this afternoon about the decision on the Harriers, but my concern would be about the extent of that gap in capability and how long it will take us to get the capability in place to fill that gap. Will the Tornadoes be viable for the length of time that they will potentially need to fill the gap and how much money will be required to fill some of the gaps? There is a great deal of supposition about how some of these things might work out. That might be from necessity—it is absolutely right to say that the financial pressures have been dominant in the entire decision making process—but some real concerns about capabilities that might be lacking in the near term need to be addressed.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) said, by 2020 more than a third of our energy will be delivered by water-borne means, particularly liquefied gas. We have seen the emergence of piracy on our seas. Such things might proliferate and it is difficult to determine the risk that will face our country. I am concerned that there will be a delay in the readiness of capabilities.
It is absolutely clear that there needs to be greater capacity among the services to harmonise—for example, to harmonise the frequency of deployment, particularly as the Navy and the RAF will be working more closely together. As significant reforms of allowances will need to take place, it is important that that is done with care and fairness. I was talking to a constituent just a few weeks ago who has moved with his family nine times in the past 11 years. I hope that when decisions are made about the continuation of the CEA—the continuity of education allowance—they will be made fairly so that people can have continuity in their education. That seems to me an appropriate need, not a perk.
The SDSR could never have achieved all that it set out to achieve, because of the legacy, the challenges of procurement and the real issues to do with managing a budget that was pretty restricted. It was always going to be difficult, but I think there are grounds for optimism. I commend the Secretary of State for fighting hard and doing the best he could in extremely difficult circumstances.
I have found this a very interesting debate, and I was particularly interested in the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) and the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) on the subject of the Tornado. One thing that the defence review got right was the retention of the Tornado fleet, not least because of the role that that aircraft is performing in Afghanistan. I know that there is a discussion going on about the future base of the Tornado, and I want to suggest—[Hon. Members: “That it stays at Marham.”] The right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) and the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) have the right idea about where my speech is going.
I understand that there will have to be a reduction in the number of squadrons, and it is right that we look at the future basing of the Tornado. However, it would be a grave mistake, both financially and militarily, for that capacity to move away from RAF Marham. The brave men and women of 2, 9, 13 and 31 Squadrons have all been fighting in Afghanistan. Recently, 2 Squadron returned to much fanfare in the streets of Swaffham. Although Air Force personnel are very popular locally, nationally the role that they have played in Afghanistan is not well known. Quite a lot of it comprises covert operations that are not necessarily publicised. They also give support to our ground forces through close air support, shows of presence and shows of force, which the Tornado is capable of doing at any time of day and in any weather conditions, unlike any other aircraft. In addition, they do vital intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance work. I was privileged to be shown around the air base, where I saw the tactical imagery intelligence wing and the raptors that are installed on the Tornado fleet, which are very high-tech and innovative. These images are used not only by our forces but by our allies, and they are forming a very important part of the combat striking that is going on in Afghanistan.
I want to pay particular attention to the engineering and maintenance work that takes place at RAF Marham. That work used to take place at eight different bases but has been centralised at Marham. I understand that it is a third more efficient than the US equivalent because of all the work that has gone into ensuring that it is more cost-effective. I have heard—this is just an estimate—that it would cost £50 million to move that engineering capacity to an alternative location. Given the deficit situation that we face, it would be a grave mistake to move it for political reasons when it makes economic sense to base it at Marham.
RAF Marham is also in an excellent strategic position in relation to the conflict in Afghanistan. Unlike other bases, there is no need for in-flight refuelling in order to get to the forward operating base in Cyprus, because Marham has a very long airstrip that is suitable for all varieties of aircraft, and it is near to Lakenheath and Mildenhall—key bases for our allies.
The maintenance and engineering functions are very important for our local skills base in west Norfolk. I recently visited Swaffham Hamond’s high school, where several pupils are talking about joining the RAF and getting involved in that engineering work. This is an area with relatively high unemployment, where there is not a great variety of highly skilled jobs, and RAF Marham contributes greatly in that respect. If it were to be closed and moved elsewhere, that would remove a key source of aspiration from the local economy. The employment figures for King’s Lynn and west Norfolk unfortunately show that the area has 7.4% unemployment. The other base that is being suggested for the Tornado is Moray in Scotland. That area has 4.8% unemployment, so there is much higher unemployment in the Marham area than in its Scottish equivalent. I want to add that to the debate.
It is not only right economically and militarily for the Tornado to be based at Marham; it makes more sense in terms of employment and the long-term impact that removing such a base could have on the constituency. There has been much discussion about the potential impact of closing two bases in Scotland—Kinloss and Lossiemouth. However, bases in the area surrounding Marham have also been heavily hit. Cottesmore and Wittering are under threat because of what is happening with the Harrier. Coltishall was closed in 2006, and that had a very considerable impact on Norfolk. East Anglia has not been immune from cuts over this period and is, as I say, an area of higher deprivation than the equivalent part of Scotland. Instead of looking to relocate the engineering facilities that I have mentioned from RAF Marham, which has a very good cost base, we should look to its being a future base for fast jets such as the joint strike fighter. I am very keen to discuss that further with the Ministry of Defence.
The long-awaited and long-overdue SDSR has been an extremely difficult task, and I place on record my thanks to the Secretary of State, his team and all those who have worked on the review. Portsmouth base alone considered 900 options over the summer, and I pay tribute to the Navy and civilian staff for doing an incredible job in a very short time.
I am delighted that the review has not been sea-blind and has shown an appreciation of the role that the Navy plays and its contribution to other Departments such as the Foreign Office, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury. That contribution is not just about our country’s security but about our entire way of life—our ability to trade, our hydrographical and meteorological services, tackling crime and providing help in times of crisis. However, the breadth of its role should never detract from the depth of its contribution to the defence of the realm.
To see the scale of the challenge that the SDSR presented, one just has to examine the disparity between what the 1998 strategic review suggested for the Navy and the current number of ships in service. For example, it suggested 12 Type 45 destroyers, and we are building only six. In future, to close the gap between need and affordability and to preserve the development and maintenance capabilities that we want in our bases and dockyards, we need a planned but flexible approach to procurement and to maximise every opportunity to increase UK exports. We must get away from small orders built at lightning speed, which short-change the Navy and the yard and place stress on the defence budget. I am delighted that we will focus more on industrial strategy and defence diplomacy, and I look forward to the opportunity that the Type 26 will bring to improve procurement practices and increase exports.
We should remember that we have not sold a new Navy-designed ship abroad since the 1970s, but it is achievable. We are already selling standard kit to the US navy, and British gas turbines will power the DDG-1000 destroyer and are already powering the USS Freedom. I urge the defence team to focus on trade deals where they are viable and strategically advantageous.
During the course of the review there has been much discussion of the inflexibility of the carrier contracts, as well as costly delays to the programme. Many Members have formed the view that that is why we are to have the carriers. I wish to use this opportunity to set the record straight. There are considerable running, docking and maintenance costs attached to having the carriers, and I do not believe we would have them if we had not concluded that they were absolutely necessary. I echo the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who said that we needed two carriers if we were to have them available every day of the year. However, that can be no excuse for poor procurement and inflexible contracts, even for vital items.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is absent from our Benches today. Sadly, he is attending the funeral of the late Councillor Alan Shotter, his friend and election agent. If he were here, he might well be arguing that we should lock ourselves into a contract for Trident’s replacement, such is his concern about the matter. I know that he would be pressing the Secretary of State on that matter and joining in the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh). My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East wrote in a recent article that
“time and again, we hear the facile refrain that complex modern weapons systems are ‘legacy programmes, irrelevant to the threats we face now’.”
We have heard that said about the carriers and about Trident during the review. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to make the case for early sign-up to Trident and remind the House why continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence is so important, and I will continue to remind the House of the importance of carrier strike.
The arguments that we heard over the summer that carriers would be deployed only in the event of a world war are plain wrong, and ignore the fact that we have deployed carrier strike force in every humanitarian and conflict situation that we care to mention—the Falklands, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. It has extended Britain’s reach into land-locked countries across the globe. Even when the carrier fleet has not been pressed into action, its constant presence has served as a deterrent to those who would harm us and our interests. I urge the defence team to do all they can to plug the gap in the carrier strike force, which some defence analysts have said has existed since 2005.
I want the House to be excited about the new carriers. I am disappointed about the retirement of the Harrier, and I note the Secretary of State’s comments on the matter. The decommissioning of the Ark Royal is also sad. Her battle honours are many, most notably in Iraq in 1993, and they will never be forgotten. However, the QE class carriers will continue her legacy. For those not familiar with those amazing ships, the Ark Royal can fit comfortably on one of their flight decks. They are amazing, and I urge all Members of the House to take every opportunity to see them being built—built with great skill in British yards. They are well able to meet the challenges of this unpredictable world. They are multi-use, they provide value for money and they will last 50 years. We will use them, they will prevent conflict and they will lead our response if and when the most dread circumstances arise.
The green light for both carriers to be built gives Portsmouth base the stability to develop further as the home of the surface fleet. The SDSR and countless other studies have always concluded that Portsmouth should be the home port. Hon. Members who take The Times will be familiar with my favourite political sketch writer’s column. In her coverage of Monday night’s well-attended Adjournment debate, she confused the names of the base port, Faslane, and the maintenance dock, Rosyth, to produce Forsyth. Whether that was by design or error, it was very apt, because for many years we have had Scottish Members of Parliament and Portsmouth Members of Parliament yelling “Higher, higher” or “Lower, lower” at successive Secretaries of State in debates about where the carriers’ home base should be. Although I am a fan of Brucie, I am glad that we can draw a line underneath that and that Portsmouth will be the carriers’ home port.
Did my hon. Friend share my alarm when she saw the headlines about two weeks ago saying that Portsmouth might close down? Did she think that basing the carriers there would make that much less likely, until she decided that the story was something to do with a football club?
Over the summer, there have been headlines about Portsmouth and many other bases, which has caused great stress for people working in the industries affected, and I am glad that they now have a clear path and reassurance. I never worry about such headlines about Portsmouth, because I know the excellent partnership that exists there between the private sector and the Royal Navy. However, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the carriers now give us the green light to develop services further.
Does my hon. Friend not also recognise that Plymouth has a significant role to play in the defence of our country? Making sure that we have an amphibious fleet will be important.
Absolutely. One great outcome of the defence review is that all three of our Navy bases—Faslane, included—will have a role in servicing the Royal Navy as we go forward.
In Portsmouth, we have the work force, the suppliers, the accommodation, the training and the supply chain facilities. It should not be forgotten that we also have the correct weather conditions to enable safe transit to and from the open sea. As we go forward to discuss the maintenance of the carriers, I very much wish Rosyth the best of luck in securing maintenance work, but a lot will have to be done in Portsmouth because of the opportunistic nature of the refit work, which results from the operational pressures on carriers. It also means that we can now progress in generating our own power and enhance our refit and maintenance services. The excellence of that unique partnership between the Royal Navy and the private sector means not only that Portsmouth will remain the home of the Royal Navy, but that it is fast becoming the port of choice for navies around the world. The city should be incredibly proud of that achievement. It has nothing to fear from an off-the-shelf approach to procurement, such is its excellence in build, refit and training.
I shall end with an appeal to all hon. Members. Now the SDSR is over, we should continue to keep defence high on our agenda. This is the starting point. Much is yet to be decided and we must ensure that as this Government put the country back on a financial even keel, we continue to make the case for excellence in procurement and maintaining defence budgets, for the benefit of servicemen and servicewomen and our country. Although we will not reopen the SDSR, we must ensure that we fully understand the reasons for the decisions that have been taken, such as on the Harrier, better to understand what future decisions might be. As we do so, as I am sure all colleagues will, we would do well to remember the Ark Royal’s motto: “Zeal Does Not Rest”.
We have had a good debate, including 15 contributions from Back Benchers. As one of them said earlier, the debate has been well informed.
May I begin by paying tribute to the men and women of our armed forces and their families? It was a privilege to work with them as a Minister. May I also say a big thanks to the civil servants with whom I worked? They have been unfairly targeted as the problem, when in fact they are dedicated individuals without whose work we could not project the operations and power that we have in support of our armed forces. May I also put on record the thanks of Labour Members to Sir Jock Stirrup and Bill Jeffrey at the MOD? It was ironic that the Defence Secretary congratulated those two individuals when he was the one who basically announced their departure in the Sunday newspapers the week before the official announcement. Those two people were committed to the defence of this country, and I put on record my thanks to them.
The hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) raised the issue of cadets and the university training squadrons. As a Minister, I had responsibility for those, and I met some fantastic individuals who greatly benefited from those organisations. I put on record my thanks to the volunteers who work hard—unpaid—in the cadet force throughout the country. They are a large volunteer army who work to support young people. Those young people not only experience military life, but take that discipline and structure into their lives.
The hon. Gentleman referred to reserves. I am a little disappointed that there will be yet another review of reserves. The previous Government reviewed reserves, and it would have been interesting to see the implementation of that work. I am also disappointed that there are as yet no terms of reference for the next review. It will be interesting to see how reserve forces fit into the restructure of the Army.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman on his call for the Government to take a more purple approach. However, in my experience—perhaps he shares it—the biggest problem on occasions for Defence Ministers is inter-service rivalry at chief level on different programmes. He also reiterated and repeated the point about a £38 billion black hole. As on many things, this Government believe that if they repeat something often enough, it will become fact, but I have now tabled a question to ask where that figure comes from. It has been a convenient cover for the spending cuts review.
If we look at last year’s National Audit Office report, we see that the figure on the procurement side could only be between £6 billion and £36 billion. The only way to get to the figure of £38 billion is to apply a cash freeze over the next 10 years. In addition, the figure of £38 billion would apply only if we had to pay for equipment tomorrow, which people know we do not. That figure has been a convenient cover for some of the things that the MOD is implementing.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) made a good contribution. I thank him for the support he gave me when he was Defence Secretary. It is interesting and strange to hear Government Members now thanking and praising him for being such a good Defence Secretary, given that last summer he was being pilloried by every national newspaper and Conservative Members. However, he has been rightly rehabilitated. He raised issues concerning Afghanistan, including the date of 2015, which was plucked out of thin air by the Prime Minister. It is important that we have a conditions-based draw-down from Afghanistan, and it is clear that if, come 2015, we need to retain that combat role for longer, that ought to be our position. It would be a huge mistake if the hard work, dedication and sacrifice put in so far in order to make progress in Afghanistan were to be jeopardised for purely political purposes. That would be wrong.
My right hon. Friend made an interesting and important point about the withdrawal of Harrier and short take-off and vertical landing capacity, which leads to another issue raised by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson). I am glad that today the latter did not call for a third, fourth or fifth carrier, as he normally does. However, he summed up the matter quite well: they are called “aircraft carriers”. It is in the name! They should have aircraft on them.
Over the past few weeks, the Government have tried again to throw mud and confuse the issue by saying that the contract entered into for the carriers was a wicked plot by the last Labour Government, and that it was a bad deal. That continued yesterday with this nonsense from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, when he said to the Treasury Select Committee that this was an “unusual contract”. It was not an unusual contract at all; it was a complex contract. It was exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West talked about: it was about restructuring the shipbuilding industry in this country to ensure our continuing sovereign capacity. However, it is now convenient to demonise the contract for political reasons.
The contract is also supported by BAE Systems. By chance, I have a letter sent by Mr Ian King to the Prime Minister when the review was ongoing, pointing out that the contract represented a long-term restructuring of the maritime manufacturing capacity in the UK and that BAE Systems had already invested about £500 million of its own shareholder money in it. Clearly, he sent the letter because he was worried about the Government cancelling the contract for the second carrier. The final paragraph of the letter reiterates the problem with the Government’s approach to the review. Instead of having an all-encompassing review involving the industry, it tended to excluded people. He wrote:
“But I fully stand behind it and would welcome the opportunity, which we have not had, to present this to you”
to explain the reasoning. That has been the problem with the review, unlike our approach, which was about involving industry, Opposition parties, academia and others. Instead, we have had a cuts review, which has been Treasury-led and has led to some very short-term and dangerous decisions.
That is an interesting intervention. I would have to refer to Mr King’s letter, which states that if the second carrier had been cancelled, the shipbuilding yards would have closed by 2012, removing all capability for future naval shipbuilding in this country. We have to stop the spin and excuse-making, and the Government have to start explaining and justifying some of their decisions.
In his usual robust way, the hon. Member for North East Hampshire, who is Chair of the Defence Committee—I was privileged to serve under him—said that the process of the review was rubbish, which is obviously a technical term. It was rushed, and the Committee made it clear that mistakes will be made, and that they will be at the cost of our security and defence.
The right hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Gainsborough and the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) referred to the deterrent and Nimrod. The revision of history, which is remarkable, is that somehow we can take capacity such as Nimrod out without an explanation of what will replace it to protect our nuclear deterrent. That worried the Secretary of State when he wrote to the Prime Minister stating that cancelling Nimrod would seriously affect the deterrent. I would like to know what will replace it, and at what cost. The parliamentary answers that I have received so far have been uninspiring.
The Trident issue is important. It is clearly a political fudge to help the coalition Government stay together, and it is interesting that the Liberal Democrats are going around trumpeting the fact that they have won the argument. The fact is that we were accused of moving the main gate on the run-up costs for the carriers, but that is exactly what the Government have done with Trident. The only difference is that when we considered the matter, there was a question mark about whether the first boat that goes out of service in 2024 could continue until the new in-service date of 2028. It would be interesting to know what has changed in terms of the engineering capability to be able to do that. It is clear that the Labour party has been, and is, committed to the nuclear deterrent. It is important that decisions are taken, not just for the country’s security, but for the skill base and confidence that that skill base needs in procuring that vital piece of equipment for our defence needs.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) paid tribute to the armed forces in Northern Ireland, and I add my thanks to them. When I made visits as a Minister, I paid tribute to the work of 19 Light Brigade in Afghanistan. The right hon. Gentleman made serious points about the rise of terrorism, which shows the wide spectrum of the defence and security issues facing us. I also pay tribute to a member of his family whom I met on several occasions. His brother, Lieutenant-Colonel Kingsley Donaldson, makes a great contribution to the armed forces. He is proud of his brother, although when I first met him he asked me whether I knew his brother, and I said that I had met him once or twice.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) made an interesting point about defence industrial strategy. We have been told that it will come out in a few weeks, post the review that we have had. It will be interesting to see whether it gels together, having set the framework already.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) talked about St Athan. Again, the Government are revising and rewriting history. A savings measure in the defence review suggests that extra savings will be made by centralising training and with greater use of electronics. That is exactly is what St Athan is about, so I do not know how they will achieve that without St Athan.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) rightly paid tribute to the Paras in his constituency. I was pleased to visit Colchester on several occasions. On one occasion, I threw him out of a plane—unfortunately, with a parachute attached. However, he is a great supporter of the Colchester garrison, and I pay tribute to its sacrifice and its work.
The hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) was also trying to rewrite history, when he talked about strategic thinking—he was trying not to get in trouble with his Whips. It seems that year zero is now 1997 and that nothing happened before. There is a clear point to be made—a point that was also made by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin)—about strategic thinking, which is important across Government. However, I have been at the coal face on occasions, and with the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, day-to-day decision making can interfere with the process. Sometimes it is important to step back, but it is difficult to do that when having to make clear decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) apologised for unfortunately being unable to attend this part of the debate. He made important points about Yemen and congratulated the Government on establishing the new National Security Committee. A promise was made in opposition that the NSC would have Opposition Members on it, but that promise seems to have been ditched. It has also been said that the previous Government did not have something like that, but we did, with the NCIS committee—the committee of the National Criminal Intelligence Service—which met weekly under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister. Its key issue most weeks was the contributions being made in Afghanistan. That was important.
One issue that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Colchester, and which needs to be raised again, is helicopter capacity in Afghanistan. It is interesting that since the coalition Government have come into being, all the equipment problems that we had in Afghanistan seem to have ended and everyone is now happy. We were criticised heavily by both the hon. Gentleman and the Conservatives when they were in opposition about helicopter capacity. I tabled a question last week to find out why the order for 22 Chinook helicopters had been reduced to 12. I consulted my former colleagues last night, because the reply that I received in a written answer says that 22 helicopters were never ordered. That is not true. We ordered 12 helicopters, and then there was a letter of understanding with Boeing for a further 10. I am sure that that is standard practice, so as to improve price controls and ensure that the specifications are up to date, so it will be interesting to know what has changed since, and also whether the unit cost of the 12 helicopters being purchased will increase, now that the overall number has been reduced.
In his best-selling book, “Cameron on Cameron”, the Prime Minister said that we need
“a defence review based on our national security, not on Treasury guidelines”.
How hollow that sounds today. In government, we were keen to ensure the widest possible participation in the debate about the future defence needs of our country. We included academics, industry and Opposition parties, in full consultation, to try to reach a consensus on defence, thereby not only ensuring the right posture for our future defence needs, but performing the important role of supporting our armed forces. Unfortunately, that was binned in May. What we have seen since is a Treasury-led cost-cutting review. Industry has been excluded from most of the work streams. The Conservative Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire, has said that
“mistakes will be made and some of them may be serious.”
As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) said earlier, let us hope that that is not true, even though it sounds as if it will be.
The SDSR was an opportunity to step back for a moment—to learn the lessons of the past decade and put in place a sustainable posture for our armed forces and defence. Sadly, that opportunity has been missed. As the Defence Secretary himself said, in his unexplainably leaked letter, the process is looking less like a proper SDSR and more like a “super CSR”. The Conservatives in opposition offered a great deal for our armed forces at the election. They promised a larger Army, but they have cut it. They promised to look at after-hours service personnel, but one of the first things they did was to freeze pay and reduce pensions. They promised a strategic defence review, but they have given us a cuts package and a review. Even today, we have heard the Defence Secretary say that some of these Treasury-led proposals will present us with what he called “calculated risks”—I would say “dangers”—for the future of our country’s defence and security.
In conclusion, my fear is that the dangerous short-term decision making in this review will be a repeat of the 1990s, when short-term savings were the mantra rather than long-term strategy.
This has been an excellent debate—interesting and wide-ranging—which is no surprise, as the House contains many Members who are well informed, interested and passionate about defence and national security; while many Members’ constituents will be affected by the decisions in the strategic defence and security review.
The SDSR is underpinned by the new national security strategy, which presents a picture of Britain’s place in the world and a full assessment of the challenges we face and the opportunities available to us. It is the first-ever national security strategy that really decides priorities for action and feeds directly into decisions about resources. It was the force driver for the decisions we have made.
Let me echo the Secretary of State by reinforcing the idea of how difficult this has been, particularly in the Ministry of Defence. We have been acutely aware of the human impact of the decisions we are making—not only on jobs and livelihoods, but on the emotional attachment that people have to certain aspects of defence. Our decisions have had to be objective and unsentimental, and based on the military advice we have received. We simply have not had the luxury of self-indulgence or populism. The fiscal deficit is an issue of national security. Without regaining economic strength, we will be unable to sustain in the long term the capabilities required, including military capabilities, to keep our citizens safe and maintain our influence on the world stage. Every Department has had to make a contribution to deficit reduction, and the Ministry of Defence has been no exception.
We still have to live within our means as the deficit is addressed, which means also tackling the unfunded liability in the Defence budget. So the decisions we have had to make have been necessarily tough and finely balanced, and it means smaller armed forces as we make the transition to the future force structure set out for 2020 and beyond.
Before I turn to the specific issues raised in the debate today, let me say this: the decisions we have made are coherent and consistent and will provide us with the capabilities we require for the future. The campaign in Afghanistan has been protected; nothing has been done to compromise success there.
It was a pleasure to welcome the new shadow Defence Secretary to his Front-Bench role. I thought he made a very fair speech. He welcomed the five-yearly SDSRs for the future and he specifically acknowledged the up arrows on certain capabilities for the future, including in cyber-security. He referred, as did some other right hon. and hon. Members, to written parliamentary questions, showing that many of the details that will flow from the strategic defence and security review have yet to be worked out. I make no apology for that. It is essential that the House should understand the difference between a strategic review and a detailed plan. The SDSR has established a strategic aim-point and it is absolutely right to take more time working out, bit by bit, the details of what this will mean for each and every different aspect of defence.
We heard an excellent speech from the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames). He was quite right to say—I am grateful to him for doing so—that we have had to make cuts that we would not have wished to make. That, unfortunately, is the true scale not only of the financial backcloth to the SDSR, but of the legacy left by the last Government. He made some interesting points about reserves, calling for a fundamental reappraisal of the way in which we use them. He rightly pointed to the much wider use of reservists made in the United States. The US certainly uses them on a far greater scale, and as a consequence they are much cheaper than the regular forces there. One of the difficulties that we must tackle is that our current model for reservists makes them extraordinarily expensive. We will have to find a better and more effective way of using them in the future.
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that the SDSR was just the start of transformation. He mentioned the permanent secretary’s inaugural speech. I am sure that when she spoke of the next planning round, she was expecting it to be not the sole means by which reform would be pushed forward, but simply one among many. I also had a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Ministry of Defence being centralised, and about problems with accountability and vested interests. I entirely agree with his view that we need a more purple approach.
The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), very fairly acknowledged the financial backcloth, and said that he thought the review amounted to a fair stab. However, I entirely disagree with his suggestion that the 2015 timeline for exit from Afghanistan was somehow party political, or had something to do with the dynamics of the coalition. It was an entirely sensible and rational end point to specify, in the light not of only President Obama’s stated plans but of President Karzai’s intention to achieve full transition of security powers by the next presidential election.
There are many different audiences when remarks of that kind are made. It is essential for public opinion in ISAF countries to understand, to some extent, the length of the engagement, for the armed forces to understand it, and for the people of Afghanistan to know how long those forces intend to be there. They do not want foreigners in their country for ever. If the political process that Members in all parts of the House want to see in Afghanistan, along with the military effort, is ever to gain any momentum or reach any conclusion, it is vital for President Karzai and others to understand some sort of time scale as well. It seems to me that to state, as the Prime Minister did, that by 2015 our troops would no longer be involved in a combat role on the ground was eminently sensible. It does not mean that all our troops will be out by then, or that there will not be an ongoing role for them; it simply means that the combat role will not continue beyond that point.
I cannot say that I had any conversations with the Prime Minister, but discussions between the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister are the confidential discussions that they would be expected to have. We are not going to be drawn into that sort of discussion at the Dispatch Box. The Prime Minister made a statement with which we are comfortable, and which we are making every effort to enact.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the 2% NATO figure. Let me make it absolutely clear to him that throughout the spending period that we have outlined today, we will remain above NATO’s 2% figure without resorting to the sort of things that NATO includes in its figure, such as military pensions. The defence contribution towards cyber will certainly count towards that, but the efforts on cyber are cross-governmental. In that sense, I am including only the defence contribution. The right hon. Gentleman made some good points about force generation; those issues will be examined in depth in the coming months.
We also heard from the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who made criticisms of the process that we had heard before, but thought that the outcome was OK. He asked what “extended readiness” meant when applied to the second carrier. Let me make it perfectly clear to him that no decision has been made to sell it. Further decisions on what we will do with it can be made several years from now, and will depend on what the security considerations are at the time.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), who speaks for the Democratic Unionists, rightly paid tribute to the work of the armed forces in Northern Ireland over a period of years. He also warned us of the increasing security threat. I do not want to get drawn into saying anything more about that, but let me simply say that it is fully acknowledged. He also made points about the regional footprint of our armed forces throughout the United Kingdom. For military purposes, we are very keen for the footprint of defence to be felt throughout the UK.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) said that the Navy was being left very thin—I forget the precise word that he used. We understand that we are undertaking risk now, but we hope very much that that will enable us to make our way to having a bigger and stronger Navy in the future. We are also retaining the ability to reconstitute, if that will be significant or helpful.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) wanted to know more about the future details. Detail will emerge in the next few months as we work through the key points. He and a couple of other Members asked about St Athan. The Metrix project for St Athan failed. Unfortunately, it did not come up with a viable business plan within the deadlines that had been laid down and the finance could not be found, although a fair stab had been made. I entirely accept that the financial markets are very different now from what they looked like when Metrix made its bid and embarked on the programme; the world is different today. However, we have to face the unfortunate reality that it failed.
The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) rightly said that the military covenant needs formalising. That will happen in the next few months. He also spoke about mental health—a topic about which he has acquired considerable knowledge. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and several other Members raised the Nimrod issue. The Secretary of State has offered to hold further discussions with the Opposition Front-Bench team on how we intend to bridge that capability gap.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) spoke of the need for a national strategic assessment centre. That is an interesting idea worthy of further consideration. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) asked about the troops coming home from Germany. I simply cannot agree that that should have been worked out in every last particular before the intention to do it was ever declared, but he did make the good point that people will want to understand what is going to happen, when it will happen and in what order. We will do our best to address that in the coming months. An Opposition Front-Bench Member made the specific claim that we had not discussed that with the German Government, so let me make this perfectly clear: the Federal Government have supported the British military presence in Germany for more than 50 years—it has been a symbol of our steadfast friendship with Germany—and the Prime Minister discussed this matter with Chancellor Merkel during the course of the SDSR.
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, as time is running out and he left me rather short. On the issue of the troops in Germany, proper letters will be written when we come to make specific moves.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) asked about Yemen. The equipment he inquired about is being procured at the moment, and we are working closely with the Yemeni Government with the aim of providing that equipment by the end of the year.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) wanted to know whether we had had discussions with the French or the Americans about their potential use of a carrier fitted with “cats and traps”. Yes, of course we have; we have had lengthy discussions with both of them. He also asked whether the second carrier would have “cats and traps” fitted. We can decide that at any point in the future; we have left ourselves the flexibility to do that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) rightly spoke up for the brave men and women from the Colchester garrison who are going to Afghanistan. He champions their cause well, and we all wish them well in their endeavours. Other Members made constituency points on behalf of Marham and Portsmouth, and I will do my best to keep in touch with them about the developments in their areas.
The SDSR has been a difficult process, but I think people that will recognise that it is the start of the transformation of our defence, not the last word. I look forward to many further debates in the House as the details of what it will mean for every different aspect of defence is worked out in the coming months.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of the Strategic Defence and Security Review.