[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I have a couple of housekeeping announcements before we kick off the debate. First, you may have noticed that the clock that we are working to is running about 40 seconds behind the annunciator clock. That will become relevant later when I put a time limit on speeches, because a lot of Members want to take part this afternoon. Secondly, in view of the climate, I am prepared to allow gentlemen to remove their jackets if they wish—but not their ties under this Chairman, thank you very much.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future shape of the armed forces.
As the new Member for Aldershot, the traditional home of the British Army, I am honoured to lead the debate. In the limited time I have, I will touch on the nature of current threats and dwell for a little longer on my central point, which is that our people—our servicemen and women—must be at the heart of our defence policy.
When we consider the future shape of the armed forces, we are seeking to assess current threats but also to predict what threats may arise in the future. That is very difficult, and the only certainty we have is that threats are and will continue to be manifold and deeply alarming. After 15 years or so of engaging in counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we still face a threat from global terrorism, which is more dangerous, more mobile and more transnational than ever before. It has recently struck in our cities, and, indeed, at the very gates of Parliament. The middle east is highly unstable, ISIS is diminished but not defeated, we have failed states, we have Hezbollah, we have a dominant Iran and we have North Korea in nuclear stand-off with the rest of the world. We also have a resurgent Russia and the rise of cyber-conflicts.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that one vital element of our national defence and resilience is the threat to our cyber-security? Is he concerned, as I am, about whether our armed forces and their hardware are fully protected from that threat, and whether they have sufficient capability to be effectively deployed to deter such a threat?
I share my hon. Friend’s concern. I think we all agree that the internet has now been weaponised to an extremely alarming degree. That should be at the heart and centre of our defence strategy. I imagine the Minister will take the opportunity to address that.
We face today the simultaneous threats of state-on-state conflict and global terrorism. We are facing down those threats with our allies in NATO and elsewhere, such as our friends in the Gulf states. We will continue to need a very large and potent armed forces to do that; mass matters, and it will continue to matter. It will come as no surprise that, as a former soldier, I am and will always be an advocate for a bigger armed forces. In an ideal world, I would like to see not 2% of GDP spent on defence but somewhere nearer 3%. However, we have to live in the real world, and we have to play the pitch we inherited. We are still dealing with the legacy of Labour’s mismanagement of the economy, which left a large black hole at the heart of defence spending.
In my judgment, the 2015 strategic defence and security review did a good job of assessing and responding to the current global threats I described, and combined with the ongoing investment of £178 billion over the next 10 years, it will deliver a raft of impressive new hardware and, more importantly, an agile and highly deployable force. All of that is against the background of significant financial constraints. I am particularly pleased that elements of the new strike brigades formed as a result of that SDSR—including 4 Rifles, 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, 2nd Battalion Princess of Wales Royal Regiment and 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment—will be based in my constituency. We have two impressive carriers coming online, new submarines and new frigates, as well as a total and unreserved commitment to our continuous at-sea deterrence, Trident.
While we praise all that, we must, as parliamentarians and constituency MPs, always critically assess our own Government’s policies. We must ensure that our procurement is smart and that the carrier group we are investing in can fight. We must ensure that 2% of GDP spent on defence actually means a real 2%, and we must ensure that projects such as the F-35 are completed on time and on budget. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure us on that note today.
We clearly need significant force, but just as important, especially when it comes to dealing with global terrorism, is our approach and attitude towards using that force. I think the primary lesson of the last 15 years of expeditionary counter-insurgency wars is that it is only when we are discreet in the use of force, and when we work to empower and partner with local allies, that we achieve great results in combating terrorism.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. However, I am puzzled by his line of argument. He seems to be saying that expeditionary counter-insurgency warfare is what we expect to do in the years ahead, while at the same time saying we must be flexible. What does he think about the notion that NATO has this entirely wrong, that we are focusing on the last war and that the next war may well be, for example, in the north Atlantic or high Arctic? That is something that the Select Committee on Defence is halfway through studying.
If my hon. Friend is unsure of the meaning of my remarks, I am saying that mass is important—we absolutely need a very large and potent armed forces—but the lesson of the past 15 years in Iraq and Afghanistan is that we may get counter-productive results if we engage without the politics being right, as he will see from the remainder of my remarks. It is only when we engage and work with allies that results that match our interest and theirs can be achieved.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, our good intentions were overtaken by the realities of local politics on the ground and an over-optimism about what the British state can achieve politically by the overt use of military force. We must guard against that in future. I learned that lesson as a soldier in southern Iraq more than 10 years ago. I remember one particular day when I visited a police station run by an Iraqi police unit that we were mentoring in al-Amarah in southern Iraq. Despite our working very closely with them, I was alarmed to find, on visiting the interior of the police station, a picture of Muqtada al-Sadr, who was the leader of the Mahdi army—the very insurgent group we were fighting, supposedly with the Iraqi police. That kind of duality and duplicity undermined our capability and the likelihood of us having a positive outcome in Iraq.
I have carried that insight with me over the years, but for many others, including my friend and fellow soldier, Captain Richard Holmes, that duplicity and the central dilemma of our presence in Iraq had lethal consequences. Richard was a classmate of mine at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and went on to be a fine Parachute Regiment officer. He deployed on his second tour of Iraq in the winter of 2005 to mentor the Iraqi police—something he put his heart and soul into. Progress was made thanks to his efforts, but despite his commitment and earnest professionalism, the forces of sectarianism, violence, Shi’ite rivalry and Iranian meddling prevailed. One day, after leaving the very same police station that I had visited the previous winter, his patrol was struck by an IED, and he and his driver, Private Lee Ellis, were instantly killed.
The point I am making is that no matter how good or how dedicated the servicemen or women are, politics—in the middle east, it is often the politics of violence—will always trump good intentions. The lesson at the heart of this is that we must be discreet, and we must work with allies whose interests match ours and who genuinely need our help. That lesson and that approach should shape the way we do business in the future and the way we train and deploy our forces. If we follow that approach, we can achieve great results.
In Iraq, we are now having a very positive impact. Today we have more than 1,200 personnel deployed on Op Shader across Iraq and Syria, co-ordinating Royal Air Force airstrikes, taking the fight to Daesh and, critically, working very closely with Kurdish peshmerga forces, whose interests match ours. That type of involvement —helping our allies to achieve their goals with the bespoke use of expertise and hard power—is a model for the future. We can and should replicate that approach around the globe.
The other primary lesson we have learned from the campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that the current generation of British forces men and women are equal to the example shown by their forebears across all three services. Young men and women join the armed forces today in order to deploy. We are in their debt, and it is our duty to arm them, equip them and protect them as best we can. Our servicemen and women are this country’s most precious asset, and we must put them at the heart of our defence policy. I welcome the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill, which will have a very positive impact on the working lives of our armed forces men and women. We should celebrate the fact that they are prepared to take risks. They are not victims, but heirs to a remarkable and magnificent tradition. The recent remarks made by the Chief of the General Staff about service personnel needing empathy rather than sympathy were very welcome and apt.
We must maintain our resolve to deploy whenever and wherever necessary. We must not lose our nerve. On that note, I will conclude my remarks by quoting from a letter sent to me recently by a veteran who, as a young commander, led a team in Afghanistan at the height of the conflict. At one point he survived an IED strike so powerful that it destroyed the armoured fighting vehicle he was commanding. His letter reads:
“In Afghanistan I was scared of many things. I was frightened of the Taleban, I doubted myself, I worried about the availability of helicopter medical support. The one thing I never doubted or questioned was the willingness of the soldiers under my command to fight tooth and nail. No matter how badly they were bleeding, no matter how cold, how hot, how tired or how dehydrated they were, time and again their willingness to take a step forward, put their hand up and say ‘ok then, let’s go’ was extraordinary. 18 year olds who had volunteered to go 5000 miles to protect the Afghan people. These much-maligned members of the ‘PlayStation generation’ were in fact the heirs to boys who stood at Waterloo, sailed at Jutland and flew in the Battle of Britain.”
I quote from that letter because those words so eloquently convey why we are proud to have the finest armed forces in the world, why our servicemen and women will always be our greatest asset and, importantly, why, despite all the financial and fiscal constraints of the current time, we should be confident and assured of our future as a formidable military power.
Order. Nine Members have submitted their names in advance to speak. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 3.30 pm, so I am imposing a four-minute time limit on speeches. It may assist Members to know the batting order, so that they know where they stand: it will be Rachael Maskell, Robert Courts, Chris Evans, Jack Lopresti, Jim Shannon, Andrew Bowie, Luke Pollard, Eddie Hughes and—last but by no means least—Colonel Stewart. Those whose names have not been called will understand that they are not on the list. This is not an open invitation to make lengthy interventions; it is an indication that if they wish to intervene, they should keep it brief.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on opening this debate so thoughtfully.
I want to pay my tribute to the armed forces and the incredible work that they do in an ever-changing and complex world that evolves day by day. We owe a debt to the vital strategic and critical thinking and actions of our serving men and women as they seek to de-escalate the risk of conflict and bring reparation when not in the throes of the theatre of war.
We know that building strategic alliances secures greater global resilience. We know too that warfare is changing and therefore the shape of our armed forces needs also to evolve. What is really important is that the needs of our armed forces are met. One thing that is clear is that they are not necessarily content at this time, as we saw in the continuous attitude survey this year, which did not make good reading for the Government. They feel let down. Only half are satisfied with the standard of their accommodation and less than a third with the maintenance programme—and those figures are in free fall. We know that low morale in the Army is up by 12% and satisfaction with service life has fallen by 18% since 2009. Yesterday’s Pay Review Body announcement will not help either. Only 33% of personnel are satisfied with their pay, 27% with their pensions and just 23% with the recruitment and retention pay. That is serious, and that is why it is so vital that we listen to our armed forces—which is exactly what I have done in York.
I can tell this Government very clearly that the community wants the armed forces to stay in York. The economy needs the armed forces to stay in York. The armed forces want to stay in York and the families do too, and they are a crucial part of our armed forces. After 2,000 years of the armed forces being in York, the cry from my city is that they should remain there. The City of York Council, which is a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, has resolved to oppose the Government’s plans to remove the Army from York. All stakeholders, except for Government Ministers, have gathered together against “A Better Defence Estate”.
The Queen Elizabeth barracks in Strensall and Towthorpe is where the 2nd Medical Brigade and 34 Field Hospital are based. We know of the work they do, not least their work in the recent Ebola crisis. They have recently received a £2.3 million investment, yet are due to close in 2021—a waste of taxpayers’ money—despite wanting to remain in York. Imphal barracks in my constituency is also due to close by 2031. That will have a devastating impact, and not only due to the loss of 1,600 jobs from my city. The proper checks and balances have yet to take place, including economic and social impact assessments. Document JSP 507 says that those assessments must take place before closure proceeds, but they have not been carried out. I was told by the Minister’s predecessor that it will take 18 months to do that.
The armed forces want to stay in York because Army families’ children catch up with their education with our excellent education system, and the spousal employment opportunities and opportunities for future career development are there for all to see. The Nepalese community also wants to remain in my city, and their needs must be addressed. Most of all, I want to stress to the Minister that guarantees were given to my predecessor as late as 2015, after the rebasing programme, that the Army would remain in York. My plea is for the Minister to listen to my city and ensure that they do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing this extremely important debate. I also welcome him to the House, because it is so important that we have Members with his experience to bring first-hand knowledge of the issues that we are discussing today and throughout our deliberations.
My brief comments will be about the need for flexibility. I am conscious of the words of the Select Committee on Defence: that in many ways we face a world that is “more dangerous and unstable” than at any time since the end of the cold war. The point has already been made that there is a real danger that we plan how to fight the conflict that we have just fought. Having spent 15 years fighting asymmetric warfare, we are in real danger of considering that that is the sort of warfare that we will always face, but of course we face, in the east, a resurgent and much more aggressive Russia. We find ourselves in the extraordinary situation, which I do not think any of us would have thought a few years ago that we would be in, of having to defend and train against a potential conventional threat, with a need for training with heavy armour and eastern forces in the forests of eastern Europe, as opposed to the hot, high and sandy warfare that we have been engaged in for the last few years. My contention is that this dangerous world is best met by flexibility.
We must be careful because history is full of surprises. We know that as soon as we plan for one area of warfare, the one that we are most likely to be fighting will be totally different. The only way we can face that is by having the flexibility in our armed forces to meet the evolving threat, but how do we do that within the constrained budget that we have?
The first factor, as my hon. Friend rightly said, is our people. We must ensure that the armed forces are seen as an optimistic, exciting, challenging, profitable and worthwhile career, so that we attract young people to join and they know that they will learn a trade and, crucially, be looked after. That is why I place such importance on the armed forces covenant. I commend everything that the Government have done to ensure that retention rates in the armed forces are kept at the high level where they ought to be.
For the same reasons, I applaud the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill, which this House will see shortly; I look forward to seeing the detail of it. The Americans do a great deal of that, with greater use of reserve forces. I applaud the Government for looking at the issue, thinking creatively and ensuring that we can get the best from our young people as we go forward.
The two aspects to equipment are hardware and software. Let me deal first with hardware. I am very lucky that my constituency contains Royal Air Force Brize Norton, where the whole of the Royal Air Force’s transport fleet is based, and we have the Voyager programme there. The Voyager has the classic capability of a tanker and transport aircraft but, because of the way the AirTanker consortium is set up, there is a surge capability. The aircraft normally can undertake air-to-air refuelling, and there is a relatively limited fleet for peacetime, but were we to need it, we have the ability to bring in a great many more very quickly. With the C-17, C-130 and A400M programmes, we also have outstanding transport capability, so we have very high capability aircraft, but also a greater number of less complex aircraft, which means we can have more for the resources available.
A great emphasis on intelligence is of course critical. That is why, particularly in terms of Waddington, I encourage the Government to keep the Sentry, the Sentinel and the Rivet Joint aircraft at the forefront of their mind—because it is that intelligence that we need to fight the wars that we will be fighting.
Lastly, I come to the software point. Of course, not all warfare these days is fought through hardware, kit and equipment. Much of it is software-based, and if we do not have the intelligence gathering and, crucially, the cyber-skills, we would very quickly find that our aircraft were unable to fly while the others were. Thank you, Sir Roger, for giving me time to speak in this debate. Flexibility is the key, because after all, history is full of surprises, as we know, and so of course will the future be.
I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who spoke with passion based on his own distinguished service. Even though I am on the Opposition Benches, I also pay tribute to all those Government Members—who I am looking at now—who also served in our forces and served Queen and country with distinction. Thank you very much.
On Saturday 24 June, I joined my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who will respond to the debate for the Opposition, to witness our armed forces marching through Caerphilly town centre as part of Armed Forces Day. Anyone watching on that day would know the esteem in which the public hold our armed forces. If we asked anyone marching, they would tell us that they are able to serve only because they have the support of their family. However, many feel that they are being badly let down by the Government. No one will be able to give their best in theatre if they are worried about their loved ones back home, yet that is the reality that those living in service accommodation have to face each and every day.
All regular service personnel are entitled to subsidised accommodation, and those who are married or have children are entitled to service family accommodation. The accommodation is provided by the Ministry of Defence and managed by the private contractor CarillionAmey. The armed forces covenant dictates that service accommodation must be of good quality, in an appropriate location and reasonably priced. However, under the current contract, very few properties seem to meet those criteria.
A National Audit Office report earlier in the year about service accommodation was absolutely damning. One family were left without hot water and heating for weeks, despite informing the contractor, CarillionAmey, that they had a seven-week-old baby and a four-year-old. In fact, in 2016, an NAO report found that satisfaction levels with the contractor’s maintenance request responses and the quality of maintenance works undertaken had reached lows of 32% and 29% respectively. At the Public Accounts Committee hearing, we were even told that such was the worry on the part of the Department that the contractor had to face the then Secretary of State for Defence to discuss the way forward.
Since taking up the contract in November 2014, CarillionAmey has consistently failed to meet the key performance indicators that it was contracted to attain. One case in particular highlights the poor treatment of service personnel and their families by the company. The wife of a serviceman reported that their family had been provided with a damp and mouldy property and, despite there being alternative accommodation available, the contractor refused to move them. The family reported that the property’s carpets were stained and the oven was dirty, but rather than cleaning the property and getting rid of the mould on the walls, CarillionAmey painted over it. On top of that, the family spent up to hours on the phone to the contractor every day for eight weeks trying to get somebody to help them to deal with the property’s many issues.
The hon. Gentleman is of course right to criticise CarillionAmey—in many respects it is not great at all—and his party of course does not like anything being contracted out, but if we took the contract away from CarillionAmey, what would an incoming Labour Government do?
I am criticising CarillionAmey quite rightly, but what I am saying is that we need a different contract or a different way of tendering for these contracts. This is not good enough; it is not good enough for forces’ families or for our men and women in the field. I hope that the Minister will take these comments away and look with urgency at the way the contract with CarillionAmey is being managed. This is not good enough, and I think all of us in the House would agree with that.
On 24 occasions, the family to whom I was referring were told that they would receive a call back regarding the issues, yet they did not, and technicians refused to progress the issues and deal with them. It would be an absolute disgrace if any family had to suffer in that way, but these are the families of our bravest men and women. Joining the armed forces is not like joining Barclays or Tesco; we are asking people to risk their lives each and every day for our safety at home and abroad. No one should underestimate just how huge an impact the standard of service accommodation can have on those in the armed forces. Impact on family life is the most cited reason why people leave the armed forces, and accommodation is a critical factor in that.
I urge the Minister to look at the contract again, to look at the way CarillionAmey is treating our forces’ families and to do something about it. I think all of us in the House can agree with those sentiments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, even if only for four minutes—I will keep to that. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing this crucial debate and on the eloquence of his speech. It is a privilege to be able to speak in the House about our armed forces as someone who has also worn the Queen’s uniform. I must declare an additional interest: one of my sons, Michael, recently joined the Army and serves with the 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery as a gunner—the fourth generation of my family to do so.
I note the Government’s policy on the armed forces as stated in the Gracious Speech:
“My ministers will continue to invest in our gallant Armed Forces, meeting the NATO commitment to spend at least two per cent of national income on defence, and delivering on the Armed Forces Covenant across the United Kingdom.”
For me, the key words are investment, commitment and covenant—words that we in this House would do well to reflect on. Investment means not only providing the resources that our armed forces need, but supporting and encouraging our servicemen and women and their families. Of course, it also means that we must invest in training and equipping our armed forces so that they can do the job we ask them to do. We all remember the shameful stories of service personnel in the 2003 Gulf campaign who were ordered to give away their body armour only for casualties to be suffered subsequently; indeed, there was one fatality. Also, there is no point in having defence assets if they cannot be used. Training on equipment such as fast jets can be expensive, but it is necessary to maintain the war-winning edge that our forces need.
Commitment means that the UK supports its allies, whether in NATO, the Commonwealth or elsewhere. Not only will we need to do that in time of need, but we will help to develop and train our allies’ armed forces so that we can prevent conflicts from developing in the first place. It also means that when we commit to spending a minimum of 2% of GDP on defence, we mean a minimum. Some colleagues are calling for 3%, given the uncertainty of the times we are in. That is something we should consider seriously, looking at all the aspects of defence policy and the fact that we are looking to increase our global presence and reach. What matters most for our service personnel and allies is that the UK has the capability to make a difference when we arrive in a theatre of operations.
Last but certainly not least is covenant, which has almost a sacred feel and echo to it. It reminds us that the bond between service personnel and the society that they serve is special, in which case it must be a duty of the Government and this House to ensure that we keep our side of the covenant. Too often we hear tales of administrative incompetence, which adversely affects the lives of our service personnel. Support for families and decent housing is often seen as an additional administrative burden that detracts from frontline fighting efficiency. With an all-volunteer force and a need to recruit a reserve force as well, we must ensure that the conditions of military service are as attractive as in any other vocation, particularly when service personnel are injured and need good medical support and rehabilitation.
I am going to skip forward in my speech. Representing a constituency that is a world-renowned hub of excellence in aviation and defence manufacturing, with companies such as Rolls-Royce, Boeing, GKN and Airbus, I can speak with conviction of the benefits that this brings to local communities and the wider economy. Aerospace Defence Security, the defence manufacturers’ trade association, estimates that in 2016 the UK defence sector directly supported 142,000 jobs, of which 32,000 were in research, design and engineering. The sector also supports 4,300 apprenticeships along with the MOD, which supports a further 18,000 apprenticeships, making it the largest provider in the UK.
I am running out of time, but broadly we need more spending, to maintain our commitments and our global reach and technological advancement, but never forget that we need men and women who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. We should never forget that.
I thank the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) for bringing forward an issue of great concern to all of us here. I declare an interest, having served as a part-time soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment for three years and in the Royal Artillery for 11 and a half. When I look around this Chamber I see many hon. and gallant Members who have also served, and I congratulate them on being here.
I have said this before in this House, but it bears repeating: our armed forces are without doubt the premier armed forces in the entire world. We have highly trained and highly skilled individuals who place Queen and country above their own lives and often ahead of their family lives. I am often concerned when we debate these issues in this House that it is very easy to concentrate on numbers and not on the human aspect. Some of the contributions so far have dwelt on the human aspect, and I understand how important that is.
I understand that times are changing, and I can grasp the importance of technology and of having the best and brightest minds in the Army. I watch my granddaughter, who can work a tablet without any bother. There is a real need for us to recruit the best into the ranks; however, having served in uniform, I also understand the discipline and understanding that comes from someone making their way up the ranks. I believe that the recommendation to recruit civilian cyber-warfare specialists, aviation experts and tech wizards is essential—hopefully the Minister will respond to that—but there must also be a carefully monitored structure that enshrines the qualities that are taught and lived while in training and in the first years in the armed forces. Those of us who have served and those who have an interest in the armed forces will understand what I mean.
In my office we saw at first hand the effects of the cyber-attack. Indeed, probably all of us in the Chamber witnessed how hard it was to work in an office without the use of computers—it was back to the old times of telephone calls to the executive and the road service. The attack showed just how reliant our society has become on computers, and it is clear that the armed forces must be at the top of their game to handle situations and scenarios like that.
I wish to address the issue of falling numbers in the armed forces. The Minister, whom I and all of us in this Chamber greatly respect, understands the issue—82,000 was the number set out, and we are at 78,000. What is being done to ensure that the target is met? In particular, the special forces regiments are suffering a shortfall in numbers, as others are, especially in those training in information technology and communications. I am anxious to understand what format measures will take to recruit those extra numbers and get back to where we were.
I am conscious of time, but I will just say this: in the confidence and supply co-operation plan that we have with the Government—I want to make it clear that we are very pleased to be part of that, by the way—we secured some more recruitment for Northern Ireland, based upon the fact that out recruitment levels are already up and we can fill some of the gap that I mentioned. The Government responded to us on that point, and we are doing some more recruitment through the Territorial Army and the reserves. I am also conscious of the fact that there are those who have risen through the ranks of life and those who come in at graduate level. A delicate balance of understanding must be found.
I will quickly touch on the spending plans, another issue that weighs upon my heart. While we can and must be wise and good stewards of money, we cannot afford to cut back on the planned spending of £178 billion on kit and maintenance and projects such as the F-35 fighter, Dreadnought nuclear submarines and the P-8 Poseidon spy planes. On procurement, I make a plea to the Minister to make sure that we get some of the contracts in Northern Ireland. The Minister knows that I want that—I have said it before, and I ask for her consideration on that matter. We look to her to honour the spending commitments and to honour our troops.
I would and could not finish without thanking those who wear our uniform for all that they do and reiterating our determination to do right by our past and present military personnel. I say to them: your sacrifice will ever be appreciated, and we will stand with you in and out of uniform.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing this very important debate.
Britannia Royal Naval College in Devon stands high on a hill overlooking the Dart estuary and the town of Dartmouth. It is an impressive building, designed to instil a sense of pride and purpose in all those who have marched up its famous steps, to awe all who set eyes upon it and to leave no one in any doubt about the importance that this island nation places on the strength of its Navy. Along the front of the building are engraved the following words:
“It is upon the Navy, under the good providence of God, that the Wealth, Prosperity and peace of these Islands do depend”.
Those words are as true today as they were when they were first set down more than 340 years ago. For although it is very easy to forget, this is an island nation, forever dependent on open sea lanes and peace on the high seas for its survival.
To prove that point, let me go through some facts and figures. Some 90 % of global trade is carried at sea. The top ten trading nations in the world account for 47% of the total of world trade, and the UK is the fifth largest trader, with 17.3 billion tonnes of goods imported alone, with a value of more than £525 billion. UK ports, the shipping industry and trade support more than 600,000 jobs in this country, and 40% of the UK’s food is imported at an annual value of more than £32 billion. Oil is of vital importance to my constituency in Aberdeenshire, and more than half the world’s oil supply is moved through set maritime routes, mostly through eight maritime choke points. Disruption at any one of those can have a devastating impact on the oil price. The strait of Hormuz between Iran and the UAE, for example, sees 17 million barrels of oil per day pass through a 29 mile-wide corridor. In the very recent past we have seen how easy it is to disrupt that trade. It is estimated that piracy off the Horn of Africa in the last years of the previous decade cost global trade $6.9 billion per year, before it was brought under control though the actions of, among others, British vessels working with our partners in Operation Atalanta—an operation with its headquarters here, at Northwood in Hertfordshire.
My point is that as we are a global, island nation, maritime trade is our lifeblood. As such, a strong, flexible, globally deployable Royal Navy is vital. The future make-up of our armed forces must reflect that, and not only for the reasons that I have set out. If we truly want to be at the forefront of the war on drugs or the war on terror, and to be a nation that does not shirk from its international responsibility to provide humanitarian aid to parts of the world ravaged by natural disasters, we need a senior service that is equipped with the tools, and manned with the people, to do the job.
Flexibility has been a watchword in this debate. Would my hon. Friend support flexibility in the budgets of Government Department’s engaged abroad? I would like to see aid, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, defence and security budgets interlinked, to allow us to focus on the most pressing priorities in each country where we have a presence, rather than seeing each Department working on their own independent causes without the proper co-ordination that is sometimes required.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments on that point.
I stand here proud that, for all we talk today about moving towards a more flexible, agile armed forces, armed and trained to fight the asymmetric wars of the future, the Conservative Government have proven, in not only words but actions, that they do not suffer, as other Governments have, from sea-blindness. In this year of the Navy we have already seen major developments, including HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest warship and most advanced aircraft carrier in the history of the Navy, sailing from Rosyth in Scotland and undertaking sea trials before arriving in Portsmouth later this summer. Her younger sister, HMS Prince of Wales, will enter the water for the first time at Rosyth—again, in Scotland—later this year. The Type 26 frigate programme, to be built in Scotland, continues apace. The first of the Navy’s five next-generation patrol ships, HMS Forth, also built in Scotland, will begin her sea trials.
Outside Scotland—I suppose I have to mention that as well—design and manufacture will continue on the multi-million pound Crowsnest, the early-warning eyes in the sky system for the helicopters that will protect the new carriers. The first of our four Tide-class tankers, RFA Tidespring, has arrived and is undergoing UK customisation work. The fourth Astute-class submarine has entered the water at Barrow. I am proud that it is Scotland, specifically HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane, that is home to our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, the cornerstone of our defence policy. I am equally proud that it is the Conservative party—and, it would seem, only that party—that is truly committed to renewing our deterrent, thereby contributing to the security of not only ourselves but our friends, overseas territories and allies.
I know there are problems in recruitment and retention. I know that the propulsion issues on the Type 45s are not good for the image of the fleet or for the morale of those serving in it. Cuts, although necessary after we were left, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot mentioned, with a £30 billion black hole in the defence budget, obviously left the Navy feeling leaner and more stretched than before. Many, possibly including me, hanker for the days when ships lay six abreast at Pompey, Devonport or Rosyth, when you could cross the Solent without even getting wet—at least, that is what is said. Those days are sadly behind us. What we must do now, and what the Government are doing by not only increasing the budget but for the first time in many years increasing the size of our fleet, is to ensure that as we debate the future of our armed forces in general, the Royal Navy is fit to fight the battles of the 21st century.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), because I also intend to speak about the Navy. I want to pay tribute to not only our armed forces but all the civilians who work with them. It is important that their contribution is also noted, because without them we would not have the armed forces that we have today.
Defence is an issue close to my heart. I have asked the Minister a few questions on the subject, and I am sure I will ask more. I am the son of a submariner, and the future shape of the Royal Navy is important not only to my family but to Plymouth, which I represent. The challenge now is how to adapt the Navy to serve the challenges that we face as a country. I fear that the 2010 and 2015 SDSRs did not do us many favours in creating the shape of the Royal Navy that we need. We have too few escort frigates. We need more, and they need to be more capable in their defensive and offensive weaponry. I am deeply concerned about the armaments on the Type 26 and Type 31, because they do not provide the full-spectrum capabilities that those frigates require in the face of the threats they will be asked to meet.
I am concerned that there is a broad capability gap in our Royal Navy at times, which can best be summed up in what is happening with HMS Ocean, a Devonport-based helicopter carrier. In 2015 there was much hullaballoo in Plymouth after rumours that the Conservative Government were going to scrap HMS Ocean. We had reassurance from the Minister that that was not true, but three months later it was announced that HMS Ocean was indeed to be scrapped and sold off. I am concerned that the Government have still not addressed in the latest SDSR the lack of helicopter carrier capability, especially carriers able to operate in littoral waters, and that needs to be looked at. It is inconceivable that we would put a carrier—a capital ship of that size—so close to the shore that it can adequately deploy a two company lift without having the support of a littoral capability. Our carriers do not have such capability, so I am concerned as to how that fits.
HMS Ocean is not our only amphibious craft. HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, two more Devonport-based ships, are also vital to the Royal Navy’s ability to deploy. One of them is tied up alongside at the moment and the other one is back on sea trials. We need to look again at our full-spectrum capabilities in the Royal Navy to make sure they are adequate.
On the frigate conundrum, I am pleased that the Minister has ordered three Type 26 frigates. I would like to see a full order book. I was in nappies when previous Governments ordered the Type 23s, the workhorse of our Royal Navy, but if we look at the costs of splitting the batches of the Type 23s and at the procurement of ships in the past, we know that we derive greater value from ordering in larger batches. The large cost of the three Type 26s could be reduced further if we ordered more of them at the same time. There could be a risk that we will switch production from Type 26s to Type 31s, which means there is a concern about how skills and efficiencies can be derived from the yards in Scotland where they will be produced.
We have a huge opportunity to make sure that the Type 31 is an adequate and capable frigate. At the moment the outline for the Type 31 frigate includes only one offensive weapon, which is its main gun. Will the Minister think carefully about the capabilities of not only the Type 26 but the Type 31 as well? If we are asking the Type 31 frigates to be put in harm’s way, having one offensive weapon on the entire ship is insufficient. I am pleased that the Artisan radar for the Type 23s will continue on the Type 26s, but there is much to be done on capabilities. Will the Minister think again about how much weaponry we put on the Type 26s and the Type 31s?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) for securing this debate. In speaking this afternoon I feel a huge degree of deference to those in the room who have military experience, but we need to reach out to the public if we are to have any discussion of the future of our armed forces. In Walsall North we have three remembrance monuments: in Willenhall, Bloxwich and Short Heath. I will work with the Royal British Legion to ensure that we continue the Remembrance Day parades in those areas, although unfortunately the police are no longer agreeing to road closures for those areas.
Things have changed hugely since the world wars. At the time when I was born, we had Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. I understand that we had 21,000 troops stationed in Northern Ireland at that time. Sadly, 700 of those military personnel lost their lives owing to paramilitary attacks. Coming forward closer to home, the Good Friday agreement and lengthy diplomacy means that now we have only hundreds of troops there instead of thousands.
What is the state of the British military in terms of troop numbers? I read an interesting article from 2014 in The Daily Telegraph at the weekend that made a perhaps unfortunate comparison between the number of troops and the number of hairdressers that we have in the UK. At that time we had 185,000 hairdressers, but only approximately 160,000 troops. That feels like a disproportionate balance to me. Where are we today? The papers that came to us in preparation for this meeting suggest that we have not reached the 2020 targets, although we are trying hard to do that, and the adverts tell me that I have people who were born in Willenhall and Bloxwich, but have been made in the Royal Navy.
Our troops are operating in 80 different areas around the world. People in Walsall North will be familiar with some of those areas, such as the Falklands, but perhaps not so familiar with Bahrain, other than as a venue for the Grand Prix. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot has written about Bahrain, and I have read his papers. I understand that we have recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of Anglo-Bahraini relations, and the port there is the second busiest area of activity for the Royal Navy outside of Portsmouth.
We deploy troops around the world, but the nature of combat is changing. On 7 October 2001, American forces used the first drone strike two months after 9/11. They have subsequently argued about whose fault it was that it hit the wrong target. The RAF took delivery of 10 drones in 2007. For the benefit of people in Walsall North, I point out that those drones cost approximately £10 million each and fire Hellfire missiles at a cost of £120,000 each. That is sophisticated but expensive equipment. They can fly for 30 hours and can be operated by people thousands of miles away. However, they are no replacement for boots on the ground. We cannot over-exaggerate the reassurance that local people in war zones around the world will feel from having the benefit of our brilliant, brave and well-trained troops offering them reassurance on their safety for the future. The first rule for any Government is that they must protect their residents. We must ensure that we provide sufficient funding for them to do so adequately.
We all know that the first duty of Government is the defence of the state, which historically has meant defending it at any cost, but that may no longer be the case. Western public opinion is not prepared for ever increasing amounts of money to be spent on defence. The last really big conflict, the second world war, was the best part of a lifetime ago. Never in modern history has there been such a gap between wars in Europe. Not being threatened by war makes the public increasingly reluctant to divert funds from such things as hospitals and schools towards military forces—just in case they are needed—when we need those hospitals and schools now. Clearly the armed forces will have many fewer soldiers, sailors and airmen than they did in the past, and almost every one of their training or operational activities will be gauged against cost.
The days of large-scale operations and exercises are over. We shall definitely need more specialised troops—special forces. Those forces are clearly expanding. The Special Reconnaissance Regiment—I was in one of its antecedents—has been formally established, and a parachute battalion is now specifically tasked with supporting 22 SAS. Increasingly we must expect our military forces to operate on the streets of the United Kingdom in plain clothes, supporting the police, the special branches and the security forces on such things as surveillance. It takes 20 people to watch one person. Also, the country is taking the threat of cyber-warfare seriously—witness the establishment of 77th Brigade, which combines Regular Army and Army Reserve forces. It draws on specialists nationwide, and does not necessarily look very military in what it does. Hacking can be more deadly than any gun.
Clearly our armed forces will be much smaller than in the past, which is disgraceful. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) that we do not have enough troops; 82,000 is laughable. The total number of soldiers, sailors and airmen in uniform is about 160,000 to 170,000, which means our armed forces are smaller than they have been since the 17th century. Of course I want 2% of GDP to be spent on defence, but I want more than that: I want us to sort out what we need to spend on defence. We should conduct our reviews by looking at what we need—not against a figure. Some have suggested that the days of armoured vehicles are over, but developments such as the Russian T-99 and the Chinese Type 99A1 suggest that that view is not held by everyone. Armed forces must still be designed to combat state-on-state conflict. It is our duty to have decent soldiers who can deter.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger; I appreciate the opportunity to be squeezed into the debate, and I thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) for securing this important and timely debate. I want to focus on a small number of issues that have been taxing my mind for some time, with regard to the structure of the British armed forces. A number of hon. Members have spoken with great knowledge about the senior service, the Royal Navy. No one has specifically discussed the RAF, and a crueller man than I am might suggest that that is because they are the RAF, and they kind of deserve it—but I would not want anyone to think that. [Interruption.] Ah, no— my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) mentioned the RAF, so never mind, that is forgiven.
I want to focus on the Army, but some things that I say will be broadly applicable to the armed forces as a whole. I will echo some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, to the effect that the key word is flexibility. I was pleased that Her Majesty outlined in her Gracious Speech the Government’s willingness to introduce the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill. This is the right time, if not perhaps slightly overdue, to recognise the different demographics of people joining the armed forces. I cannot help thinking that if we were better at managing flexible working for armed forces personnel we would not lose so many people at the pinch point where personal and family circumstances and military commitments conspire to put them under pressure that forces them to leave. If we could find a way to manage the transitions from full-time to part-time and back, we would not lose so many highly experienced and important individuals.
I am going to be an unapologetic nerd on the subject of equipment. As a Conservative, I obviously believe that all the questions of the future are answered somewhere in the past, and I draw the Minister’s attention to other periods in our military history when we have been under huge—often existential—threat as well as severe financial limitations. It should be noted that in the brigades and divisions that went ashore at Normandy the Sherman tank platform had commonality across a wide range of weapon systems. There were the standard Shermans, with the Sherman Firefly in support, the Sexton 25-pounder armoured gun and the Achilles anti-tank gun, all based on a common Sherman chassis, which meant that spares and repairs were easily and efficiently delivered to the front line. I welcome the fact that we are moving to a shared platform now for our strike brigades, and I urge Ministers not to do what we have done throughout our history, which is to start with the best intentions for commonality and shared platforms, and then drift until finally the hard-working men and women in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers are presented with a plethora of platforms that they have to repair and maintain during conflict. Flexibility as to people and platforms must be the watchword.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on bringing the issue before the House. It is one that affects us all, irrespective of our background. I have been struck by the thoughtful, intelligent and knowledgeable contributions to the debate, which have done the House proud.
All roads lead back to the last strategic defence and security review, and it would be inappropriate if I did not mention the preceding one, too, which was an extremely rushed and botched job as a preparation of the country for its own defence. However, the current SDSR is perhaps, if anything, slightly over-ambitious, in that many of the things it contains are difficult to deliver in the timescales. Indeed, it ignores some future challenges and, as has been mentioned, falls into the trap of fighting the last war when the Government should be considering the future threats facing the nation, and some of the opportunities for gain, such as using defence for the growth of the economy.
In Scotland, we are seeing cuts to bases and the diminution of our defence footprint. HMS Caledonia in my constituency, Fort George in the highlands and Glencorse barracks in Edinburgh are all under threat, and that is after decades of an imbalanced defence footprint across the UK. Many Members have mentioned bases and the support they have in their constituencies, whether in Wiltshire or Hampshire, which seem to be awash with military bases. I remind hon. Members that the Royal Navy surface fleet is based no further north than the south coast of England.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will try to make some progress. Just give me a second if that is okay, and I may take an intervention later.
The Navy, for example, has more admirals than ships, and not one of those admirals is based in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. If there is to be another SDSR, it must balance the strategic defence needs of the whole of the UK.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), who has just departed, has been a long-standing advocate of ensuring that the UK, and, by extension, Scotland, takes more account of the threats that face us from the north. The fact that we do not have a surface ship based in Scotland to protect our coastline from increasing Russian submarine incursions into our waters needs to be considered in any future SDSR.
The hon. Gentleman says that there are no surface vessels based in Scotland, but that is patently untrue. The mine counter measures squadron is based solely at Faslane, which if I am not mistaken is north of the border in Scotland.
What a tremendous example: one single minesweeper to deal with the whole of the North sea and the north Atlantic. I am sure everyone in Scotland will sleep easy in their beds tonight.
The hon. Member for Aldershot started his speech by talking about the importance of people. The overall issue is that all three services are currently running significantly under strength—I think the figure across the three services is in the region of 5%. I am told that some critical parts of those services, such as submariners, are about 25% under strength at the moment, and there is continuing pressure for qualified technicians and engineers. While I know that the Minister has made some good progress on recruitment and retention, which we welcome, that has clearly not gone far enough if we are to protect our nation at home, to defend communities here at home and look at our international obligations.
On the positives, does the hon. Gentleman recognise the contribution of our cadet training forces across the United Kingdom, such as the 383 Alloa Air Training Corps in my constituency, and that we are investing in youth, which will help supply the manpower for our forces in the future?
I am always happy to endorse a neighbouring constituency and the work done there. Again, recruitment into cadet forces and support for them is important if we are to build up the defence structure and infrastructure we need and invest in people from a very young age to ensure that they have the skills and competence to deal with future threats.
There has been much discussion in recent days about the 1% pay cap, and while we immediately think of teachers, nurses and people who work in the public sector, that cap is having a huge detrimental effect on our armed forces. Is the Minister in a position to consider the Government’s policy on that in terms of recruitment and retention? For the people currently in our armed forces, there is often a much more attractive life for them in civvy street, where they are not away from home for months on end and the pay and conditions are much more amenable to family life. Will the Minister commit to considering the pay deal in a future SDSR? The issue for her in doing that is that the budget is predicated on an annual 1% increase in pay for all armed forces; any more than that and the overall defence budget begins to become seriously unbalanced. With a Government whose stated aim is to live within our means, there will be no wage increase for our serving personnel beyond the 1% until the Government promote another, more flexible SDSR.
On other financial commitments in the budget, big ticket items such as the F-35 and P-8 are two examples of very expensive pieces of kit procured in the USA. We have seen those costs rise because of the weakness of the pound, which makes imports more expensive, sometimes to the tune of 20%. I know the Minister has previously said that we are hedging as much as we can to ensure the budget is protected, but we cannot protect 100% of costs involved in the current SDSR through hedging.
My final point is on shipbuilding and the Navy, which is critical to what is an island nation. After much asking, pushing and haranguing, the Minister will know that the national shipbuilding strategy is still to be published. As some people in Europe would say, “The clock is ticking.” We need a commitment to replace the Type 26s and Type 31s—ships used to protect our aircraft carriers. Although there has been an announcement for three, which is welcome, three is not 13. The clock is ticking on that one. We need an SDSR that does not fight previous wars but balances the needs of all of the UK and truly meets the needs of our serving personnel and their families. On all those issues, the clock is ticking.
On Monday, The Times talked about some of the problems with the F-35 programme. Sir Richard Barrons called for a move away from metal and platforms and to think seriously about how to construct armed forces fit for
“warfare in the information age”.
That is where we are at the moment. I hope the Minister will give some consideration to the points raised and consider producing another SDSR that will meet the needs for a new century.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing this debate. No doubt, the fact that he was the Conservative candidate in Caerphilly in 2015 stood him in enormously good stead in terms of his future career.
We have had a good debate, with a variety of contributions. We have heard about the Navy and the Royal Air Force as well as the Army. We have heard about Scotland, accommodation and some of the problems and dilemmas that the armed forces face in the future. We all agree that the armed forces deserve our unreserved, full and unqualified support—we are all united on that.
It has to be said that when I saw the motion of the debate on the future of the armed forces, what sprung to mind was the problems we have seen at the Ministry of Defence in the past few months, and the continuing problems that have been widely reported. There have been reports in The Sunday Times and The Times only this week about: F-35 Lightning aircraft and their cost and suitability; Type 45, 26 and 31E surface ships; the lack of surface-to-air missiles in the Navy; the difficulties of the Astute submarine; problems with the Ajax armoured vehicle programme; the Warrior capability sustainability programme; and the difficulties with the new Queen Elizabeth carrier. The list could go on and on. I want to ask the Minister specifically: when will we see the new shipbuilding strategy? It has been promised and promised, and promised again. It is high time that we saw the strategy. When will it be published?
On top of all of those difficulties, there is the lack of personnel in our armed forces. The Army is, as we have heard, woefully under strength, and rumours are rife that there may well be further cuts in the future. The RAF could certainly do with more personnel, but the shortages are most acute—arguably in the short term—in the Royal Navy.
That is happening at a time when there is greater uncertainty and unpredictability across the world than ever before. Against that backdrop, the United Kingdom is in the process of withdrawing from the European Union and questions are being asked by our traditional allies about our future co-operation with them. It has to be said that even the Americans are questioning Britain’s international commitments and our resolve to make sure that our armed forces are properly equipped, with sufficient and appropriate personnel. Our answer to those concerns must be that we want to see military co-operation with our European partners continue, and more than anything else we must strongly back NATO.
In the Army, despite the Government’s promises—including their 2015 manifesto commitment to have an Army strength of 82,000—the full-time strength of the Army in May 2017 was only 78,150. That is nearly 4,000 short of the MOD’s 2020 target. According to information provided to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), the Minister of State for Defence, Earl Howe, has indicated that many of the infantry training courses that we have in this country have large vacancies. That applies to Catterick, Purbeck, Winchester and Harrogate, for infantry training courses for 2015, 2016 and 2017. This must be a cause of concern for us all.
In the Navy, there is a worry that personnel are being transferred from other ships to the new carrier because of a lack of qualified personnel. The problem is most acute regarding engineering skills, and so serious is the problem that the Royal Navy is now offering short-term contracts for ex-Navy personnel who are in their late 50s and even for 60-year-olds. Surely this highlights the need for a long-term strategic commitment to proper and well-financed training.
With regard to the Army, much of the recruitment is now in the hands of Capita, a private sector company. The contracts signed with Capita have been much criticised by the National Audit Office and there is growing disquiet in the Army itself about Capita’s performance. Capita would argue that it is now meeting the targets set for it, but I am told that many of the young recruits are being falsely attracted and when they realise what the Army is all about, they leave. There is a growing problem with retention and it appears that Capita is contributing to it.
As we heard from the hon. Member for Aldershot, lessons must be learned from Iraq and Afghanistan; indeed, I would argue that lessons must be learned from all the conflict situations that we have been involved in recently. We have to recognise that the threats that we will face in the future will not be tackled simply. There is the ongoing threat of terrorism, which may assume other forms, but, as has been mentioned, there is also the threat of a growingly assertive Russia. That threat will not go away in the near future.
What we need in the future in response to those new threats is flexibility, diversity and adequate levels of funding. Yes, 2% may not be enough, certainly as it is defined by the Government, but we need appropriate co-operation with our allies, which will help to ensure the most vital ingredient of all—the good morale of all our armed forces.
It is truly an honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Roger, and it is a privilege to respond to this debate. It has been a very good and effective debate on a topic that we often do not have the opportunity to discuss, so I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing it. I also congratulate him and his gallant colleagues on participating in it. It has been truly fascinating to hear of his distinguished service and the contribution it makes to our deliberations in this place.
I would point out that it would normally be the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), who would respond to this debate, but he is going out to visit some of our brave men and women on deployment at the moment, so he sends his regrets for not being with us today.
Several common themes emerged in the debate. I will attempt in the time available to me to touch on each of them. The first was the importance of the armed forces covenant in all our communities. I hope that everyone here today can share with me the aspiration that next year, when we have the 10th anniversary of Armed Forces Day, we will help our local areas to put on a really tremendous celebration. I am proud to have been part of the Government that enshrined the armed forces covenant in law in 2011.
We also heard about some of the issues around accommodation; in particular, from the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who spoke very forcefully. A new contract was announced today with Carillion. In the last financial year we put another £68 million into accommodation, but I will certainly pass back what the hon. Gentleman said about the issues he has seen in his constituency.
I certainly heard a lot of support from Government Members for spending at least 2% of GDP on defence. I hope that the Labour party shares that aspiration; it was in its manifesto.
Nevertheless, it is a shame that we have not had quite as good a turnout of Labour Members as we have had of Government Members.
A number of colleagues mentioned the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill. That has started its passage through the House in the Lords, and I was glad to hear a range of supportive voices from the Government Benches for that legislation.
We heard about the issue around the base closure at York, which is scheduled to happen in 2031. We hope that setting such a long-term time horizon will give people the chance to plan around it, and of course there will be significant investment in the Catterick garrison, which is about an hour away from York, in terms of basing decisions.
I really must protest, Minister, that in my constituency there is not one military unit, and I want that rectified. What is she going to do about it?
I think that everyone can see that my hon. Friend himself embodies that military unit. Beckenham is well served in terms of the voice of the armed forces.
A number of hon. Members talked about celebrating the year of the Navy. It is a very exciting year, with HMS Queen Elizabeth going off on her sea trials from Scotland recently. It was also very exciting to announce recently the first of the new frigates, the Type 26. I assure the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) that not only will the way we are ordering the frigates ensure that we have those eight anti-submarine warfare frigates, but it will provide the best value for the public purse. That idea is behind the approach we are taking.
As far as the Type 31e is concerned, we are still in the pre-concept phase on that, and the approach that we take on procurement is that we will always make decisions at the last responsible moment.
Will the Minister give an assurance that she will encourage the use of as much British steel in the new frigates as is humanly possible?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. We have published our requirement—I think it is about 4,000 tonnes of steel per frigate—on the Government pipeline website, and we encourage our contractor to look where possible to procure British steel.
As for the other issues raised on the naval front, a number of hon. Members asked about the national shipbuilding strategy. I can certainly say that it will be published in due course, but we are aware of the excitement in Scotland among those awaiting the report. Given the previous exciting events I have mentioned in terms of the Navy in Scotland, we do not want to overexcite the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) with everything all at once.
I can assure the Minister that I am an extremely calm person. The time we have been waiting for the shipbuilding strategy has become unacceptable. We were told in previous debates and in answer to questions that the strategy was expected by spring. Then, in the Minister’s own words, it was expected by summer. Going by the weather outside, it is summer. Can she give us a date for when she expects to make the announcement?
I am pleased that we are giving the hon. Gentleman ships. This week, we are cutting steel on the first of the Type 26s. We have had the HMS Queen Elizabeth sea trials. We will be naming the HMS Prince of Wales later this year. I was up in Govan cutting steel on an offshore patrol vessel earlier this year. We are giving him ships, and he will get his shipbuilding strategy in due course. By the way, he is wrong to say that there is no admiral in Scotland, because Rear Admiral John Weale, the Flag Officer for Scotland and Northern Ireland, lives on his road in Argyll and Bute.
To clarify, I am not the Member for Argyll and Bute.
I apologise. The admiral lives nearby.
I want to reassure colleagues on the stories in The Times this week about the F-35 joint strike fighter. We strongly disagree with the conclusions that the journalists came to. We are confident that the programme is within its budget envelope, despite the fluctuation in the exchange rate. We are also proud of the amazing capability it is demonstrating. We already have 10 of the planes in the States, as colleagues will know. We have about 100 British pilots and ground crew over there, with the pilots learning how to fly them. I have had the pleasure of speaking to one of them, who used to fly the Harrier. He said that this jet is the most amazing jet he has ever come across. The Navy and the Air Force are excited about the arrival of the planes into the UK.
In terms of our overall aspiration for defence, our vision is that we will protect our people, our territories, our values and our interests at home and overseas through strong armed forces and in partnership with allies to ensure our security and to safeguard our prosperity. This debate is a welcome opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the defence and security of our country and to the armed forces, which so many Members have spoken about and of which we are all so very proud. I pay tribute to the many servicemen and servicewomen who are currently involved in operations at home and overseas to ensure our safety, security and prosperity.
Our armed forces are exceptionally busy. More than 24,000 servicemen and women were deployed on operations at some point during the past 12 months. The RAF has carried out some 1,300 air strikes in Iraq and more than 140 in Syria as part of our comprehensive strategy to defeat Daesh, working with our global coalition partners. Nearly 400 British soldiers are providing engineering and medical support as part of the United Nations mission in South Sudan. Some 500 personnel are still serving in Afghanistan, working with the NATO mission to support the Afghan security forces. With NATO, we have deployed a battlegroup to Estonia. The Royal Navy continues, as it has done since 1969—that is nearly 50 years—to provide our nuclear deterrent patrols, which are at sea every minute of every hour of every day. The Navy maintains an enduring presence in the Gulf and the south Atlantic.
There are many, many other operations and deployments in which our forces are demonstrating daily their unparalleled commitment and dedication to duty, and I am sorry I can mention only those few examples in the time available. This debate is about the future shape of the armed forces. I remind Members that two years ago the Government announced the biggest programme of new investment in our armed forces for a generation. The 2015 strategic defence and security review identified an uncertain world—several colleagues have reiterated that—that is changing rapidly and fundamentally. In response, the SDSR defined the role, size and capabilities of the Navy, Army and Air Force for the next 10 years. Joint Force 25, which is now coming into being, will ensure that the armed forces remain able both to conduct the full range of operations that they might be called upon to undertake and to succeed against ever more sophisticated and capable adversaries.
Colleagues mentioned cyber-security, which is a very important area of investment. We announced a further £1.9 billion investment in the SDSR to go into our cyber capabilities, whether that is to defend the homeland, to deter people from attacking us or in the offensive capability that has been used in the conflict in Iraq and Syria. We have the fully comprehensive national cyber-security strategy too.
In the time available to me, I will skip quickly through some points. It is important to emphasise that we are committed to increasing our defence budget in every year of this Parliament. That increase is not only linked to the size of the economy, but will be at least 0.5% above inflation every year for the rest of this Parliament. We are already the second largest defence spender in NATO and the fifth largest in the world. We will sustain that investment by continuing to meet the NATO guideline. We plan to spend £178 billion on new equipment and equipment support between 2016 and 2026. Colleagues raised points around that, but that investment will allow us to maintain the size and capabilities of the armed forces with impressive new equipment.
I have mentioned the first of the new aircraft carriers. The second is coming along pretty snappily behind. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) said, they are the largest ships that have ever been built for the Royal Navy. It is an immense achievement for those who designed and built her, and for those now serving aboard her. We have also committed to building the four new Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines to provide our nuclear deterrent through until the 2050s at least. I can confirm that we will have eight new Type 26 global combat ships—the anti-submarine warfare ones—and steel will be cut on the first of those by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence tomorrow in Glasgow. I have mentioned other points about the Navy.
I wanted to talk about equipment for the Army. Divisions will be further reinforced by enhanced communications, which is very important. There will also be improved Warrior infantry fighting vehicles. I simply disagree with the tone of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who talked down what we are doing and talked down all these programmes. The programmes are incredibly complicated and complex, and the people involved in delivering them are to be admired and thanked. We are also doing a life extension programme for our Challenger 2 tanks. We are ordering 50 upgraded Apache and Chinook helicopters.
Without having enough time to touch even the tip of the iceberg in all the things that are happening, I will conclude. In every aspect of what makes our armed forces among the very best in the world—whether that is the equipment they operate, the training they undertake or the men and women who serve in the Navy, Army and Air Force—the Government are working and investing for the future; a future in which Britain has the right armed forces to ensure the safety and security of our people.
Thank you very much for your chairmanship today, Sir Roger. I thank the Minister for responding and all colleagues who have taken the time to come and contribute today. The Romans were fond of saying, “If you wish for peace, you must prepare for war”, and I will be conclude by saying that I am confident that this Government and her Ministers will allow our great country to do just that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future shape of the armed forces.