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There is clearly a tension between what Ministers in the Ministry of Defence think the armed forces should be doing and what the armed forces can do within the tight restraints of their budget. To understand this tension, we need to take a few steps back to 1997, when the present Government were elected on a manifesto
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promise to undertake a strategic defence review. It was intended to be the biggest review of the armed forces since the cold war. It was described in a Library briefing as
"a foreign policy-led review to re-assess the UK's national interests and likely overseas commitments in the post-Cold War strategic environment to 2015, and then to establish how the UK's Armed Forces should be structured and deployed in order to meet those interests and commitments."
We then had the terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001, which changed the world landscape. Another chapter was hurriedly added to the strategic defence review: indeed, it was titled "A New Chapter" and was published in July 2002. It sought to re-examine the UK's defence in response to the challenges of international terrorism and the issues highlighted by the events of 11 September. The Defence Secretary told the House in a statement on 17 October 2002:
"Across Government, we have now been set new challenges by international terrorism. We have set in train work to re-examine our defence policy and plans in the light of the terrorist threat demonstrated by 11 September . . . As a result, we published a new chapter to the strategic defence review on 18 July. It shows that the strategic defence review's emphasis on expeditionary operations working with allies was right, but demonstratescruciallyhow best to use our forces against a different sort of enemy: one that is determined, well hidden and vastly different from the conventional forces that we might have expected to face in the past." [Official Report, 17 October 2002; Vol. 390, c. 500.]
All that represented a conundrum to Ministers. On the one hand, the strategic defence review was supposed to bring significant cuts to the armed forces and the size of the defence budget. On the other, the horrific events of 11 September would lead to additional commitments that UK armed forces would need to undertake. What has happened? On 26 July last year, two years after "A New Chapter", the RAF was cut by 12,000 personnel, the Royal Navy lost 5,000 men and the Army had 5,500 troops axed. Overall, the armed forces are to be reduced by a 10th, with many ships and tanks being scrapped in what is nothing short of a political and moral betrayal.
Not only were personnel being cut, the kit was also cut. The focus on loss of equipment is especially relevant to my constituency and the MOD facilities based at Bicester and Caversfield. Ministers have been arguing that the armed forces need less kit, and that with less kit come fewer personnel. Ministers perversely claim that such cuts are being made because the UK faces a new threat and that advances in technology mean that a little kit will go a long way. That is what Ministers claim, but few have been convinced.
Let us consider, for instance, the excellent Defence Committee report late last year on the defence White Paper. It brilliantly summed up the paradox in which the Ministry of Defence finds itself. It states:
"As the post-conflict stage in Iraq has shown, a great deal more is required to achieve the objectives of an effects-based operation than advanced military technologies in the hands of numerically small forces."
In other words, a little kit does not necessarily go a long way. Armed personnel still need to be armed and properly kitted out. Despite what the Secretary of State said in his statement on "A New Chapter" about
The MOD facilities based in my constituency have been crucial to the ongoing operations in Iraq, as they were during the first Gulf war. There are two significant MOD operations in north Oxfordshire: the Defence Logistics Organisation and the Defence Storage and Distribution Centre. During the first days of the war in Iraq, the DSDC dispatched more than 2,700 International Organisation for Standardisation containers of supplies to troops. If those containers were stacked end to end, they would cover the whole length of the M40.
The DLO, the DSDC and all those who work there are crucial, and continue to be crucial, to UK operations in Iraq and elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, the DSDC was able to deploy more than twice the amount of kit in half the amount of time during the Iraq conflict in comparison with the previous Gulf war. The DSDC and all who work there are clearly demonstrating greater efficiency and effectiveness, but Ministers want their operations severely cut back. They are suggesting savings of 28 per cent.a huge amount. If Ministers said that they wanted the equivalent cuts of 30 per cent. to social services in Oxfordshire, the community would see huge chunks of services vanish overnight.
I took a delegation last year from the DSDC in Bicester to meet the Secretary of State, who gave a commitment that any in-house bid put together at MOD Bicester would be fairly considered against bids from just the private sector, but nothing in the defence White Paper or the Secretary of State's subsequent statements to the House suggest that a trading fund for defence logistics has a genuine chance. Yet there are genuine benefits in undertaking a trading fundit could make the substantial efficiency savings that the MOD wants and preserve jobs at Bicester. Those who advocate a trading fund are confident that it can meet the 28 per cent. savings that the MOD wants.
There is a genuine fear that almost all the jobs will be lost in and around Bicester. That is underscored by the Minister's comments about the work that the MOD is undertaking. He said that
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"further work will look at options for incremental collocation, using the existing Abbey Wood site in Bristol as the hub of the MOD acquisition community, and the extent to which the DLO retains staff at other sites".
None of that is reassuring for local people that jobs are safe. Rather, it suggests that jobs may be secured at Bristol, but not at Bicester. There is a suspicion in the community that Ministers are preparing local people for a soft landing on those job losses.
In less than four months, we will know the extent of the job losses. The signs are that, overall, more jobs will be lost at Bicester than anywhere else in the country. Ministers have indicated neither how many jobs will be transferredvery few I suspect, given that Bristol already has an extensive DLO operationnor how long it will be before the jobs are phased out. They have not said what assistance will be given to those who will definitely lose their jobs at Caversfield.
"We are left wondering whether the Defence White Paper is properly set in the strategic context of Britain's security circumstances, or whether it is more a reflection of what the UK has actually been doing for the last three years, and the existence of a number of legacy systems of whose continuing importance the MoD is uncertain. In other words it is far from clear whether the review process has actually been effects-led, or rather resource driven."
Much attention has rightly been paid to the bravery of our armed forces in Iraq and there isagain rightlyconsiderable dismay about the number of regiments that have served in Iraq and the Gulf and are now under threat. However, there are also unseen heroes, who have worked very hard for long hours, often through the night, to make sure that our troops overseas in the middle east and elsewhere are properly kitted out. They have done that without fuss, at great speed, effectively and efficiently. Many of those unseen heroes work at Bicester and Caversfield, yet their jobs are now under serious threat.
There is a long-standing convention that Ministers do not make controversial announcements around the time of a general election, so if there is to be a poll on 5 May, perhaps Ministers hope that they can delay any announcement until after the election. However, I hope that, whenever such an announcement is made, it is not sneaked out. That is the least those unseen civilian MOD staff at DLO and DSDC deserve.
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