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Mr. Ancram: Is the Secretary of State saying that the chiefs of staff agree with the number of men proposed at the moment? I seem to recall that General Sir Mike Jackson said that he could do with a lot more men.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is nodding at that statement, as if it verified the wisdom of his belief. Agreeing with oneself is the norm in the House, but that does not necessarily make something
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true. Of course, instead of two 20,000-tonne aircraft carriers there is a desire to have two 60,000-tonne carriers. We have heard such requests. People want five aircraft carriers, twice as many troops and 300 Eurofighters.
John Reid: In the past 20 to 25 years, we have had two through-deck cruisers, which are smaller 20,000-tonne aircraft carriers. The Government have committed themselves to two 60,000-tonne aircraft carriers by 2012. We are committed to that forward programme. Nothing like that was ordered under the previous Government. We have ordered the one of the best combat aircraft in the world, the Typhoon, previously the Eurofighter, which is second only to an American model. We have introduced an immense range of equipment and capital expenditure. Of course, we must try to balance that with the number of personnel, but the Opposition should not consider that the reconfiguration of the infantry division is merely a way of cutting numbers. It is notit is a thorough reorganisation in which we have got rid of the arms plot and all the inefficiencies involved in training people for six months to a year, giving them two years in a particular role, then retraining them. I can assure the Opposition that that has been warmly welcomed not only by General Jackson and the chiefs of staff but by the infantrymen and women whom I met in the past 48 hours. It is a long overdue modernisation and reform of infantry battalions.
Mr. Kevan Jones: Is it not also correct that General Jackson has put in place and supports not only the arms plot but the efficiency measures to which my right hon. Friend has just referred, none of which steps were taken during the 18 years of Conservative Government? Is it not also a fact that communities such as the north-east will benefit from the biggest shipbuilding programme in this country's history, which contrasts with the record of the Conservative Government, who closed down shipbuilding in the north-east?
John Reid: Both those points are true. I stand second to no one in my respect for General Jackson and the other chiefs of staff. The decisions were taken by Ministers and I fully accept responsibility for that, and for implementing them. But I make it plain that, in terms of the advice that we received about the reconfiguration of the infantry battalions and modernising them so that we did not incorporate within a severely pressed defence budget[Interruption.] It is hugely bigger and increasing, compared with the budget under the Conservatives, which was hugely smaller and being cut by 29 per cent.but it is still a hard-pressed budget. I accept that, and we had to take some difficult decisions, but they were for the benefit of the capability of fighting power that can be achieved with the money and the people that we have.
Mr. Howarth: I am delighted to assure the Secretary of State that I shall not complain about his answering the questions put by my right hon. and hon. Friends, but let me put this question to him. He has asserted that the chiefs of staff are happy, yet he himself set out in the strategic defence review that there should be 32 surface vessels. The Government are now proposing to reduce those to 25. I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman talk to Sir Alan West, the First Sea Lord, and see what he thinks about that reduction, because he has said that it puts him in a difficult position and he wants to know which tasks he will have to forgo in order to meet his tasks with a substantially reduced surface fleet.
John Reid: It will come as no surprise that I do speak to the First Sea Lord[Interruption.]Alan West. Yes, I know his name. I knew him when he was Chief of Defence Intelligence, and before that. I dare say that I know him better than the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) does. I am glad to see him agreeing with that. He made the not startlingly surprising assertion that one cannot be in two places at the same time, and nor can a ship be in two places at the same time. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) is saying that hard decisions had to be made, even within an increasing defence budget, and that is absolutely correct. But what I am saying is that there may be people in here, although I do not know who they are, who can criticise me from a position of advocacy of a hugely increased defence budget, but it is not the hon. Gentleman or his colleagues. First of all, they slashed the budget by 30 per cent. in real terms in the 10 years before Labour came to power. I may not hold him personally responsible, but he supported the Government. Incidentally, some of that happened during his period as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the admirable Lady Thatcher, who talked a good game, and cut Britain's defence budget as no one ever had before. [Interruption.] Yes, I have told her that to her face, as well as in the House.
John Reid: Just a minute, I have not finished with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I have one or two more kicks before he gets up. Not only did the Conservative manifesto on foreign affairs and defence not provide any real solace to servicemen and women; it did not mention Burmaan omission that was complained about todayand for the first time in 50 years it did not contain the words "the United States of America". How one can write a manifesto on foreign and defence affairs without even mentioning our biggest ally and the most powerful nation in the world in military terms is beyond me, but perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman, new to his post, will explain all the faults of his predecessor in writing it.
I am all for having an argument with the Secretary of State, but we must base it on accurate facts rather than fiction. Our manifesto stated that we would increase the defence budget by £2.7 billion more than the Government's proposal. If that is not an increase, I do not know what is.
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John Reid: The Conservatives said that they would make £1.8 billion of efficiency savings, but nobody believed that they could take £1.8 billion out of the Ministry of Defence by saving paper clips and making sure that staff used one pen rather than two per fortnight. At best, they would have frozen defence expenditure, and they would probably have cut it. [Interruption.] No one should be surprised, because that is exactly what they did when they were in government. Let us conduct this argument on the back of a series of empirically based and historically verifiable factswe have increased defence expenditure in real terms; they cut it by 29 per cent. over a 10-year period.
Personnel suffer most when defence expenditure is cut. One can train and educate forces and one can buy aircraft carriers, ships and planes, but the third element of fighting power, people and their morale, which concerns leadership, bonding, traditions, commitment and determination, is at the core of defence. Accordingly, we have made a large investment in welfare. When we deal with great geo-strategic issues in this House, little matters do not seem to bear much discussion, but access to telephones and telephone cards, deliveries of letters, receiving British Forces Broadcasting and Sky and watching the latest films and videos mean a lot to people if they are in a camp in the middle of a desert on a dark night.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of State on his emphasis on welfare, and personnel in Basra, Baghdad and elsewhere made that point to me as recently as 24 hours ago. Welfare services help to make a very difficult life tolerable, which is why the new pension and compensation schemes include greatly improved death benefits and widow's benefits. The MoD has recently announced that the service group life assurance scheme will offer the armed forces insurance without exclusions at premiums comparable to those offered by civilian schemes. As one supermarket says, "every little helps", and all those little things add up to make a huge difference to the welfare of soldiers, sailors and airmen.
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