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Mr. Gordon Prentice : We heard the Secretary of State say earlier that size does not really matter. Is there an irreducible minimum size for the Royal Navy?

Mr. Ancram: I was coming to that. The Secretary of State used the example of the battle of Trafalgar. However, the great thing about the battle of Trafalgar was that although we had fewer ships, they were all in the same place, where they were needed. The simple truth is that a ship, however potent it is, cannot be in more than one place at a time. As we reduce the numbers, we therefore reduce the capabilities. This is nothing new. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to early-day motion 151, which has been signed by 99 Conservative Members. I am sorry that it appears not to have been signed by anyone from the other parties. It says:

I suspect that that addresses the point that the hon. Gentleman was making.

Mr. Leigh : Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Ancram: I will in a moment.

The recent Trafalgar day on the Solent, which I was privileged enough to attend, was certainly an uplifting experience, but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), I felt a twinge of shame that our Navy is now smaller than that of France. I want to ask the Secretary of State whether our maritime security interests are really less pressing than those of France. If not, why are we allowing a situation to arise in which we are less able to deliver on them?

Mr. Leigh: My right hon. and learned Friend might have heard me draw the NAO report to the attention of the Secretary of State at Defence Question Time on Monday. The Secretary of State replied that our forces in Iraq were showing their customary verve and élan, as the NAO report also makes clear in a very balanced judgment. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree, however, that we are now reaching a serious situation, particularly in regard to the Royal Navy? Does he agree, too, that there is a heavy responsibility on him? We have to make choices in opposition. I am not going to press him too much on this point now, but there are financial choices to be made, and we must make a commitment that we will reverse this decline in the Royal Navy when we next enter government.

Mr. Ancram: My hon. Friend will find that another early-day motion that was tabled recently deplores the fact that four of our frigates are being decommissioned at the moment. Indeed, I attended a very sad ceremony in Marlborough in my constituency last Sunday, at
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which we undertook the custody of the bell and the   ensign of HMS Marlborough, which is being decommissioned this weekend. We made it clear during the election that, by providing £2.7 billion more than the current defence budget, we would have kept those four frigates. We made that undertaking at that time. Obviously, we are some way away from producing our next election manifesto, so my hon. Friend will understand if I do not go into details of commitments for the future.

Mr. Kevan Jones : Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ancram: I will in a moment.

It is obvious that if these reductions—

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ancram: May I just finish this point? Then, I will certainly give way.

If these reductions are to be made, it is obvious that the Navy will have to change the way in which it works. We cannot go on doing what we are doing with less and less to do it with. In the Government's response to the House of Commons Defence Committee report, "Future Capabilities", they stated that

That will result in further reduction in the provision and support for British interests and overseas territories. In my view, this represents another abdication of our responsibilities. This is a sad day for the Navy.

Mr. Ingram: I remember the Conservatives' promise of the £2.7 billion investment. However, it was based on a proposed £1.8 billion cut in defence, related to inefficiencies. We asked at the time where those cuts were going to take place. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us the answer now?

Mr. Ancram: My predecessor, who did a tremendous job at the Dispatch Box, made it clear on a number of occasions that we had worked out our figures very carefully. At the last election, we were able to say categorically to the country that we would have saved those four frigates. We would have made that money available, and we would have saved the four battalions as well.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Am I picking up correctly the thrust of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument? Is Conservative policy on the Navy to retain numbers irrespective of the task that needs to be done or any change in the jobs that the Navy has to do nowadays? In that case, we should still have a Navy of cold-war size for a task that no longer exists.

Mr. Ancram: No, as the hon. Gentleman would understand if he had listened to what I said. The Government admit that the Navy's tasks will have to change owing to the reductions that they are making. The Government are having to accept that that is what
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their reductions involve. For example, when we consider the decommissioning of frigates, HMS Marlborough was 15 years old and HMS Grafton is eight years old. The idea that we should scrap, decommission or sell on to another Navy ships that were commissioned only within such time periods requires serious explanations from the Government that have not been forthcoming.

I turn to the RAF. The NAO report refers to the temporary reduction in flying hours for fast-jet pilots from 17.5 hours a month to 16.5 for the duration of 2005–06. The current requirement is already a reduction from 18.5 hours, and the number of flying hours for fast-jet pilots has been reducing over recent years. On Monday, the Minister of State said:

So will he tell the House whether that intention to increase flying hours will benefit all our pilots? Will flying time return to 18.5 hours or more? If not, what assessment has he made of the impact of the present reduction on the training of our airmen? Does he agree with the NAO that it could seriously degrade the skills of combat pilots? That is a very serious accusation indeed.

The NAO report should shame the Government. I have to say that I feel sorry for the Secretary of State because I believe that his heart is in the right place in relation to defence and our armed services. Certainly, much of what he said today indicated that. However, in the strategic defence review, for which he can take personal credit, the shortfalls that we are dealing with at present were not envisaged. His frustration at the bad stewardship of his predecessor, the current Leader of the House, on whose watch all that occurred, must be as great as mine. I hope that the Secretary of State will not be as supine as his predecessor in the face of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is really the cause of the trouble. He has never understood the nature of defence and has cared even less.

The truth is that at a time when our armed forces are pressured as never before, with deployments constantly above normal levels, the Government have been responsible for a catalogue of disasters that have reduced the effectiveness of our armed forces and cost the British taxpayer millions of pounds. Let me give the Minister a few examples; the first one may be small, but it is indicative. The Ministry of Defence spent £5,000 on torches for the SAS that could not be used because they rattled.

The MOD lost track of 200,000 sets of body armour and £241,000-worth of ammunition—in Afghanistan of all places. The MOD accidentally—that is the word that was used—scrapped helicopter rotor blades at a loss of £151,000. It mislaid two huge C130 transport aircraft undercarriage struts at a cost of £296,000. A human centrifuge used to train pilots was scrapped because it was too expensive at £14 million, but the MOD had to pay £14.4 million to scrap it and the Malaysians took delivery of it. The list is endless.

Losses and special payments have risen relentlessly under the Government. The amount was £116 million in 2001–02, £260 million in 2002–03, £559 million in 2003–04 and the cost may top £1 billion in 2004–05.
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That wasted money could instead have been used to avoid some of the damaging cuts announced recently. If those losses and special payments had been brought under control, the Royal Navy could have retained its frigates and the Army its four battalions. It is hardly a record of which to be proud.

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