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John Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the restructuring of the battalions is intended to deal with precisely the problems that he referred to, and in
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two ways? First, it will free up more skilled personnel to support infantry battalions and, secondly, having larger congregations of military bases will make it easier to recruit personnel with specialised skills.

Mr. Moore: I fully understand the objectives of the Government's policy and realise that there may be a time lag between setting out those objectives and achieving them. However, the discrepancies are worrying, and I hope that the Minister can offer the House some reassurance about what is going on when he winds up.

The peacekeeping or peace-enforcement tasks that the Army is increasingly required to undertake are manpower-intensive and will surely prove increasingly difficult to carry out without sufficient troops. Fewer troops are being asked to do more and, as a result, some battalions have had only months at home between demanding operational tours—far less than the two-year interval target. That has substantially restricted essential rest and recuperation time, time spent with families, and training time. If that continues in the medium term, it will inevitably undermine the Army's effectiveness. As has already been pointed out, in the Navy there is an equally serious shortage of more than 1,700 personnel.

At the moment, it does not appear that recruitment will be the answer to some of these problems. In each year since 2002, there has been a significant fall in the number of civilian applications to join the United Kingdom regular forces—in each service, whether for officer or other ranks. Civilian applications to join the Army outside the officer ranks fell from nearly 37,000 in 2002 to just over 28,000 in 2004–05. Non-officer civilian applications in the same period in the RAF and the Navy fell by more than 4,000 and 2,000 respectively.

That is a picture of dramatic decline in interest in joining the services, which is reflected in similar problems in attracting reservists. If we add to the mix the difficulties with fitness, regimental restructuring and changes in terms for redundancy, it makes for a serious list of problems that need urgent attention in the Ministry of Defence.

The future replacement of the nuclear deterrent is reappearing on the national agenda, as the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) highlighted. Given the long lead    times in any decision-making process, that is understandable. However, we must not lose sight of the overwhelming responsibility on all the nuclear powers to seek ways of achieving multilateral disarmament.

The Secretary of State rightly drew attention to the Government's significant reductions in nuclear weapons since 1997. We applaud that, but internationally, there is still a long way to go. In the aftermath of the failure of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference in New York a few weeks ago, we are in a worrying position.

We know that some countries such as India and Pakistan have obtained nuclear weapons and that others, for example, North Korea, are trying to acquire them. There is therefore a pressing need to create the international political climate in which multilateral disarmament can take place. We must also not lose sight of the danger of proliferation through the passing of expertise and materials from the former Soviet Union. Those should be our first priorities.
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Although we must not lose our focus on those issues, we will in due course have to consider any future replacement of Trident. On Monday, the Secretary of State said:

That echoes the wording of the White Paper in the previous Parliament. He repeated those sentiments today. He went on to give an assurance that the Government had not started considering, far less making decisions, on the details. We accept that assurance but it is vital that, in due course, the Government set out their intentions in a new White Paper so that we can hold a proper public debate about those matters.

As the Secretary of State made clear, there is a range of challenging matters to consider, not least the future strategic security context, the deterrence capability of any new system and the cost of the replacement. Those issues must all be properly thought through.

Today, the events elsewhere in London rightly dominate our thoughts. We cannot know yet whose evil plan it was, although we will all have our suspicious. However, we know that the emergency services, assisted by the armed forces as necessary, are dealing with the situation to the highest professional standards. Our ability to rely on those men and women should never be taken for granted and support for them must unite us all.

3.18 pm

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I begin by endorsing the final comments of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore). It is usually a great pleasure to speak in our less frequent defence debates in the House, but anything we discuss today is bound to be overshadowed by the dreadful events taking place around us. Although we emphatically accept the Home Secretary's earlier comments that we should not prejudge matters or speculate about what has happened, the events are a sign of the changing nature of the threat that we face. The country now faces an asymmetric threat, with which it has probably never seriously been confronted in the past. That has an impact on Government defence policy and our defence in the world.

The Government were right in their early years to produce the strategic defence review to deal with the changing threats and subsequently to add a further chapter and a new White Paper, focusing especially on the new sorts of threat that we face, especially from international terrorism. I, for one, am a great supporter of the Government's policy in that area. Their defence review has proved to be one of the best in the world, and it has stood the test of time. It is used by other countries, especially in NATO, as a model for reforming the old cold war structures of our armed forces to meet new challenges and the changed security environment. I am, however, the first to recognise that there is a difference between introducing a new policy and deciding where we want to be in future and actually getting there. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk made some valid points, as he acknowledged the dangers that we face in trying to achieve our goals.
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The Government are undertaking a major and necessary restructuring of our armed forces to meet the challenges and make sure that we are more responsive and flexible. That will enable us to address concurrent threats, travel to places quickly in smaller groups, and achieve a bigger impact when we arrive.

No one in the House would disagree with those objectives, but some of us are concerned about how we will get from A to B, so I shall spend most of my time on the excellent fourth report by the Select Committee on Defence, on the future capabilities of the British armed forces. If we do not get that right, we cannot deliver any of our future objectives or meet the challenges that we face. The Select Committee did the House a service in questioning the Executive about their ability to deliver future capabilities through their defence policy. I do not intend to address all the matters covered in the report, but I recommend that hon. Members read it. I shall address three of its recommendations on a crucial area of future defence policy—the maintenance of our front-line fast jet capability.

In any new scenario that we face, whether it is ship-based, or involves infantry battalions or battle groups, we are dependent on the availability of front-line jets. For the foreseeable future, we will not be dependent on multi-role jets but on the good old Harrier GR9 and the Tornado GR4. That will certainly be the case for the next 12, 15, 18 years and, who knows, possibly even longer. They constitute a reliable platform that has served our military exceptionally well in many of the recent conflicts that have been mentioned. It is the policy of Her Majesty's Government to change the way in which they maintain that fast jet capability. We will no longer use the tried and tested services of highly skilled civilian engineers based in the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, the successor organisation to the military agencies that used to do that work. DERA was created by the Government only three or four years ago to meet the demanding need to maintain our aircraft effectively so that those jets are available when we need them in times of crisis. Her Majesty's Government have decided completely to ignore their previous policy, which was also scrutinised by the Defence Committee, and they support the creation of a special agency of civilian engineers working in a commercial environment to provide all militarily non-essential jet repair and maintenance.

Some work on our jets has to be carried out on the battlefield or the front line—jets have to be kept in the air and filled with petrol, and the tyres have to be kicked now and then—but there is no military requirement for the factory maintenance of fast jets to be carried out by military personnel. Under the original SDR, which I greatly supported, it was made clear that, for reasons of value for money and the maintenance of maximum efficiency, the military would not be required to carry out non-essential military tasks, and that we would seek other, more cost-effective means of carrying out those tasks either in the competitive private sector or, in DARA's case, by commercialising a department of the Ministry of Defence, so that it would operate in precisely the same way as a commercial company, dependent on customer revenue for its income and acting as a trading fund not dependent on vote money from this House.
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In the past three years, DARA has performed tremendously well. It has achieved every one of the targets set for it, including its targets for customer income. DARA has transformed the way in which it does business, and by the middle of last year it could compete with anyone in the world, private or public sector, in the maintenance of the front-line fleet of fast jets. However, in March last year, the Government, in their wisdom, decided to take Harrier jet maintenance from DARA and transfer it to RAF Cottesmore, where that task would be carried out by military personnel, in the belief—I accept that Ministers believe this—that military personnel operating in a military environment are more productive, more efficient and more cost-effective than civilians working in a commercial environment.

There are hon. Members on both sides of the House who, like me, have had military experience—my experience happens to have been in the Royal Air Force. All will know what utter nonsense that view is. There is no doubt that military personnel are quite capable of repairing aircraft to the highest standards and doing the job that is required of them. Ours is one of the best air forces in the world, even though it is comparatively small, and its personnel will deliver when asked to deliver—the examples given of the way in which they have operated in difficult circumstances as far as resources are concerned prove that. However, that is a military function; it is utter nonsense to argue that they can carry out factory maintenance and repair of aircraft more competitively and provide better value for money—that they are more efficient—than civilians working in commercial environment.

None the less, in March last year the Harrier jet was transferred to RAF Cottesmore. I share the view of the 150 skilled engineers who lobbied the House this morning, many of whom are ex-RAF technicians, that the work being done on the Harrier jet at RAF Cottesmore is a disaster. Not only is it costing the British taxpayer money, but—more worrying to me—it could be undermining front-line capability. I have put the evidence to the Minister of State and asked him to investigate independently, but he has gone to the MOD and RAF for reports on my complaints and told me and others in writing that the transfer has been a huge success—that a production line in a hangar in an air base somewhere in the middle of England is out-competing the world's greatest. But we know that that is utter nonsense. The turnaround time for a Harrier jet at that facility is now twice what it was when this work was being carried out by skilled civilian engineers at DARA, St. Athan at the beginning of last year. The average turnaround time is now 200 days per aircraft.

What is more, aircraft of the front-line fleet of Harrier jets of our Royal Air Force are being damaged. At least one was damaged to such an extent that it has not been used since December 2002. That aircraft is ZD507. Furthermore, ZD402, ZD376, ZD470, ZD472, ZD408, ZD404 and ZD466 have all been so seriously damaged that they are now having to be repaired by contractors outside the base at RAF Cottesmore.

It is not my wish to attack the Minister or to reveal these problems just for the sake of it. Nor is it my wish to speak in defence of my civilian workers—who have done a tremendous job and met every target set by the Government over a five-year period—out of spite. I am
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not trying to say, "I told you so". The reason I am drawing this matter to the House's attention is that if we carry on at this rate, we shall continue to lose flying time for our Harrier jets. They are running out of flying time and they will shortly be grounded and unable to do the job that they have been tasked to do.

This debate is on the Defence White Paper, "Future Capabilities", and the matter that I have raised relates to an essential future capability for the effectiveness of our forces. There are dire problems at the facility at Cottesmore. I want to place it on record that I am asking the Minister, as I have done before, for goodness' sake to carry out an independent evaluation of what has happened since the Harrier jets were taken from DARA, St. Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan in south Wales, where our jets had been repaired for 50 years, and given to a military operational base at RAF Cottesmore. I do not think that that is an unreasonable request. For goodness' sake, let us get someone in to evaluate the project.

I know that the Minister intends to carry out a post-project evaluation, but not for another five years. I am afraid that it will be too damned late in five years' time. We will have lost the capacity in the Ministry of Defence, and we might have difficulty meeting our requirements for airworthiness and air availability for our Harrier jets. We might also see jets grounded and withdrawn from service, with no way of putting them back in the air. Of course, we have made similar mistakes in the past. The famous Airworks contract on the Tornado and the Hercules air transport planes cost the previous Conservative Government an enormous amount of money.

I ask all hon. Members to listen to my argument. The reason I am putting this case to the House is that we are about to move the entire Tornado GR4 fleet—the premier front-line fleet of the Royal Air Force—to another military operational base at Marham, and to ask RAF personnel in blue uniforms to do the maintenance work that should be carried out in a factory environment by skilled engineers, not in an operational environment. My primary concern is that that could seriously damage our future capability. If we do not have an effective air force with front-line fighting capacity, we can forget all our other commitments to the defence of this nation in the world and to the threats that we face across the globe.

Once again, in the interests of our country's defence and our future capabilities, I ask that the Minister consider conducting an independent assessment of the effectiveness of the roll forward of the Harrier before the roll forward of the Tornado even begins. I do not mind who undertakes that assessment, the NAO or independent consultants, as long as they are genuinely independent.

Any reading of the recommendations of the Defence Committee supports my argument. At DARA St. Athan, £80 million was invested in the most advanced purpose-built military aviation facility in Europe, which opened only in April this year. It is the size of three football pitches, with 47 bays, so it can repair 47 jets at any one time. The Committee stated:

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I, too, am surprised that the Ministry of Defence decided to waste £80 million worth of taxpayers' money and, more important, 350 of the most skilled aero-engineers in the world, with a proven track record, and to give that work to the facility at RAF Marham, which is untried and untested in such deep repair and maintenance.

We are told that there will be "partnering" with BAE Systems, which has been awarded a prime contract for the Tornado GR4 after no competition. BAE Systems is the design authority for that aircraft, so if it becomes the mainstay in support for the RAF on a front-line base for the repair and maintenance of the GR4, Her Majesty's Government will be in the unenviable position of being dependent on a monopoly supplier for keeping our front-line fleet in service. That is an extremely dangerous step, and it should not be taken before the Government properly evaluate the effects of moving the much smaller fleet of Harriers to Cottesmore.

Recommendation 37 of the Defence Committee states:

If RAF Marham has to match the high standards of DARA St. Athan, why are the Government moving the facility to an operational base that is untried and untested?

Recommendation 38 states:

There is no "may be" about it—we will be entirely dependent on a sole supplier for the whole of our fleet.

Those were the recommendations of the excellent Defence Committee. I hope that a new Committee will be formed shortly. Members on both sides of the House, who are in the Chamber today, were distinguished members of the previous Committee and I am sure that there will be members of equal distinction in this Parliament.

I know that the fleet is being reduced, and I know that there is an argument—I support it—for reducing and rationalising logistical support if one has fewer aircraft. However, with fewer aircraft one needs more availability, which means greater reliability on service repair and support. We are entering untried, untested and dangerous waters by relying on this military capability.

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