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Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I rise to speak today with somewhat mixed feelings. On 6 December, at my own request, I shall return to the Back Benches, and this, therefore, is my last speech from the Dispatch Box, and my last speech as shadow Secretary of State for Defence.

I was grateful to the Secretary of State for the remarks that he made on Monday, and I reciprocate them. I regard him as a man who has a real affection for our armed forces, and who, so far as he is allowed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has their interests at heart. I have always found him an honourable Minister to deal with, in his many roles, and an agreeable companion beyond the boundaries of party politics. We have occasionally sung in harmony together—and I mean that genuinely, both of us being folk singers from our misspent youth.
 
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Having thus destroyed any lingering leadership ambitions that the Secretary of State may secretly have nurtured, I turn next to the Minister of State. Never a man to duck a fight, as we have seen again today, honed as I was in the heat of pre-devolution Scottish politics and on the fires of conflict in Northern Ireland, he is an opponent for whom I have always had the utmost respect.

I welcome this debate on defence in the United Kingdom. Since the end of the cold war, the concept of defence of the realm has changed. From being reactive, in the light of evolving threats it has now had to become proactive. Alongside deterrence, there is now an increased need for pre-emption, or what the United Nations Commission called prevention. That is why, for instance, military action in Afghanistan in 2001 was prosecuted under the self-defence article, article 51, of the United Nations charter. We can no longer regard defence in Britain as being solely restricted within the boundaries of Britain.

I join the Minister of State in the praise that he has just given to the emergency services and the way they operated after the terrorist outrages of 7 July. But those terrorist outrages and their connection to Islamic fundamentalist terrorism underlined the way in which homeland security and events overseas are now inextricably linked. The balance, therefore, between the maintenance of defence resources within the United Kingdom and their deployment outside the United Kingdom is a crucial and difficult one to strike. The common denominator between them is the need for sufficient manpower and adequate equipment, and that should be a crucial element of today's debate.

We start the debate with a degree of harmony. We both pay tribute to our armed forces; we both acknowledge our debt to them for the dedicated courage with which they carry out their duties. I am unashamedly proud of our armed forces, whose commitment and professionalism are second to none. But we owe them more than just our words of thanks and praise. We owe them effective support, and I should have thought that that was common between us. Sadly, I cannot think that it is.

In my last Front-Bench defence speech I intend to be frank. I simply did not recognise our armed forces from the description given today by the right hon. Gentleman. I have never in over 30 years in politics known our armed forces to be under such pressure, to be so unsighted as to the Government's purpose and direction, to feel so unappreciated and devalued, and to be under such constant threat of cuts.

Since 1997, the armed forces have seen the level of their commitments rise, but not their resources. In simple terms, since 1997 they have been asked by the Government to do more and more with less and less. There have been five major operations in eight years—Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq—all prosecuted brilliantly by our forces, but the resources available to them have been diminishing.

Mr. Kevan Jones: The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about overstretch of the armed forces, but will he tell the House which one of those deployments he would have cut or not taken part in?
 
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Mr. Ancram: Since I took on this role for the Opposition, I have made it clear that I believe that it is essential to match commitments to resources and resources to commitments. The complaint that I make now, and the reason the armed forces are under such pressure, is that those resources and commitments are out of kilter. That is why some of the matters that I shall now outline are in fact the case.

Out of the armed forces helicopter fleet, 25 per cent. is grounded, with many needing lengthy overhauls, largely due to flying in Iraq. Out of the fleet of 569 helicopters, 121 are in repair and 79 have been classified as beyond repair. All of the RAF specialised aircraft in Iraq are grounded due to mechanical faults, more than 50 per cent. of the UK's armoured vehicle fleet is not fit for use, and only 1,483 of the Army's 3,340 combat reconnaissance class vehicles are in working order. The armed forces are now under intolerable pressure.

Those are not my words, but those of our most recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Boyce.

Again, those are not my words, but this time those of the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie.

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): I have no intention of trying to cover all the points that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raises—only one. While I was with the Army in the field on exercise yesterday, I understand that an allegation was made that reinforcements had been requested for Iraq and refused. That is a wrong and misleading accusation, and, inadvertently, the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred today to the need for reinforcements, presumably based on that factually incorrect assertion made from his own Benches yesterday. I want to give an assurance that we have not been asked for reinforcements, as was alleged yesterday, nor have I refused them.

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful for the Secretary of State's clarification and obviously I accept what he has to say. My statement—I was going to refer to it again—was based on an understanding that our commander in Basra is concerned about the influx of Iranian weapons and Iranian insurgents, and has looked for further troop reinforcements to help him to prevent that incursion across the border. If that is not the case, I accept what the Secretary of State has to say.

John Reid: There are two different statements there. We are all concerned about IEDs—improvised explosive devices—their origins, their numbers and any threat to the troops, but so far as I am aware, there is no truth in the claim that the commander has requested
 
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extra troops or reinforcements. Certainly I have not seen any such request, and I have therefore not refused it. That is the only point that I wish to put on the record.

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to the Secretary of State. When I referred to Iraq I was quoting the words of the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, in a debate in the House of Lords. He said not that reinforcements had been asked for, but that they were needed. When we look at what is happening in Iraq, that may well turn out to be the case.

I notice that the Secretary of State recently issued a press release denying a series of what he described as "urban myths", but the points that I have just made are not urban myths; they are the words of former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, and it is incumbent on the House to take them seriously.

One of the myths attacked by the Secretary of State was the perception that the defence budget was getting smaller. He proclaimed that planned defence expenditure in 2007–08 will be higher than it was in 1997–98. I would welcome clarification as to how those figures were arrived at, as the Secretary of State and his colleagues are very keen to point out in written answers that following the introduction of resource accounting in 2001–02, direct comparisons with previous years are not possible, so how the Secretary of State can now pretend that they are possible is something that I find very difficult to understand.

The truth is that as a percentage of GDP, defence expenditure will fall from 2.22 per cent. in this financial year to 2.17 per cent. in 2007–08. The equivalent percentage in France for 2004 was 2.6 per cent. and the United Kingdom percentage in 1997–98, to which the Secretary of State referred, was 2.66 per cent. On those figures it is clear that, as a proportion of GDP, defence expenditure has fallen.


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