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9 Oct 2007 : Column 233

Let me turn my attention to how the CVRT—combat vehicle reconnaissance (tracked)—has done on operations. I recall that when I joined the Army 27 years ago, the vehicles were six or seven years old. They were deployed in the primary role of the British Army of the Rhine, which was there to face our principal threat: invasion of Germany by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact countries. In a subsidiary role in Cyprus, where I was posted for six months, we had the delight of travelling around in Ferret scout cars and Saladin armoured cars, and those vehicles were laughably old. They were way older than anyone who was invited to crew them. They were products of the 1950s, but in a sense that did not matter, because that was a subsidiary role for the British Army; the principal question was where the new equipment ought to be.

Today the CVRT is 34 years old, and it is deployed on our principal operational requirements in Afghanistan. It has undergone a number of updates. In the 1990s, when we acquired the Challenger 2 tank, we were in a ludicrous position. The reconnaissance at the front could not keep up with the armour that was supposed to follow it up, so there was a mid-life update of the CVRT, which resulted in a new diesel engine, suspension and power traverse. I am pleased to say that the urgent operational requirements that became apparent in the Balkans following the tragic loss of Lieutenant Richard Madden—his vehicle hit a mine in Bosnia—have resulted in mine blast protection that has saved the lives of at least two vehicle commanders whose vehicles hit mines in the past six months in Afghanistan. We cannot escape the fact that the CVRT is 34 years old. It is the love and care of the soldiers who man it that sustain it and keep it in the field.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Many of the vehicles that the hon. Gentleman mentioned have parts, including optronics and periscopes, that are made in my constituency. He will be aware of the multi-billion-pound upgrading programme that will enable a whole new generation of armoured vehicles to come on line. What help does he think can be given to smaller companies and suppliers in the UK to ensure that they keep their contracts? What capacity building needs to be done by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, as well as by the Ministry of the Defence, to make sure that small providers and suppliers in the UK have a chance to provide in future?

Mr. Blunt: I want to leave that question to the Under-Secretary, because there is an enormous amount of detail about how one should conduct defence procurement and procurement projects in the Ministry of Defence— [ Interruption. ]much of it extremely well covered by the Defence Committee, as the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) suggests. I want to come on to the FRES programme in a moment.

We should remember that soldiers in Afghanistan are frequently on patrol in those vehicles for 12 hours at a time, then spend all night ensuring that they are ready for action the following morning. Imbalances emerge as vehicles originally designed in the 1950s undergo such development. They have been uparmoured to deal with
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the threats in Afghanistan 50 years later, and we wonder why the engine, the gear box, suspension and weight ratio no longer work. I understand that there is a significant problem with the gearboxes and suspension in particular, because the thing has got out of balance with the original design of the vehicle.

Mr. Wallace: My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that the Warrior armoured tracked vehicle has now had 32 urgent operational requirements attached to it, which added almost a third to its width and increased its weight substantially, so a solution is required.

Mr. Blunt: My hon. Friend is entirely right. One of the problems of a vehicle’s remaining in service for so long is that, given the number of updates that it undergoes, a basic imbalance emerges between the various parts of the fighting system. I am simply using the CVRT as an example.

The CVRT will be replaced by FRES. The Minister for the Armed Forces and my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) both referred to that, and it is only right that they should do so in a debate on defence procurement. FRES is a 3,000-vehicle programme that will cost approximately £14 billion. It is disgraceful that we are having this debate in 2007—I shall come on to the issue of the in-service date in a moment—because as an operations officer of an armoured reconnaissance regiment back in 1988, I was beginning to discuss the shape of the replacement for the CVRT. That was nearly 20 years ago.

The Defence Committee has done an excellent job in its report on FRES, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading in the record of the evidence the exchange between the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and Sir Peter Spencer on the issue of the in-service date.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what has changed is the fact that Lord Drayson is determined to ensure that the 2012 date is met? Does he not agree that Lord Drayson should get some credit for trying to force civil servants to home in on that date?

Mr. Blunt: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is convinced about 2012, because that rather belies the scepticism with which he questioned Sir Peter Spencer. He said:

That is a reference to the systems house that is making the assessment and is employed by the MOD. It did not set 2012 as the in-service date; its assessment of the date on which the vehicle would come into service was 2017-18. The hon. Gentleman asked Sir Peter:

Sir Peter replied: “I am noting it.” The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) said:

The hon. Member for North Durham said:

Chris Ruane rose—

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Mr. Blunt: I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He should read the report, because it is a priceless exchange. I commend the hon. Member for North Durham on not losing any of his edge since we served on that Committee together. The people responsible for putting the programme together have told us that it will be ready in 2017. However, in 2003 the Chief of the General Staff gave evidence to the Defence Committee in which he suggested that it would be ready in 2009. Four years later, the programme has slid eight years to the right. At that rate of progress, in four years’ time we will be told that the programme will not be ready for another 12 years. All the time, the soldiers of the Light Dragoons—my former colleagues—are invited to continue to fight and work with the CVRT system in service. We owe them a great deal better than that, and I sincerely hope that the Department can address that. I have no confidence, however, that that will be the case.

This is an enormous programme, and the whole future of the Army is bet on it. If we cannot put our Army in the field with the 3,000 vehicles that will be produced as a result, we are in trouble as a country. What is the context in which the Department was invited to fund the programme? The MOD has a budget settlement of 1.5 per cent. in real terms, which was produced at the same time as the Defence Secretary came to the House to trumpet the acquisition of aircraft carriers and the aircraft that will go on them. If I remember the exchange at the time, he was not prepared to put a price on the whole programme, but what is absolutely clear to anyone who understands even a limited amount about defence economics is that the current position is completely unsustainable.

The Government came to office in 1997. In 1998, after a strategic defence review, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer wanted to take £1 billion a year out of the defence programme. That was reduced, after the intervention of the Chief of the Defence Staff, to £0.5 billion a year. In the charming way in which the now Prime Minister counts these things, £4.5 has been stripped from the defence budget as a result of that decision in 1998. It does not behove Ministers—I cite the Minister for the Armed Forces as yet another example—to criticise the Conservatives for their defence expenditure. Those Ministers inherited the defence expenditure plans of the Conservative Government in 1997, and they chose to cut that budget. Since then, they have been driven by operational requirements that have smashed any set of defence assumptions made in 1998.

Ten years later, the armed forces are exhausted, and warrant officers do not take up commissions in regiments, because they do not want to go back to Iraq and Afghanistan yet another time. Young NCOs who have got married have been there, got their medal and been through an amount of military contact that puts most second world war veterans in the shade. There is a limit to their endurance, and to the endurance of their equipment. CVRT is one illustration of good kit that has been well maintained by dedicated people. I am sure my former colleagues would want me to put on record a tribute to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who are out there fighting alongside them, keeping that equipment in the field and doing a magnificent job in fitter sections alongside the fighting echelon.

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The House votes on the defence estimates, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) pointed out earlier, and we can put them up if we so wish. We should have a proper debate on whether our defence policy is sustainable with the defence budget, and therefore with the equipment that we are providing to our armed forces. Commitments and capability are not in balance in the burden that we are placing on our soldiers, sailors and airmen. I am familiar with one small example from my former regiment, and I sincerely hope that the Government will attend to the matter immediately.

7.41 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) deserves a return of the compliment, but I must correct him on one matter. I represent Dunfermline, west, not Dunfermline, east, but I can assure him and hon. Members on the Labour Benches that Dunfermline, east is on our target list. We are confident that the Prime Minister will be looking for a new job in the near future.

I am disappointed by the poor turnout for the debate, especially by those who usually barrack me from behind—Members from the Scottish National party. It is a serious matter that those who claim that they can run my country cannot even be bothered to turn up, and that they treat the topic of defence in such a casual manner. It is important that the message goes out to the people of Scotland that the SNP is not a serious party and is not interested in the defence of our country.

I welcome the Minister for the Armed Forces, who is now absent from his place. He has already been before the Defence Committee, and he was quite a contrast with his predecessor, who is rather like a Scottish terrier. The new Minister is entertaining and authoritative in his approach, and I welcome him to the Front Bench.

One week before I participated in a visit to Iraq earlier this year, a young man from my constituency passed away serving his country in Iraq. When I returned, I attended his funeral. The fact that a young man could pass away at the age of 21 serving his country brings home to all Members the importance of our job and the seriousness with which we should take defence matters.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday of a reduction in force levels in Iraq to 2,500 by next spring. That will give relief to our hard-pressed forces. However, I have concerns about the force protection for such a number. We have been advised that a much larger number is required. I would appreciate more information from the MOD about its figures on force protection.

The logical consequence of withdrawing from Basra palace is that we should withdraw from south-east Iraq altogether because, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, it was only once we withdrew from Basra palace that the situation became calm. We were part of the problem, not part of the solution. The logical conclusion is that we should withdraw from Iraq altogether, which is the position that the Liberal Democrats set out earlier this year. We were ridiculed for it, but the Government now seem to be following that advice. I hope that the Minister and the Prime Minister will reconsider that position.

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Earlier this year, with a dramatic backdrop in Plymouth, the former Prime Minister set out a new vision for the defence of our country. He rightly praised the commitment of our armed forces and sought to differentiate between hard and soft power. He said that the UK had to play an active role in world security. Finally, he said that that

He went on to say that we had to be

I am not sure that the 1.5 per cent. increase in real terms meets that commitment.

Chris Ruane: In 1997, the defence budget was about £22 billion. It has gone up to £37 billion. How much do the Liberal Democrats say it should go up to?

Willie Rennie: The hon. Gentleman will be relieved to hear that we are in not government, but we are not in possession of all the figures, as has been said many times today. [ Interruption. ] Members may groan, but the Ministry of Defence figures are opaque so it is very difficult to tell exactly where the money is going at any particular time. The most important thing is that we recognise that the Royal United Services Institute estimates that the defence budget is underfunded by £15 billion if it is to match the commitments set out by the former Prime Minister.

On many occasions I have spoken about the overstretch of our armed forces through commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Harmony guidelines are regularly breached for a large proportion of our soldiers. That is exacerbated by poor retention levels and often increases reliance on our reserves. It is a vicious cycle—fewer troops leads to over-use of those troops, which leads to a greater exodus, which leads to a greater reliance on ever-decreasing numbers. Defence planning assumptions have been breached for the past seven years at least. The over-commitment and under-resourcing has a dramatic effect on equipment as well. Little funding for new equipment results in greater reliance on old equipment, which is over-used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Heat and over-use leads to more breakdown, which leads to greater reliance on a smaller pool of equipment, and so on.

Although additional funding for urgent operational requirements is welcome, especially when it comes directly from the Treasury, the costs of maintaining that equipment in future years will have to be borne by the MOD budget, putting even more pressure on an already tight budget. Constantly shifting equipment programmes to the right and far into the distance is no longer sustainable, especially if the UK is to match the aspirations set out by the former Prime Minister in Plymouth.

UK defence spending compares well with that of our European partners, but it still does not match the commitments required by our foreign policy. RUSI estimates that current spending should increase from 2 per cent. of gross domestic product to 2. 5 per cent. of GDP to meet the former Prime Minister’s objectives. I do not recall hearing the present Prime Minister objecting to the former Prime Minister’s remarks in Plymouth. In fact, I remember him endorsing those
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remarks. If the opposite is the case, I should like to hear it. If not, I should like to see how the Government propose to fill the gap.

I was surprised that during the Minister’s opening remarks, there was not one mention of Trident. After all, earlier this year, the former Prime Minister at the time told us that

We were told earlier this year that this will be one of the UK’s biggest construction projects, so why was no substantive mention made of it? Where is the report on the great progress that has been made on Trident since then? Why was it so urgent that we had to take the decision earlier this year?

Linda Gilroy: I believe that the hon. Gentleman visited Plymouth with the Select Committee on Defence, so he must surely have understood the urgent need to keep the skills base intact. I invite him to read the Hansard record of my speech tomorrow.

Willie Rennie: I am well aware of those arguments, but I would have thought that if this were such an important project, the Minister would have gone into great detail about the progress made.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is right that I did not mention Trident in my remarks. Just a few months ago, there was a White Paper, a three-month consultation and a debate that took a decision on Trident. People are free to say what they like, but I did not think it necessary to comment on that when covering the range of defence procurement, given that the House had commented on it so comprehensively—at least, it had the opportunity to do so.

Willie Rennie: That surprises me, because this will be one of the biggest defence projects for a number of years and there was no mention of it in the Minister’s speech. We suspected that the decision was taken more for political reasons: the former Prime Minister wishing to get the decision out of the way before the new Prime Minister came on board, thus keeping his hands clean —[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) suggests that that is exactly the case. I am sure that political imperatives, rather than industrial ones, drove the decision earlier this year.

I have previously expressed concerns about the support for small businesses in the defence sector. There is an over-reliance on multinationals, which can invest or disinvest in a country at the stroke of a pen. Small and medium-sized enterprises have a role to play, especially at the high-level, innovative end of the market, but many small businesses find it difficult to engage directly with the Ministry of Defence in whatever the contracting arrangements are and they are often unaware of the opportunities. When they take the precious time to discover those opportunities, they find the process extremely complicated and bureaucratic.

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