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We should be prepared to contemplate the kind of step change in expenditure seen in other public services: the Government have managed to find large sums for health, education, transport and overseas aid. Why has defence been the Cinderella of our public services when much of the country’s freedom and prosperity ultimately depends on the hard power that we deploy to intervene in crisis situations around the world, for our own national interests as well as for the good of the international community?

7.43 pm

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): The Government are committed to our armed forces, and that is manifested in spending. I will refer to some of the points raised by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin).

Between 1979 and 1997, annual average defence spending fell in real terms. In the five years prior to our coming into office, it fell by £500 million per year. The size of the Army decreased by 50,000 between 1990 and 1997 and by 35,000 in the last five years of the Conservative Government. Given that defence spending under this Government has increased by £1 billion a year, the criticisms from Members such as the hon. Member for North Essex seem strange.

In real terms, the defence budget will be 10 per cent. higher by 2010-11 than it was in 1997. As the Chancellor outlined in the comprehensive spending review, the Government will spend an additional £7.7 billion by 2011. In addition, the Treasury will continue to fund operations over and above the defence budget, from the reserve. Since 2001 it has provided from the reserve approximately £6.6 billion to support our troops on the front line, which flies in the face of what the hon. Member for North Essex said.

Our commitment also manifests itself in equipment. Our armed forces have a tremendous battle-winning capability, which is getting better all the time. In the past three years, the Government have developed and delivered equipment valued at more than £10 billion, and priority is given to equipping people training for operations. The Government continually monitor and respond to the capability and protection requirements of our troops, and have spent more than £2.2 billion on urgent operational requirements. More than £1 billion from the Treasury reserve was spent on force protection.

Over the past few years, the MOD has introduced a range of new systems that have significantly enhanced capability. When we discuss the number of aircraft or troops, we often overlook the fact that modern weapons systems have so much more capability: protected mobility vehicles; new body armour; communications and surveillance equipment; night vision equipment; electronic counter-measures; and improvements in base security.

The comprehensive spending review will allow the MOD to proceed with two new aircraft carriers, which will be the largest ships ever operated by the Royal Navy. By the end of October, 47 Eurofighter Typhoons will have been delivered to the RAF. I am proud that those were developed and assembled by many thousands of skilled BAE Systems staff who live in and around my constituency in Lancashire. As an aside, I
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would like to mention the fact that there is an umbrella contract for 620 aircraft to be delivered in three tranches; tranche 2 builds are well under way and BAE is working towards tranche 3 proposals by the end of 2007. There are also several promising export opportunities to Japan, India, Switzerland and Greece.

The Government have also shown their commitment in recruitment. According to the National Audit Office report in November 2006, the armed forces have recruited 98 per cent. of their target since 2000-01. On 1 April 2007, the full-time trained strength of the armed forces—177,760—represented 96.8 per cent. of the full-time trained requirement. Army recruitment is up 10 per cent. this year, the number in training has risen by 2,110 since January 2006, and fewer trained personnel left the armed forces than at this point last year. Given the current economic situation, that is a significant success.

Despite that, recruitment remains a challenge. Thousands of new recruits are needed each year, and the market is challenging because the economy is doing so well. The armed forces face competition from other employers and further education. The MOD recognises that there are specific staff shortages—commonly known as pinchpoints—in the infantry, Royal Marines, medical specialists and parts of the helicopter force, for example. The NAO report suggested that the MOD make improvements to accommodation, equipment and training to help to retain staff, and new retention measures have therefore been implemented.

A good deal has been said about pay. The lowest-paid servicemen are receiving pay increases of 9.3 per cent. All other ranks are getting pay increases of at least 3.3 per cent.

The operational welfare package introduced by the Government provides benefits such as free internet access, free phone calls, free mail, a rest and recuperation package and 20 days’ additional leave after a six-month tour. The package has been independently assessed twice by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and deemed one of the best available in comparison with packages given to other armed forces around the world, including those of our allies.

As has just been mentioned, the Government are showing their commitment to the provision of accommodation. To date, 95 per cent. of service families’ accommodation in Great Britain is rated at standards 1 and 2, 1 being the highest and 4 the lowest. However, the Government have acknowledged publicly that some service accommodation is simply not good enough. That is rightly one of the MOD’s priorities, but, as my right hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, resolving the issue will take time. As has been said, £700 million has been spent this year, and over the next decade the sum will increase to up to £5 billion.

The Government are also improving support for armed forces personnel who wish to buy their own properties. Like those in the rest of society, many people in the armed forces aspire to own their homes. The MOD works closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government to encourage servicemen and women to get on to the property ladder, and to take advantage of shared-ownership schemes such as the key worker living programme.

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We must consider the changing nature of our defence requirements. The world has changed immeasurably since the end of the cold war, and as a result the threats to our national security have taken different forms. Threats no longer come in the shape of uniformed armies that adhere to the rules of war; there are new threats from enemies who are not easily discernible from civilians. Their methods do not respect any rules of war, and victory is not generally gained via direct battle.

In December 2003 the MOD published its analysis of the future security environment in its White Paper “Delivering Security in a Changing World”, which identified three issues as the main threats to the United Kingdom’s national security: international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the phenomenon of failed states that can provide havens and sources of support for terrorists and criminal networks involved in the drugs trade or the plundering of natural resources. In addition, internal conflict, poverty, human rights abuse and famine can create the conditions for mass population movements, causing pressure on neighbouring countries or encouraging a surge in migration to Europe.

In future, multiple, concurrent, small-to-medium-scale peace enforcement or peacekeeping operations will become the norm, but the ability to undertake large-scale intervention operations such as that in Iraq in 2003 will remain important. In March 2003, the MOD’s joint doctrine and concept centre published its assessment of security threats to the United Kingdom over the next 30 years. It argued that the greatest risk to security would come from the United Kingdom’s being unable to acquire or apply resources fast enough to meet the changing threats. That must be of concern to our Ministers, as it will have an impact on our armed forces. It is assumed that in future the UK will generally participate as part of a coalition, and that the most demanding operations are likely to involve the United States. However, European Union co-operation will certainly be necessary, and a coalition operation with the EU when the United States is not involved is a strong possibility.

We still face many challenges. I want to say a little about Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been many challenges in Iraq, and it cannot be denied that the security situation there is difficult, as it is in Afghanistan. However, British forces have achieved much in both countries. In Afghanistan, school enrolment has quadrupled in the past four years. More than 5 million children are now at school, a third of whom are girls. Enrolment in higher education has also increased. There are currently about 180,000 teachers in Iraq, and 1.2 million illiterate people are participating in literacy courses. Some 82 per cent. of the population of Afghanistan are receiving health packages or health care of some kind.

It cannot be denied that serious problems persist in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, which accounts for about 80 per cent. of the violence. However, the British forces are achieving huge success. They have handed over three of the states in southern Iraq, as well as Basra city, to the control of the Iraqis, and, as the Minister said, by next spring the number of British troops will have fallen to around 2,500.

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Mark Pritchard: The hon. Gentleman has been describing what he considers to be a success. I agree with most of what he has said, but does he see a contradiction in the fact that every day people from Iraq and Afghanistan seek asylum in the United Kingdom? If things were a little better, would we not see a decline in the numbers?

Mr. Hendrick: I think there is a decline, to some extent. I speak from experience, because in my constituency I am visited by people from Iraq and Afghanistan who complain that they may have to return to those countries because of the improved security situation, having found a much more secure situation in the United Kingdom. So the position is improving, although that is not easily visible from our limited viewpoint here in the UK.

As I have said, plenty of positive developments are taking place, but many other factors will affect the future of our armed forces. One that came to light fairly recently as a result of a number of reports is climate change, and the way in which it will affect our security environment in the future. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies,

The Nobel peace prize, which is intended for those who

was recently awarded to Al Gore and the scientists of the United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change for their work on global warming. Global warming is a huge security threat.

Another thing of which we shall need much more in the future is international co-operation. That means co-operation with the United States, through NATO and through our European Union allies, which will become much more important as the requirements of defence systems become more expensive and sophisticated. We shall see increasing integration of European forces with those of the Americans.

I believe that the Government have shown a genuine commitment to the armed forces in all the ways that I have outlined, and I am sure that they will continue to do so into the distant future.

7.57 pm

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): This has been a wide-ranging debate. I shall touch on only three areas of defence policy. I apologise for being absent for part of the debate; I did not want to miss a meeting with the Border and Immigration Agency. I hope that I do not repeat things that were said earlier.

The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton), who is not in the Chamber now, raised a number of serious issues, including that of housing for service personnel returning home after duty. He said that in his area it had always been accepted that soldiers would be given houses as long as they were available, and that he had no evidence that it was different anywhere else. I paraphrase what he said.

I have received a telephone call from a serving soldier in Germany who, when he telephoned his local housing department back home, was told that he should return
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and declare himself homeless, as that was the only way in which he could get on to a housing list and obtain accommodation. That was wholly wrong and unacceptable, and I agree with the hon. Member for Midlothian that it should never happen in any part of the country.

I want to say something about the regiments and the “golden thread”. At the time of the merger of the Scottish regiments into a single Royal Regiment of Scotland, undertakings were given to preserve the golden thread—the link and connectivity—between regiments and communities. In the past, General Sir Mike Jackson described the regimental structure as being

He went further, saying that the golden thread represented

He was right to say that.

However, many of the symbols—only a minor element of this issue—such as cap badges, hackles, kilts and sporrans, as well as regimental traditions, have been quietly done away with. There is now a common parade kit for all five battalions in the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and soldiers of The Black Watch, now the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Regiment, can wear the distinctive red hackle only when in combat uniform.

Perhaps more important than the regimental traditions is the fact that recruits who could previously declare a preference for their local or family regiment are now expected to join battalions where there is a shortfall of troops—for example, 313 men in the Royal Regiment as of September. Those wishing to join up might now be encouraged to join a battalion other than the one that previously would have been their local regiment. It is not hard to draw the conclusion that one reason behind the failure to recruit and retain is the fact that people can no longer simply join the local regiment or even join the battalion within the Royal Regiment of Scotland with which they would most closely identify. I hope that the Government will look again at the conduct of recruitment and retention, particularly within the battalions of the Royal Regiment, although my preference would, of course, be to return to the proper regimental structure.

The defence industry has a significant economic impact, so I shall now turn to jobs and procurement. As well as providing equipment to the services, the defence industry is vital to the Scottish and UK economy. A major issue is how and where the procurement and jobs are shared out. We acknowledge that Scotland is allocated a large chunk of the total amount of expenditure on personnel recruitment—8.5 per cent.—but we also know that the number of people recruited from Scotland into the MOD, service personnel and other bodies is far less than that share represents. We are also aware from the last year for which we have detailed analysis that although 8.5 per cent. is the share of money allocated for procurement of equipment in Scotland, the actual amount of money spent on procurement in Scotland is significantly less. The shortfall in personnel recruited and equipment procured from Scotland amounted to £750 million.

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This is not a Scotland-England or Scotland-UK issue: other parts of the UK would say precisely the same. The armed forces should mean something to everybody—in terms of the buy-in to them—and the Government have it within their power, to some extent at least, to ensure that the moneys are spent as evenly as possible throughout the UK.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman not trying to have it both ways? He wants the benefit of a critical mass of UK defence expenditure and what that brings to the Scottish industrial base, but he also wants independence, under which he would lose all that. No orders would be placed in Scotland if Scotland was not a part of the United Kingdom.

Stewart Hosie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because it allows me to make my point. In the past 10 years there have been 4,700 MOD job losses in Scotland. In addition to the shortfall in actual recruitment and procurement from Scotland, the MOD has shrunk there. The job losses are as follows: 1,000 at RAF Lossiemouth, 160 at RAF Leuchars, 180 at RAF Kinloss, 350 at HMS Gannet, 1,500 at Rosyth shipyard since 1997, 1,500 at Coulport since 1999, in addition to some 900 or so at the Clyde shipyards, and eight bases and two supply depots have been run down and closed. Therefore, the argument that a Union dividend protects jobs and services and MOD facilities simply is not true.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does not the hon. Gentleman’s party leader want to add to that? If he carries out his threat to stop the UK nuclear deterrent being sited at Faslane, there will be more job losses not only at Faslane itself, but at Coulport, where the missiles are stored, and in the ancillary industries linked to the nuclear deterrent. I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways.

Stewart Hosie: That is an interesting point, but previous answers from the MOD contradict that, particularly when they are put alongside research conducted by the Scottish Trades Union Congress and others. The MOD stated in a parliamentary answer of February 2005 that the number of civilian jobs that directly rely on Trident was 936, with 300 jobs indirectly relying on it—a total of about 1,200 jobs.

The STUC tells us that the cost of Trident—the £1 billion a year from general taxation that is simply the capital cost, notwithstanding the £25 to £75 billion lifetime cost—is equivalent to 3,000 jobs in other services, because the money will have to come from somewhere, and I suspect that the Government will not want to raise taxes.

Mark Pritchard: Is the hon. Gentleman therefore saying to the House—and to Scotland and his constituents—that those 1,200 jobs do not matter and that their loss is a price he is willing to pay for removing the nuclear deterrent from Scotland?

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