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10 Jun 2008 : Column 38WH—continued

Let me turn to Afghanistan and Iraq. There will always be a trade-off between mobility and protection. General Johnny Holmes said to me that the light can go
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heavy, but the heavy cannot go light. That was quite a salutary lesson to learn and we can apply it in this case, but we do need to provide our troops with the maximum protection. I alerted the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), when I returned from an armed forces parliamentary scheme visit to Iraq in 2005 that we were in grave danger of having completely inadequate equipment to deal with improvised explosive devices. He assured me that he was already on the case. My hon. Friend has been absolutely stalwart in arguing the case for the V-shaped hull. The recognition by the Ministry of Defence that that was needed was too slow. The Government’s response was too slow, but my hon. Friend has been utterly consistent on that issue and has been proved right by virtue of what has been happening in theatre. We have all seen the Mastiff in operation and it is undoubtedly an excellent piece of kit.

The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and I enjoy a friendship across party barriers, but I think that he is right to say that commanders in the field require a range of options. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and I were in the compound at Lashkar Gah when his former regiment returned. I can tell hon. Members that it was very interesting to see the huge respect with which those who had served under the leadership of my hon. Friend greeted their former commander when they saw that he was at Lashkar Gah to meet them.

However, the need to be mobile and able to leap off and on kit means that people cannot go around exclusively in Mastiff vehicles. The Jackal is an extremely exciting new development. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton is right about the problem of protection on the Jackal and she is even more right about the problem of protection on the Pinzgauer Vector—the driver sits right over the wheel, and the wheel is the part of the machine that activates the IED. The Vector has a role to play, but not in a dangerous theatre such as that which we are discussing.

My hon. Friend did not refer to unmanned air vehicles, but that is an area in which much more needs to be done. UAVs are already playing a prominent role, but they could play a more prominent role. I think that my hon. Friend would say that rather than having the most expensive, most sophisticated UAVs, we should be considering cheaper options. In my constituency, QinetiQ is developing something called Zephyr, which is a UAV for very high altitudes. It looks like something from a balsa wood kit. It is operated using solar panels and is doing a fantastic job. It is still in research mode, but I hope that the Minister will tell us what is being done to harness UAVs to provide better reconnaissance and, for example, to be able to identify disturbed earth, because if we can identify disturbed earth, we can see where IEDs may be being laid.

My hon. Friend referred to lower-cost turboprop aircraft. I think that the Minister knows of my affection for the Pilatus PC-21. I would very much like to procure that superb aeroplane for the Royal Air Force one day—that is why I keep looking at the opinion polls with such enthusiasm. I shall be flying the aeroplane next month at the royal international air tattoo. My
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hon. Friend is on to something here: we need to consider more practical equipment. I will just give a warning, though. New kit such as that going into theatre requires defensive aid suites to be fitted and they do not come cheaply. We cannot just stick a Tucano or other turboprop aeroplane into theatre and say, “That’s it.” Quite a lot of amendment work has to go on. Essentially, what my hon. Friend is talking about is a brass, not a gold, solution, so I think she is right.

My hon. Friend mentioned helicopters. The Government have been caught napping on that issue. They cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004 and the result has been disastrous. We simply do not have enough helicopters. We have bought six Merlin helicopters from the Danes, but I understand that the floor of the helicopter is completely unserviceable for our use and will have to be subject to further adaptation. It is appalling that further action has not been taken to ensure that we have more helicopters. It is not as though this situation came on us suddenly, as a surprise; it has been obvious for a long time that we need more helicopters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark is right about the shortage of manpower. He said that the armed forces, particularly the Army, were in a parlous state. I will just add to his other points that there is too much reliance on overseas recruits because we cannot recruit from the United Kingdom and therein lies a damaging prospect for the British Army. Representing Aldershot, I know that people are resigning because they cannot take the constant tempo of operations. Even if they can, their families cannot. That factor needs to be taken into account.

Time is limited, Mr. Pope, and we will be able to resume the debate next week, but I wish to make five brief observations. First, we require a defence review. It is essential that we have one, and that is what my party will be putting before the people at the next election. Secondly, we need flexible equipment that is capable of subsequent adaptation, depending upon changes in circumstances. Kit must be designed with the prospect of needing to adapt it. Thirdly, the system of urgent operational requirements works extremely well, but it does not dovetail into the main procurement programme. We should migrate the excellent swift decision-making process that applies to UORs into the main procurement programme. I believe that that is absolutely essential, and I am working on it now. Fourthly, the Government should tell us what they are doing about UAVs, because there is a life-saving capability. Fifthly, where are we on FRES? A number of hon. Members mentioned it; perhaps the Minister can tell us.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton says that there will be no money at the time of the next election, when the Conservative party hopes to come to Government. I assure her that I am conscious of that fact. I am also conscious that a huge bow wave of commitments is building up in a wide range of areas. In particular, the British people are going to have to acknowledge our growing commitment to the war wounded. They are not yet visible to the health service; but they will become increasingly visible and will add hugely to the defence budget. That, I believe, is not fair; it should come out of another budget. However, that is for the shadow Chancellor to decide.

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12.21 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) and other Members in expressing my deepest sympathy for the families, comrades and friends of the three paratroopers who recently lost their lives in Helmand. Earlier this year, I saw for myself the dedication of those remarkable people and what they are achieving on behalf of the Afghan people. We need always to remind ourselves that those achievements come with great sacrifice—and, for those three individuals, the greatest sacrifice.

The hon. Member for Congleton was right to highlight the fact that we have to live within the reality of finite resources. I am enormously pleased to see her toeing the party line and expressing the same view as her leader, who said that a Conservative Government would not increase defence spending. If only the Front Bench defence team would spit that out. Despite the fact that the leader has said it, and the Back Benchers recognise it as a fact—as the reality—the Front Bench continue to pretend that the situation is something else. However, I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s conclusions. Effectively, she said that we ought to equip our armed forces to conduct counter-insurgency operations, neglecting to some degree all other types of conflict.

Ann Winterton: I did not say that.

Mr. Ainsworth: That is the way that the hon. Lady came across. In my view, that would be dangerous; it would undermine the country’s ability to meet the security challenges that we may face in a rapidly changing and unpredictable world. That is to misunderstand the nature of the current operations and the way in which conflicts are likely to evolve.

Secretary Gates, who was quoted by the hon. Lady, said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation that defence procurement was a matter of balancing risk:

We cannot allow the problems of today to dictate entirely how we equip and train our troops, just as we cannot neglect today’s operations and focus on hypothetical future threats. That is what Secretary Gates called “next war-itis”.

Our priority is and will be to ensure that our forces are properly equipped for current operations. However, a balanced force is a key national strategic asset that we would give up at our peril. We live in an uncertain world. We all remember the siren calls of the pundits who declared the end of history and were eager to push for the realisation of the peace dividend at the end of the cold war; those calls were hard to resist, but they were proved tragically premature. Since then, international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the challenges posed by failed and failing states have emerged as threats to our security. They will continue to remain a challenge. Emerging trends such as climate change, competition for resources, geopolitical change and the proliferation of weapons technology will increase the uncertainty. A balanced force, mixing a range of capabilities will stand us in the best stead to deal with the unpredictability of future security challenges.

Some combinations of those threats are not only plausible but have had catastrophic effects on our security. In recent times, we have been involved in military operations
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with no counter-insurgency element—for instance, in the Falklands and the first Gulf war. No matter what people thought of the decision to invade Iraq, in Operation Telic, we could not have done so with Mastiff and Ridgeback vehicles. We could not have crossed the Al-Faw peninsula in that sort of vehicle. Yes, we could have gone up the road to Nazaria, but that was not the reality of the situation. We were recently faced with the need for an existing army and air force capability on behalf of the Iraqis; as recently as five years ago, we had to be able and equipped to face that threat as well as counter-insurgency.

Ann Winterton rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: If the hon. Lady is burning to have a go at me, I shall give way.

Ann Winterton: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. What he suggests is a parody of what I said. He is right to say that we have not been engaged in counter-insurgency for a number of years. We were very good at it at one time, but virtually every serving officer—anyone now serving in the armed services—has no direct experience of it. There is one exception: Jock Stirrup. I was saying that we do not have a balance when providing for our troops at present, and we have to over-egg the pudding to get over any kind of story. Not only do we not have balance, but we have forgotten some of the lessons that were hard-learned a long time ago.

Mr. Ainsworth: I know that the hon. Lady has given a lot of thought to the matter, but her basic argument was that there was a complete lack of balance; she said that we had 463 vehicles that were effectively useful in the circumstances and she wrote off 2,000. The hon. Lady chose to draw a line in order to make her case, but Jackal is on the other side of that line. That vehicle was purchased for Afghan counter-insurgency operations. We cannot put people only in heavy armoured vehicles; we also need light recce vehicles that are capable of getting around and that give vision and flexibility. The Jackal was produced with that in mind.

The hon. Lady assumed when drawing that line that FRES will not be configured for deflection of blast, but it will be. I do not know whether it will have a lower profile but the same manoeuvrability as Mastiff, but it will have many other capabilities that Mastiff does not have. I do not detract from Mastiff; it is armoured up in Coventry in my constituency. It is a fantastic vehicle that gives huge protection to our troops, but its use is extremely limited. The hon. Lady said that the Secretary of State visited Basra in a Mastiff. I was not allowed into Musa Kala because I would have to have done so in a Mastiff and it was not the right vehicle; but someone will have to go there if we want our troops to be effective in the Afghan theatre. Mastiff cannot be the only vehicle; as has been said, we have to provide a range of vehicles to meet the threat and to allow our troops to do the job.

The hon. Lady seemed to be complaining that we are using the equipment that we have in the theatres in which we are fighting. Yes, we are using the Tornado, but using it effectively. They fly in pairs, so they can stay over target for a long time.

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12.30 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I confess that I applied for this debate because I enjoy swimming. When I was a child, I learned to swim in the baths at Penarth, which are now a nightclub; my younger brother suddenly realised that he could swim when he fell out of his water wings and into the pool at the age of two; and I won the scout diving cup in Stirling in 1974, I believe. It is therefore a delight to be able to raise this issue, even if the Government pre-empted me, after I had obtained the debate, by announcing further support for swimming last week.

I shall come to some of the specific issues that the Government announcement has made us think about, but I should first say that I started putting my speech together in the pool in Bronwydd in the Rhondda—more or less in the pool, at any rate. Swimming beside me, interestingly, was the Wales triathlon champion, who is the grandson of my predecessor as MP for Rhonda and a fine member of the Labour party. I hope that he wins his races this summer.

Britain has a fine tradition in swimming. It is one sport that we have done particularly well at in Olympic games—we have won 15 gold, 23 silver and 28 bronze medals, and we won the gold in water polo in 1900, 1908, 1912 and 1920, but not since. I am sure that many British people were proud of the haul of swimming medals not only from Australia but from Athens, and that they look forward to Liam Hancock, David Davies and Kirsty Balfour, among others, doing well in the summer. I am sure that the media will be more fascinated by how Tom Daley, the teenage diver, does in his first Olympics.

One of the great things about swimming is that it is not only about the elite. It is the only sport that is enjoyed equally by girls and boys and by people at different stages of life, which makes it inclusive. It is a joy to see whole families go swimming—they cannot take part in other sports together in the same way. The health implications are significant, because even a person who has sprained an ankle, or who has back pain or arthritis, can go swimming. Even people with severe mobility problems can go swimming. It is a low-impact sport and—unless one is playing water polo—non-contact. Bringing the whole community together is one of the great aspects of swimming.

The downside is that swimming is one of the most expensive sports—not for the individual, but for the state. Whereas 50 years ago, swimming baths were mostly open air and relatively cheap to run, they are now almost universally indoor and expensive to run. The people at the baths at Ystrad in my constituency recently discovered that several million pounds would have to be spent simply to restore the base of the pool—they realised that the pool had concrete cancer and that one could easily punch a hole in the cement. Perhaps no one will notice the significant difference that the investment made, but it goes to show that swimming is an expensive sport for local authorities and Government to make available.

I am delighted by the commitment that the Government made last week to try to make swimming free for over-60s and younger people. We have tried the same
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thing in Wales in the past two years following a commitment from the Welsh Assembly, and it is important that the Government spot some of the problems that we have had there. For instance, it is all very well saying that swimming is free for over-60s, but if the same people simply swim more frequently for free, we will not increase the number of people who swim.

There are all sorts of barriers to people going swimming. First, obviously, a lot of people cannot swim. The Government have for a long time had a commitment to ensuring that every child going through school learns to swim so that they can swim by the time they leave, but the number of people in poorer communities in England and Wales who cannot swim is still high—some 25 per cent. cannot do so. The number of people who cannot swim is markedly higher in poorer areas. I am sure that there are all sorts of reasons for that, but it brings me to one of the most important barriers: money.

Middle-class and wealthier families can afford tuition fees for their youngster to learn to swim, which amount to about £5 an hour in most areas of the country, but many poorer families cannot, especially if there are two or three children, so many youngsters do not get the opportunity to learn to swim. Also, some people in their 30s and 40s stop playing football or rugby because of injury and look to take up another sport, but they cannot take up swimming because they cannot swim—they feel embarrassed about it and never go near a swimming pool. It is important to ensure that swimming lessons are more affordable, particularly for children from poorer areas, and that schools are more effective at ensuring that children learn to swim.

A greater barrier to many people taking part in swimming, particularly women, is that they find the whole environment of the pool unfriendly, embarrassing and lacking in privacy. If changing rooms are dirty and not frequently cleaned, people worry about hygiene and getting infections. Other countries have learned about those things rather faster than us. Many people go on holiday and stay in hotels with beautiful, well looked-after swimming pools with private changing rooms, so when they get back to their local baths and find that there are no such rooms, nowhere for families to change together and that the showers are either scalding hot or freezing cold, they think, “Maybe this isn’t for us.” Other countries have invested as much in changing rooms and other facilities in swimming pools as in the pool itself, which we need to do. Some local authorities have transformed the swimming experience, especially for families, but we need to ensure that that best practice is followed throughout the country.

Some local authorities work jointly with the private sector to ensure that new baths, nearly all of which are in private sector facilities such as hotels and leisure centres, are available to the wider public. That way, there is an investment in the whole community. We need to do far more of that kind of thing. There are between 1,400 and 1,600 public swimming pools in England, and about 6,000 private pools of one kind or another. If we could make the latter available, we could make a significant difference in enabling more people to take up an active, healthy lifestyle through swimming.

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