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3.18 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I am delighted to be able to participate in this debate following a year of silence as a Government Whip.

First, I pay tribute to those service personnel who have lost their lives in the past year, and to those—some of them severely wounded—who are recovering and trying to rebuild their lives. Some of them are my constituents. That is why the recent publication of the Command Paper setting out clearly what the covenant means, and significantly enhancing it, has been welcomed in my constituency by service personnel and their families.

However, I very much hope that the decisions relating to the increased payments set out in the armed forces compensation scheme are handled swiftly as well as realistically. There has been more than one example locally of service personnel who have suffered the loss of multiple limbs—two or three limbs—and serious trauma still not being considered for a maximum payment, or near-maximum initial payment, which has at times been difficult for people to understand. I noted the Minister’s comment that the MOD has not always got it right in some cases.

Mr. Kevan Jones: As I said to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), if my hon. Friend has specific cases that she wants me to consider, please will she feed them through to me and I will look at them?

Alison Seabeck: I thank my hon. Friend. My understanding is that the British Limbless Ex-Service Men’s Association has been lobbying hard on specific cases, and I can follow up with that. It was delighted by the Government’s announcements generally, but it still has concerns, and would welcome further guidance on the new scheme. I wanted to raise those concerns before proceeding to the main thrust of my speech.

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The defence of the United Kingdom, and the associated industries and service personnel that support it, are essential to a city such as Plymouth, with its long and distinguished military links. Plymouthians are acutely aware of the demands placed on servicemen and women and their families, acutely aware of the risks that they take, and acutely aware of the wider importance of our industrial base and the budgetary pressures faced by the Ministry of Defence. As a result, they value and understand the nature of the work that is required to ensure that the country is kept safe and secure. My constituents none the less have concerns, which I should like to raise. I do not apologise for focusing, rather parochially, on Plymouth rather than raising wider strategic issues.

On the MOD website, Members will find three statements of aims: to be fit for the challenge of today, to be ready for the tasks of tomorrow, and to be capable of building for the future. How can Plymouth, as part of the United Kingdom defence infrastructure jigsaw, help and be assisted to meet those aims and requirements? There are—not least in the current climate, and given our commitment to operations around the globe, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq—heavy demands on personnel and budgets. In addition, the MOD is committed to finding value-for-money savings—some £2.7 billion—which are expected to be reinvested in defence. In the light of those heavy pressures on budgets, it is not surprising that Plymouth has been facing uncertainty about the future of both the naval base and the size and role of the industrial set-up within the dockyard. That is not good for my constituents, and I do not think that it is good for United Kingdom defence or for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines based in and around Plymouth.

Rather perversely, that uncertainty has been running in parallel with huge increases in Government spending in the dockyard on its facilities, nuclear and non-nuclear, and on the residences used by the Navy, as well as on the commercial purchase of the industrial interest by Babcock International. Babcock is continuing to grow, with revenue increasing by 57 per cent. in 2007-08. That makes it one of the leading suppliers of support to the Royal Navy, and we welcome its presence in the city.

Investment in the naval base has also included the replacement of some grim living quarters by two brand-new buildings that house over 1,600 personnel: 961 junior rates, 450 senior rates and about 250 officers. That is significant, and certainly reinforces the MOD’s comment in response to the 15th Select Committee report on defence estates that

that it gives service personnel.

That investment has made a difference in Plymouth, but I should like to hear from the Minister, in the light of ever-increasing energy costs and wider climate-change concerns, how much emphasis is placed on ensuring that all new build in defence estates—accommodation and other types of building—meets the highest energy efficiency standards. The potential cost savings to the Department cannot be insignificant. I hope that the Minister will tell us that when contracts and tenders are being drawn up, the Department will, as part of its procurement process, set the highest standards to ensure that all its partners keep their energy use as low as is feasible, given the nature of the technology used. I should welcome his comments, but I hope he will not
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simply say—as is said in another part of the MOD’s website—that the MOD compares favourably with other Departments. I do not think that response is good enough, and I hope that the Minister can offer something a bit more positive and specific.

I suppose that all the improvements we have seen in the dockyard should have sent a signal to all involved that there was a real commitment to it on the part of all the major players. However, that is not how they were perceived, and when the naval base review was set in train and there was talk of surface work being removed from Plymouth, a few hares were set running. In response to the ongoing indecision about the dockyard’s future, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy)—whom I am delighted to see in the Chamber—set up a dockyard strategy group, drawing in all the city’s leaders, trade unions and Members of Parliament, as well as the regional development agency and other concerned parties, to ensure that Plymouth’s concerns about the future direction of United Kingdom defence and our part in it were clarified and the future of our work force was assured. The strategy group knew that Plymouth was “fit for the challenge of today”, but we needed to be sure that we were “ready for the tasks of tomorrow”, and that we could sustain the skilled work force that was required to meet those demands.

On the industrial side, Babcock operates very efficiently—as did its predecessor, DML—and for that reason it has continued, in a difficult economic climate, to win a steady stream of orders. In the last year, we have also seen major work, including the completion of HMS Victorious, which has already returned to sea after her three-and-a-half year refit. HMS Ocean, currently the Navy’s largest ship, is out on sea trials following maintenance at a cost of £30 million. The Royal Navy’s activity in Plymouth continues to fire on all cylinders to meet the demands placed on it in theatres around the globe. HMS Illustrious—which I was fortunate enough, as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, to join for a “Thursday war” recently—has just completed her operational sea training and will soon be back on patrol. For the uninitiated—I suspect there are not many of those in the Chamber today—a Thursday war takes place each week in the sea off Plymouth and involves assessments being carried out on every aspect of a ship’s company and their work under operational conditions by the expert team from flag officer sea training to ensure that the crew has reached a level of professionalism to allow them to perform in any type of scenario. If anyone has the opportunity of participating in one of these events, I recommend that they do so as they are eye-opening.

Even in the light of all this activity, we are still facing a pattern of future work subject to dips and troughs. That is inevitable given the improved reliability of modern warships and submarines, and so when the future of the naval base was called into question, the city and the work force wanted answers to a range of questions. We wanted reassurance that the Ministry of Defence really understood the implications of any decision it took in terms of socio-economic outcomes and the synergy that exists between the naval base, the MOD’s commercial partners and the city’s residents. We also wanted to be sure that the MOD was working closely with other Government Departments to—quoting again from one of its web pages—

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Had it closed Plymouth, its contribution to the regions would not have strengthened its position with other civil Departments; it would have made it a pariah, leaving others to pick up the tab for the trail of socio-economic devastation which would have followed. It would also have helped to destroy the skills base that Government and defence industries in the UK depend on.

I am delighted to say that that scenario did not come about, largely because of the extensive lobbying by MPs, unions, the council and others. We made a very sound case to all the Government Departments concerned, and I must thank MOD Ministers for taking on board those wider representations. We, like other cities in the UK that are dependent on defence industries, are, however, still in limbo while the MOD negotiates with its industrial partners the terms of business agreements—TOBAs—which will set the parameters for their future work programmes. This is an unbelievably complex process where MOD and the industry are seeking to get a number of ducks in a row. However, as far as I can see from a position well outside the negotiations, the ducks keep moving.

There is frustration in our city that there does not yet seem to be light at the end of the tunnel or any clear timelines on key decisions. I know, not least because of his work on the Defence Committee, that the new Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) understands this problem well. Indeed, he himself has raised it, most recently in the Chamber on 19 June this year—at column 1171 of Hansard—when, in a related context, he repeatedly asked the MOD what it was doing and emphasised the need for “clarity”. I therefore hope we can expect both swift decisions and clarity from the new Minister.

We have been told—and I have no reason to disbelieve it—that there is no intent on the part of the MOD or industry to keep Plymouth in the dark, but that does not help allay the natural concerns of those of us who are outside the process. I—and, I am sure, my colleagues—have great difficulty explaining to our constituents exactly what is happening, and although we are told that all will be well and that the dockyard’s future is secure, we really want to see it in black and white or as in as sharp a contrast as possible. The work force and the smaller suppliers on whom the dockyard depends have concerns about what type of model will follow on from the TOBA announcements. Where will the surface work go? Will base-porting continue in its current form or change because of the ability of the fleet to keep vessels at sea for longer makes the whole strategy change? We would like to understand the Minister’s thinking on this. Is his Department looking to change the model to meet modern strategic requirements? Surely he can indicate that without affecting the TOBA negotiations and the commercial sensitivities which surround them. If so, we would like to know so that we can understand how Plymouth fits into the wider UK picture in order to be able to consider how we can maintain the skills base we have developed to service the Navy’s needs.

The announcement on the carrier—the carrier vessel future—was of course very good news for Babcock and it will mean the shifting of some work from Scotland down to Plymouth in the medium term. That said, however, there are siren voices still unsure about the cost of this order and some who might even suggest the
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order could be reduced to one vessel or even cancelled. There is a lot of risk involved in reducing the order to one. All the conversations that I have had with Navy personnel suggest that they strongly support the announcement that these two impressive vessels will be added to the fleet, and that they understand that in the current global climate, we cannot rely on other countries to come forward and assist us in times of crisis. We definitely do need the safety of two such vessels, and we should not waver from our commitment to them.

Babcock, which is currently working on the CVF programme, employs some 5,000 people and the MOD and Navy employ just under 1,000—people with higher-than-average earning potential. We need and will welcome a firm decision on a range of concerns, including base-porting, once the outcome of the TOBAs has been reached. The visible presence of the submarines and warships—the grey stuff—tied up alongside, and the military personnel and their families living in and enjoying Plymouth strongly feed into the city’s identity; we do not want to lose this. Plymouthians, unlike the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, understand the importance of buying British and supporting British-based workers; it is not about supporting defence jobs in Plymouth for political reasons. His view is too narrow and is at odds with that of the Conservative council leader in Plymouth. Without those jobs, UK defence industries would lose expertise and the economic impact on the region could be devastating, with the Government having to pick up a much larger welfare bill. I am therefore hoping that my colleague can offer some reassurance, and that I can go back to my constituents with some good news from today’s debate.

3.31 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I want to start by echoing the words of tribute and condolence to those who have lost their lives or been seriously injured since we last debated defence matters in this House in July. In also paying tribute to the Ministers who have left their post, I should like to welcome the two who are with us today. I am glad that manpower shortages and overstretch in the rest of the military family is not going to extend as far as the Government Front Bench. It will be useful to us to have the two of them here; both have been active participants in defence debates. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) produced a very worthwhile report on the relationships between the armed forces and the wider community. I hope that he will now have the chance to follow through some of the recommendations that he made in that report. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) is a very welcome addition to the Government Front Bench—one that is richly deserved and long overdue. As others have said, he brings with him a long list of past observations, which I hope he will be able to follow through.

I do not know what the new Secretary of State can have thought when the phone call came inviting him to take up his post. Despite the admirable researches that have been reported to us, he has not recently been a participant in these debates. However, I should think by now—six days on—he must have a pretty clear idea of the immensity of the headaches that he has inherited and taken on. I put those as being principally a financial
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crisis in his Department, a lack of strategic framework—or at any rate, a confused one—for Britain’s defence policy, and some decisions desperately needed on big procurement items.

I do not know whether the MOD still bothers denying that it is in a state of financial crisis; if so, it is largely wasting its breath. It is a wide open secret that it faces a very serious financial problem. The budget for the three years of the comprehensive spending review will have to go an awful long way, and various estimates reckon that there is a funding black hole. Some say that it is about £2 billion; others say that it is as much as £5 billion. It is certainly going to be a very difficult 18 months for the ministerial team in trying to make sense out of that situation.

Of course, we have the ongoing demands of two so-called medium-scale operations, in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have urgent operational requirements to meet the immediate needs there. There is also an enormous procurement shopping list looming, including carriers; the future rapid effect system; Astute submarines, the replacement, ultimately, of the Trident system; surface vessels; the joint strike fighter; another tranche of Eurofighters; and a new generation of helicopters. The list goes on and on.

It is clear to all observers that the budgets, as formulated, are not adequate to meet all those requirements; one does not have to be a mathematician of any great strength to realise that things simply do not add up. There is a tension between the immediate needs of our armed forces in theatre and longer-term needs, which must be planned for now if we are to avoid further problems building up in a relatively small number of years’ time.

I applaud the work, reported to us by the Minister of State, in getting armoured vehicles out into theatre as quickly as possible. I am not clear exactly where the acquisition of a further 600 vehicles fits in the envisaged framework for the future rapid effect system, and I do not know whether anybody else is either. That matter is raised with me by industrialists and members of the armed forces, and it will be interesting to know how it is reckoned to fit strategically into what is planned.

Equally, we read worrying newspaper reports that the joint strike fighter project is unravelling, and it is a mystery to me where that leaves our aircraft carriers, given that the joint strike fighters were what we were anticipating would fly from them. I do not know whether anyone views the idea of a marine version of Eurofighter as a serious plan B. Such a version would be costly and slow, and, judging by the answers given in previous sittings of the Defence Committee, I doubt that it is viewed as a realistic alternative.

Some of these issues can be postponed a bit longer, but given that an election may still be 18 months away, the Government will struggle to maintain that it is business as usual and that all these thorny issues can be put off until after one. The alternative is the tried-and-tested formula to which the Ministry of Defence has resorted again and again over the years: salami-slicing. That is the worst of all worlds, because things end up taking far longer than was anticipated, costing far more, and there are far fewer of them and they have less capability than was originally planned. We must avoid continuing a Heath Robinson approach to defence: adding things on and adapting them in a haphazard manner.

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The new ministerial team will have to struggle with these thorny issues, and I believe that they will have to do so within some sort of renewed, or at least re-expressed, strategic framework. I have spoken before in this House of the crying need for a new strategic defence review. I accept that it would not be possible to conclude such a review this side of an election—it is debatable whether it would be wise to commence one this side of an election—but at the very least some of the initial groundwork for such a review should be taking place. If it were possible to secure any sort of all-party consensus on the questions that such a review needed to ask, they could be debated. If a consensus could not be arrived at, at the very least we should debate what questions the review needs to ask.

I believe that those questions are: what kind of forces should we build and maintain in the next 20 or 30 years? Are we committed to maintaining premier league forces in all three forces on our own account? What do we want from defence? What part will be played by our allies in NATO, including its European countries, and by the rest of the UN? How will we work together to achieve the aims and objectives that I hope such a strategic defence review would identify?

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman will be relieved to hear that my hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary is committed to an incoming Conservative Government’s conducting just such a strategic defence review.

Nick Harvey: All parties in this House are probably committed to such a review occurring. I know that a defence of this line has occasionally been peddled by Conservative Back Benchers, but it is clear that there will have to be a strategic defence review. Whatever the colour of the Government formed after the general election, it would be immensely helpful if some of the spadework had been done now to ensure that such a review could crack on quickly straight after an election and not have to go through a period of hiatus before it could begin.

The new Secretary of State was a supporter of the defence industrial strategy in his previous job at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and now more than ever in the light of the complexity of our operations abroad, we have to work with industry and ensure that we have a defence industrial base on which we can rely in times of conflict. We therefore need to breathe new life into the defence industrial strategy and we will have to achieve that within the strategic framework. I welcome the appointment of a director of strategy at the MOD, but it puzzles me that that has come seven years into our operations in Afghanistan and five years into our operations in Iraq. For all that the appointment is overdue, it is welcome, and I hope that it will provide a lead for the preparatory work that I have described.

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