Previous Section Index Home Page

9 Oct 2008 : Column 486
4.8 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): These debates always produce well-informed and interesting speeches from well-informed and interesting people, but the speech by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) was one of the best speeches in a defence debate that I have ever heard in this House, and we should be grateful to him for what he said.

I should like to echo the expressions of sympathy to the families of people who have died in Afghanistan. It is always an individual tragedy when any one soldier dies. There is, however, a degree of comfort in something that right hon. and hon. Members will have noticed—that it was in only one theatre of war that we had those casualties over the summer. That suggests that those who had previously died in Iraq on our behalf had achieved a real measure of success. Let us hope that those who have recently died in Afghanistan will eventually achieve, through their sacrifice, the same degree of success as those who have previously died in Iraq. We are very grateful to them and to their families.

I would like to echo the congratulations to the new members of the Ministry of Defence Front-Bench team. As I have said, what the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), said about the armed forces in his recent report achieved a real effect in the transformation of the way in which the armed forces are regarded in this country. I hope that we can achieve more, but I pay tribute to him, and he will no doubt have a great deal of work to do following on from the noble Baroness Taylor in the equipment and support role.

It is a real pleasure, though, to see the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), removed from the Select Committee on Defence. That may not sound entirely right, but he brings to the Ministry of Defence a feisty—some might say verging on the belligerent—approach that is necessary. He has long experience of the Defence Committee, where he built up a huge degree of knowledge and asked some valuable questions. We will miss him; he performed a very valuable role.

The Defence Committee has carried out several inquiries recently. It recently produced a recruitment and retention report, and one of the things it concentrated on was the difficulty the armed forces have with manning balance. It was a worry to us that the Army will not find itself in manning balance until 2011, and that the armed forces have now identified 73 pinch-point trades where there is a shortage of personnel. We welcome the Command Paper produced by the Government, which the Minister of State mentioned at the opening of the debate. Who it was that produced some of these brilliant ideas, the Government or the Opposition, we do not need to fuss too much about. We should, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, welcome such ideas from wherever they come.

Another report we recently produced was on medical care for the armed forces. I want to echo something said about the excellence of care provided at Birmingham Selly Oak. There have been a lot of newspaper stories about shortcomings at Birmingham Selly Oak, which we found were not borne out by our inquiries. The people who provide care there are to be congratulated
9 Oct 2008 : Column 487
and commended for the work that they do, unstintingly, for our armed forces. In September, I went to Israel in my role as chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel, and I visited the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem. In Birmingham Selly Oak, we had found that the excellence of trauma care in our country was to be commended. However, I found that such care was even better in the Hadassah hospital, and by a considerable margin. I have just written a letter to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham, to ask whether we can learn any lessons from the way in which other countries deal with trauma care, and I hope that some interesting ideas will come out of that.

We are just about to begin the public evidence sessions of an inquiry into national security and resilience. Last week, we had a valuable visit to the counter-terrorism science and technology centre at Porton Down. We were very impressed by the wide range of work that is done there, from all sorts of disciplines, to counter terrorism. As we left, we felt that some improvements in communication between Departments could mean more joined-up government, so that more Departments could take advantage of the excellence of the work that is done in Porton Down. However, overall, we felt that it did a good job.

Parliament needs to consider a further matter—the parliamentary scrutiny of national security and resilience. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East said, it is a cross-cutting issue, and it needs proper parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that the Government will move ahead more quickly in getting some sort of Select Committee scrutiny of the matter—I know that they have had that in mind for a long time.

Let us consider military bases. The super-garrisons will come on stream from 1 April next year. There are benefits to super-garrisons, including much more stability in the populations that are based in them. For example, there will be much less turbulence in service children’s education, about which we did a report last year. Such benefits will be real. However, super-garrisons mean that members of the armed forces will find it increasingly tempting to buy their own houses, especially if house prices drop sufficiently to be within their reach. The trouble is that that will reduce the cohesion of the patch. As parliamentarians, we must be aware of that when introducing some of the changes. However, overall, I believe that the super-garrisons will prove beneficial to the armed forces.

Mr. Brazier: There is a point to add to my right hon. Friend’s strong points. The last big study—in 1995, if I remember rightly—showed that, once a member of the Army had bought married quarters, he was 50 per cent. more likely to PVR in the subsequent few years. It is unfortunate that, although we need to encourage the aspiration of eventual home ownership, in the Army—the most mobile of the services—buying too early is a recipe for losing good people much more quickly.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I agree with my hon. Friend, apart from his lapse into MOD-speak. I have no doubt that PVR means prematurely voluntarily retiring—

Mr. Blunt: Premature voluntary release.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I shall move on to this country’s defence industries.

9 Oct 2008 : Column 488

As the Minister of State said, we need a strong defence industry in this country and we should be proud of what it produces. The industry should be proud of that and proclaim the virtues of this country’s defending itself with good, British-made defence industrial goods. It is this country’s right to defend itself with proper equipment, as it is that of other countries. Since we produce some of the best equipment in the world, we should be proud of our defence exports and proclaim their virtue in the face of those who denigrate us for being arms salesmen. We give other countries the opportunity to do their duty—to defend themselves. To achieve that, we need a defence industrial base that is strong and knows what the Government are doing. Unfortunately, there is currently a sense of complete paralysis in the defence procurement world. As the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said, people do not know what happens in the defence procurement world. There is a sense that senior officials in the Ministry of Defence are just trying, because of budgetary difficulties, to survive.

Somewhere, somehow, the Government need to take control and start making some decisions. We have been given a provisional decision about FRES; it needs to consolidate into a real decision, and soon. We have been given some sort of indications about the future Lynx, but when will we have a decision about it? The Chief of the General Staff needs both of those, and needs them quickly and in proper quantities.

I have been reflecting on the question that I asked the Minister of State about what the chief of defence matériel said last week. On reflection, I think that I may have misreported our conversation. I would like to apologise to him and to withdraw what he said, because I do not think that it went quite like that and, anyway, it was in private and I should not have said what I did. So, I apologise to him and withdraw my remark.

Having said that, I think that the defence industry in this country needs to know who is in charge of the defence industrial strategy. Of course, it is enormously reassuring to know that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, is in charge of these things. However, we need to know who is in charge underneath him—who is in charge in military terms and in civil service terms—because the defence industry will not, frankly, be negotiating with him. It will need to know that somebody is driving things forward, but at the moment it has no sense that anybody is.

I want to make one final point, about the planning assumptions. As we know—as the Ministry of Defence tells us—the MOD has been operating at or above the levels for which it is resourced and structured for seven out of the past eight years. We can get away with that for two or three years, perhaps; we certainly cannot get away with it for seven or eight years.

All that is based on planning assumptions that have been routinely wrong. So, what the Defence Committee did in April this year was to write a letter to the then Secretary of State for Defence to ask when we would have the results of his review of the planning assumptions, which he announced last year. It would be right to read what the Secretary of State said:

9 Oct 2008 : Column 489

The trouble is that over the past six years or so that review has always proved to be wrong. He continued:

That is a real worry. In view of the comments in the previous speech, which I have just said was one of the best speeches we have heard in defence debates in this House, the issue is one that we have got to revisit. The planning assumptions are wrong. We cannot rely on them. We should not be sending the armed forces of this country into battle on the basis of assumptions that we know are wrong.

4.23 pm

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Defence Committee. I join others in welcoming the two new Ministers to the Front Bench, more of whom later in my contribution—all good, I can assure them.

I want first briefly to cover three issues, then I want to talk about the opportunities for Shropshire, and Telford in particular, to emerge as a key defence hub in the UK. I note that the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) is in his place. He will probably agree with pretty much everything that I have to say, but we shall see as we proceed. However, I know that we both want to see Telford and Shropshire flourishing as they make their contribution to UK defence.

I want to begin, however, by echoing the tributes that other Members have paid to our armed forces in these difficult times. The people of our armed forces are simply remarkable, and they deserve our thanks. Shropshire people have a particular connection with 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, which has barracks at Tern Hill. The regiment has done difficult work in all the major conflict zones around the world in recent years, and the county is paying tribute to its members as they return home at the moment. In fact, they arrived home yesterday. I understand that there is to be a march past in Shrewsbury next Thursday. Unfortunately, I shall not be able to be there, so I want to use this opportunity in the House to pay tribute to them for the work that they have been doing in Afghanistan. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in doing that. Many people from Telford are serving in conflict zones across the world, in the armed forces and in the support services, and I want to place on record my thanks to them as well.

The first substantive point that I want to make is on the theme of renewing the connection between our forces and the communities that they serve. I know that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), has been doing some work on this matter. I particularly want to make the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), smile. I did the armed forces scheme with him; we did a stint with the Royal Marines. He says that I say what I am about to say in every defence debate; I do not want to disappoint him. He knows what is coming.

I really believe that people used to feel connected with the armed forces when regiments or warships bore the names of specific towns or counties. We are now
9 Oct 2008 : Column 490
losing that linkage, and we ought to look into reinstating some of those connections. It would be great, for example, if we had an HMS Shropshire or an HMS Telford. The last HMS Shropshire was launched in 1928. She served in the south Atlantic, and was passed over to the Australian Navy in 1942. She was in Tokyo bay when the Japanese surrendered. We should have another HMS Shropshire, an HMS Telford and, perhaps, an HMS Wrekin. We need to renew those connections between our forces and our communities.

I should also like to call on Telford and Wrekin council to review what it is doing about offering freedom of the borough status to regiments that are present in the county. This applies not only to the regular forces but to the Territorials who are based in our towns and communities. I hope that the council will look positively at that proposal in the coming weeks.

My second point is to say how much positive feedback I have had about the veterans’ badges, which have not been mentioned yet today, and about the badges that recognise the contributions made by the Land Army and the Timber Corps. In Telford, the Royal British Legion and I have been promoting those badges hard, and we have held a number of presentation events at the Dawley Royal British Legion club. Albert Colley and the team there have been working with me to encourage take-up of the badges. I would also particularly like to thank Richard Overton, who works in my office, for his work in helping people with their applications. His reputation is spreading across the country; he gets calls from right across the UK because people know that my office is promoting the veterans’ badges and the badges that recognise the contributions made by the Land Army and the Timber Corps.

The British Legion has some excellent active branches in Telford, and it is always a pleasure to work with them. I have been having a dialogue with them for some time about the military covenant, and I welcome the comments that I have heard today from the director-general about the covenant being brought back into balance.

While I am on the theme of recognition for service, I want to take up my third point, and to press the minister on the campaign, which he will know well, for an award for those who have been injured or killed on active service. I have always thought that the medal system in this country was very good, because it does not make it easy to win an award. However, I think that we need to look at the system and at how we recognise people who have been injured or killed on active service. This is not about whether people do or do not support the principles behind a particular military operation and it is nothing to do with the politics of conflict. It is about recognising sacrifice. It would be helpful if the Minister said whether, in his new role, he will pursue the issue of whether a medal can be awarded to service personnel who are injured, or indeed whether an award can be made to their families if they are killed in action.

I want to move on to develop the main theme of my speech, which relates to the opportunity to create a strong and long-term defence hub in the town of Telford. We have a long tradition in the town of supporting our forces, largely focused on civilian staff working for the Ministry of Defence. In recent years, I have worked with the trade unions to protect jobs and we have had some notable successes. We campaigned to keep the Army Base Repair Organisation located at Donnington,
9 Oct 2008 : Column 491
in the Wrekin constituency, and the MOD recognised that the specialist staff there provide a flexible, responsive and cost-effective service in repairing and modifying armoured vehicles, and in developing new solutions for the protection of our front-line troops.

Alongside that, I campaigned with the unions to keep defence equipment support staff based at Sapphire house in my constituency. The Government—wisely, in my view—changed their mind and decided not to move those posts down to the Bath and Bristol area. They ultimately moved to merge the operation with ABRO to create the new Defence Support Group. I acknowledge that there have been some job losses in that process—about 100 will be gone by March next year—but thankfully most of the losses have been handled through voluntary redundancy, which is better than losing the jobs altogether and their moving out of the town. With the merger of those two significant organisations, there is a genuine opportunity for us to develop an exciting defence support initiative in Shropshire.

I understand that a capacity and capability review is under way in the new organisation. Here are a few suggestions for consideration as part of it. First, we should build on the recognised local skills base and develop Telford as a defence hub for the UK. Secondly, we should develop in-house skills and—I stress this point—partner with industry. We should not outsource as a matter of course through the industrial strategy. The existing teams work hard and provide the flexibility that we need to respond to the operational environment that we are encountering at the moment. There is an increased tempo as we have to repair armoured vehicles, get them back out on the road and on active service. That is important and we need to ensure that we preserve the skills that we have at ABRO.

Thirdly, we must ensure that arrangements with BAE Systems and others are structured to deliver that partnership. I stress the word “partnership”. Let us ensure that we procure the product that we need and that we are not led down routes specified by external organisations. At the start of the process, let us dictate very clearly what we want.

Fourthly, we need to evaluate the added value that existing staff bring to the table and ensure that we retain that good will. Sometimes, I do not think that we evaluate carefully enough contributions that people make that are not necessarily clearly defined on a cost-benefit sheet. Sometimes, monetary value cannot be put on service and loyalty provided by civilian MOD staff. I do not want us to lose those things, and we have them now in Telford.

Alongside the Defence Support Group, we have the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency—jobs that were won in a competitive environment some two and a half years ago. Cost savings have been made and the operation runs extremely effectively. I think that Ministers can see that we have a real opportunity in Telford to ensure that we have an effective defence hub looking at procurement, repair, supply and provision. It is an exciting opportunity that we should not waste.

At the beginning of the debate, the hon. Member for The Wrekin rightly pressed the Minister on the defence training review. I want to conclude on this point, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me. Many of us in the west midlands did not agree with the decision to move defence training down to St. Athan.
9 Oct 2008 : Column 492
We want some clarity now on the delivery of the scheme. When the announcement was made, there was a commitment to some continuing training facilities within Shropshire. We want to know that that remains so. We also heard about the relocation of 1 Signal Brigade and 102 Logistics Brigade under the Barona programme. We understand that those units will be relocated to Cosford.

The programme has been delayed around St. Athan, and we need some clarity. We do not want to be in the worst of all worlds, whereby a Government decision about Cosford is delayed, and we find out that the Barona programme does not fit with the time frame for establishing St. Athan. In that scenario, we lose defence jobs from Cosford to St. Athan, and we take so long to make the decision that units are not transferred back to the Cosford site.

We must make sure that such decisions are taken quickly and effectively. I would welcome a further update from Ministers on behalf of my constituents who work at Cosford about what is happening at St. Athan. That statement might not be today, but in the coming weeks. However, it is important to nail down the programme effectively, so that Shropshire emerges as a place where we have a long-term commitment to the UK’s defence.

Next Section Index Home Page