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I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister understands that the background is not only about uncertainty or complexity, because it is also about the stories of disregard of, and decline in, the Royal Navy that are rehashed so often by the Opposition and the media. Such stories ignore the changing strategic environment in which the Navy operates and fly in the face of decisions taken by this Government, who ordered the two largest aircraft carriers ever sailed by the Navy. This Government are continuing the modernisation of our amphibious shipping so that it is now stronger than it has been for many decades. This Government equipped our attack submarines with land-attack missiles and are building the Type 45 destroyers and the Astute class submarines— [ Interruption. ]
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Yes, the Government are building fewer Type 45 destroyers, but they cost £1 billion each. Those investments are not modest. Indeed, they are part of the biggest shipbuilding programme for one or more generations. That is not to say that there are no issues that need to be addressed. Of course sophisticated anti-submarine and air defence frigates and destroyers will inevitably be built in smaller numbers as they become more expensive, but the Royal Navy still requires sufficient escorts to carry out the numerous and often unsung duties that it undertakes worldwide every day.

When the Minister announced the recent cancellation of the seventh and eighth Type 45 destroyers, he also talked about bringing forward work on the future surface combatant programme, which will succeed the Type 22 and Type 23 frigates, most of which are currently based at Devonport. He was not able to give any detail then, but I hope that it will begin to emerge soon.

I look forward to working with our defence team to ensure that they take the right long-term decisions for our country, both through continuing to scrutinise their work on the Defence Committee and through lobbying to ensure a full and proper role for the defence sector, especially for the naval defence sector in Plymouth, Devonport, for years to come.

5.4 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It is a pleasure, of course, to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), whose knowledge of these matters is encyclopaedic. I will seek to be as brief as I possibly can, because I know that several colleagues are keen to speak. I may curtail some of the more interesting things that I had to say in the interests of brevity.

These debates, until a moment ago at least, are often notable for their sense of unanimity across the Chamber. We are all agreed about what a superb, professional and selfless job our armed services do. That unanimity was typified by the superb parade before the summer recess when 120 of the soldiers of 4 Mechanised Brigade, led by a guards band, marched into Parliament through the Carriage Gates. As chairman of the all-party Army group, I can say that we intend to repeat that experience. I hope that subsequent returning brigades will have similar parades. It was great to see all parties in the House, led by Mr. Speaker, welcoming the soldiers to the north door of Westminster Hall.

I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), to his place on the Government Front Bench. I well remember the very powerful speeches that he made when he was shadow Defence Minister, speaking from this side of the Table, and the way in which he criticised the Government so powerfully and extensively. He said that their defence approaches were dreadful. We have researchers at this moment looking into those wonderful speeches, which will certainly come back to haunt him for all his time on the Front Bench. None the less, he will doubtless advance those arguments now within the Ministry of Defence, and so once again that is an example of unanimity.

Parades are vital, and I look forward to one that will happen in Wootton Bassett, in my constituency, this Sunday. It is not a parade to welcome back soldiers from overseas, but a particularly interesting event. Wootton Bassett, in contrast with the fact that we have been
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hearing about, that only 71 per cent. of people support the armed services, is a unique town and its people have turned out in their hundreds, and in many occasions in their thousands, to welcome back the tragic number of coffins—I think the number is 147 so far—that are repatriated through RAF Lyneham. The mayor, the Royal British Legion and the townsfolk of Wootton Bassett turn out in their hundreds on every single occasion. I often go with them. As a mark of that particularly wonderful ceremony, RAF Lyneham has chosen to turn out to hold a parade not in honour of our servicemen but in honour of the town of Wootton Bassett, which has gone to such great lengths to respect our fallen. That is enormously important.

In the short time available to me, there are a couple of issues regarding RAF Lyneham that I would particularly like to bring to the attention of the new ministerial team. First, RAF Lyneham is to close in 2012 and the Hercules fleet is to move to RAF Brize Norton. As I understand it, Project Belvedere in the Ministry of Defence is considering what to do with Lyneham after the Hercules fleet moves out. The project is looking into how to bring all the helicopter fleets together in one place, potentially at RAF Lyneham. I would be interested to hear from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), when he winds up, to what degree Project Belvedere is alive, well, kicking and moving forward. There are reports that, because of the £2 billion shortage that the MOD is experiencing, the project has been shelved. If that is the case, I would very much like to know what plans the Minister has for RAF Lyneham.

If the helicopters come to RAF Lyneham, they will broadly be welcomed by local people—I would certainly lead the welcome—but there would be concerns none the less, particularly about the noise. I would like an assurance from the MOD that it will enter into useful discussions with the local community about the way in which we can control the flying hours and the flying patterns of the helicopters to minimise the environmental damage that might result for local people.

Another current issue with regard to RAF Lyneham is the inquest being conducted by David Masters, the Wiltshire coroner, into the tragic loss of Hercules XV179 in 2004 in Iraq. Initial evidence given to the inquest, which is happening as we speak, seems to indicate that had the Hercules fleet been fitted with foam suppressant in the wing tanks before now—it appears that reports were circulating in the MOD some years ago that suggested that that should happen—there might have been less likelihood of that appalling crash. I am certain that the Minister would not want to comment on an inquest that is happening at this moment, and I would not ask him to do so. Through the medium of this debate, however, I want to say to the excellent coroner, Mr. David Masters, that if he concludes that there were inadequacies within the Ministry of Defence, as he has done on previous occasions, he will lose no time at all in being robust and outspoken in commenting on those inadequacies, which have occurred under both parties. It is not a party matter—it is an MOD matter—and it is vitally important to RAF Lyneham.

I pay tribute to the other defence institutions in North Wiltshire. We have 9 Supply Regiment at Hullavington, 10 Signals Regiment in the town of Corsham, where 2,500 people provide communications for all
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three services, and 21 Signals Regiment at Colerne. They make a huge contribution together with the other Army bases across Wiltshire—half the British Army is based in Wiltshire.

We often hear two easy clichés about resources in these debates. The first is to stay that the resources that the armed forces, including the people in my constituency, have at their disposal are woefully inadequate. There are certainly inadequacies—we have heard about helicopters, Snatch Land Rovers not being replaced sufficiently quickly, and there are a variety of other shortages. Of course there are shortages, which have always occurred throughout the history of warfare. No general ever says, “I have got more than enough men and equipment. I am perfectly happy,” and we would not expect them to do so.

The second cliché, which is equally easy, was raised by the previous Prime Minister, who said that our troops will have whatever they need on the ground. That is demonstrably not the case, and it is a foolish remark that is too easy to say. Rather than the constant backwards and forwards between those two extremes, we should examine exactly what we are doing around the world.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). During my brief sojourn on the Council of Europe and the Western European Union, which are in my view two entirely useless organisations, my time was enlivened by his contributions to the debates. His remarks in this afternoon’s debate were precisely right. It is no good just talking about whether we have enough troops or whether we have the right equipment, because such debates can go on for ever. What we must do—I hope that an incoming Conservative Government will do this—is carefully examine precisely what it is that we are doing around the world and why we are doing it.

We have not done that on Afghanistan, for example. We do not know whether the mission is counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency or counter-narcotics. We do not know whether we are setting up a Guildford look-alike western-style democracy or whether we are simply helping people—there was a fantastic operation to rebuild the Kajaki dam, for example. We do not know what we are doing in Afghanistan. It would be right for an incoming Conservative Government to conduct a fundamental strategic defence review firmly based on foreign policy. The last SDR was not particularly based on foreign policy, and I hope that Conservative Front Benchers will do that when they take on this onerous duty in one or two years’ time. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North was right to say that debates such as this cannot simply be about troop numbers and equipment, and they should be much more fundamental.

Finally, we are short of time in this afternoon’s debate, which is regrettable. We have few enough defence debates, and the introduction of the topical debate earlier on a Thursday afternoon reduces that time even more. I also wonder whether the structure of these debates, which we have set up over the years, is the best possible. Given the way the world now is, defence in the UK, defence abroad and defence procurement are much more interrelated than they used to be. I wonder whether
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Ministers, the usual channels or whoever is responsible for such matters will have a little look at the structure of the debates.

We should fundamentally examine not only the way in which our armed services work—they do a superb job with the resources available to them—but what we are asking them to do. When we come to power in two years’ time, I hope that our SDR will do precisely that.

5.14 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I am pleased for my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham (Mr. Jones), and for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who have joined the ministerial team, and I wish them every success in their endeavours. In our previous defence debate, I spoke in glowing terms about the glorious day on which we held a joint ceremony in Stafford to mark the granting of the freedom of the borough to the 22 Signal Regiment and the Tactical Supply Wing. Today, contingents from both are deployed in Afghanistan. The residents of Stafford and I hold all those soldiers in our thoughts and wish them the safest of returns home at the end of their tours. The mayor of Stafford, the local newspaper and I are in the middle of an appeal; we set ourselves the target of ensuring that the public donates at least one care package to each and every one of those soldiers while they are away from us, to show that we are thinking of them and working for them, even though they are not with us.

In the previous defence debate, I spoke about Operation Borona, which was mentioned recently, and the possibility of bringing up to 20,000 of our service personnel and their families home from Germany and basing them in this country. Over the next five years, it will be quite a job for us to find places to put those service personnel and their families, and to accommodate them comfortably. My short contribution to this debate will be about that task. Where shall we put them, how shall we accommodate them, and where will the money for the accommodation come from?

As Members have said, the previous Conservative Government gave us one lesson: they showed us how not to arrange accommodation for our military personnel. As others have said, the Annington Homes deal was disastrous. I would like to add one more point to the criticisms made of the deal: the capital receipts of £1.6 billion were not reinvested in the Ministry of Defence, to be spent for military purposes; they went straight to the Treasury. We must be much smarter in future to ensure that when we dispose of surplus assets in our military, we reinvest the money in our military and do not hand it over to the Treasury for other purposes. I point out to Defence Ministers that when they argue those points with Treasury Ministers, I will be on their side.

There are numerous ways in which we provide accommodation for our military personnel. The most obvious way is through direct provision by the Ministry of Defence. Project Slam is an example of that; it involves us paying either to renovate an unacceptable property or to build brand-new properties—single living accommodation—for military personnel. That direct provision will eat up about £5 billion of public resources over the next decade. Clearly, that is not enough to meet existing needs, never mind the needs of the extra personnel
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coming back from Germany, so we need to be smarter. There are private finance initiative contracts, and what we call prime contracts. They are an example of the Ministry of Defence taking that smarter approach. We need to look at the lessons to be learned from existing PFI contracts and prime contracts to see what more we can do along those lines.

There are also schemes to enable and assist military personnel to buy their own homes. As for service personnel leaving the forces who hope to rely on social housing for their future accommodation, this year we at long last changed the law to ensure equality of treatment for service personnel and local residents in the places to which service personnel retire, in terms of local connection. That is very welcome.

Once the Ministry of Defence has built or renovated a property, it must manage it efficiently. The two recent Select Committee reports on the subject, produced in 2007 and 2008, show that the Ministry has made a deplorable lack of progress as a manager of property, both in terms of successfully maintaining properties and carrying out repairs at the request of families and military personnel, and in terms of managing voids. Perhaps the new Ministers in the Department might wield a new broom and either sharpen up the Ministry’s act, or take away its responsibility for the management of property.

The question of where the military personnel from Germany should go brings us to an issue that has been mentioned at least twice in this debate: the future of super-garrisons. It was suggested in the last defence debate that the west midlands was a potential site for a super-garrison. As a west midlands Member of Parliament, I welcome that. Although the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) seemed to suggest that a super-garrison would be a new base in the middle of nowhere, it could be a combination of estates and could be added to existing places. I welcome the idea of Stafford being part of the home of a west midlands super-garrison.

We said earlier that we must be smart about contracts and the involvement of private partners in providing accommodation. How we raise money from assets and reinvest it in our estates leads me to suggest that, at Stafford at present, there may be opportunities for those things to be brought together. Stafford borough council, the local authority, is consulting on the local development framework for the area, so it will identify areas of land in Stafford for particular kinds of development; the Ministry of Defence, of course, owns a considerable amount of land in Stafford. It is certainly of interest to the Ministry how its land there is to be treated for planning purposes in future.

I sincerely believe that with the right discussions, land owned by the Ministry of Defence in Stafford can be released for redevelopment and have permission for the most valuable kind of development, and therefore release the greatest capital receipts for the Ministry of Defence. If we then overcome the objections of the Treasury and are able to keep the money in Stafford, we will be able to build the accommodation, as part of a super-garrison, to house the people who come home from Germany with their families. I hope that that is a neat enough trick for the Ministers to want to thank me for my contribution to this debate.

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5.21 pm

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): I associate myself with the remarks made by the Government and Opposition Front Benchers at the outset about those who have given their lives in the service of this country and those who have been injured, many of them very seriously. In the same breath, I should like to mention the work of the services charities such as the Royal British Legion, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, or SSAFA, and others.

I was tipped the wink the other day and looked at the Help for Heroes website. I hope that the House will forgive me this indulgence, but I should say that I was delighted to see on it a lovely photograph of our only granddaughter, Catherine, aged 10, at a fundraising event. It is good that the young and others are not only aware of the work of such organisations, but actually take part in such events.

It has been accepted by successive Governments and generations of British people that defence policy is not limited merely to the physical defence of the shores of the United Kingdom, but extends to the source of anything that might threaten the long-term peace and security of these islands or of our allies. Our armed forces have long operated around the world and are still called on to do so to bring calm and stability to areas that could threaten our nation directly or indirectly. Although we should not take our eyes off the potential for future conventional warfare and the threat that that would undoubtedly bring, it is highly likely that we will continue to be engaged in counter-insurgency operations in the foreseeable future.

I should like to pay warm tribute to the outgoing Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), who during his watch oversaw the greatest transformation that the UK has seen for a long time as far as equipment, health care, accommodation and the general well-being of our armed forces—particularly the Army—are concerned. He should also be given credit for changing the basis on which our military vehicles were designed and procured, initially against much opposition from within and without the Ministry of Defence; he had the courage to go for the Mastiff and, more recently, the Ridgeback vehicles. The final act was to sign off a £500 million order for protected vehicles, for which all those who serve in the military and their families and friends will be grateful; lives will undoubtedly be saved as a result.

I welcome the two new Ministers and the new Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), to the Front Bench. I very much hope that we will hear him contribute to the next defence debate. I hope also that he can achieve in the field of aircraft provision what his predecessor did for vehicles. Having campaigned for the use of light aircraft for ground attack and surveillance, I recognise that Watchkeeper will be a tremendous addition to unmanned aerial vehicles when it comes into service in 2010.

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