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As many Members will know, our troops returning from Afghanistan get a maximum of 48 hours’ decompression, at the discretion of their commanding officer. It often occurs in unattractive surroundings in
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Cyprus, and we have all heard many tales of lengthy periods spent sleeping on airport floors—not much respite for those who have faced bombings and shootings in our name. By contrast, the House might be interested to know that Foreign Office officials in Afghanistan get two weeks’ compulsory decompression for every six to seven weeks in theatre. Even better, Department for International Development officials are entitled to the same two-week break away from post for every six weeks in theatre, but they can take a break anywhere in the world on condition that the cost is equal to or less than that of a flight back to the UK. That is not to say that we are treating our officials over-generously, but those in the armed forces will compare their treatment to that of people in other parts of the public service. That will have an impact on recruitment and retention.

I end by giving the House a snapshot of what a decade of Labour’s neglect has done to our armed forces. In procurement, the top 19 major procurement projects have gone over budget by a total of £2.95 billion. The Nimrod MRA4 project, which is delayed by 92 months, is £789 million over budget, and the order size has been reduced from 21 to 12. The Astute class submarine, which is delayed by 47 months, is £1.228 billion over budget. The Type 45 destroyer is delayed by 42 months and is £989 million over budget.

Despite an almost unprecedented use of our armed forces in conflict since Labour came into office, Army numbers are down by nearly 2,500, the Royal Navy by nearly 7,000, the RAF by over 14,000 and the Territorial Army by 22,000. Our attack submarines are down by four, our frigates and destroyers by 12, our aircraft carriers by one, fixed-wing aircraft by 168, infantry battalions by four, and armoured fighting vehicles by 479. According to the Government’s own figures, 31 out of 36 infantry battalions are under-strength, the shortage being equivalent to four battalions of soldiers. Twelve out of 14 TA infantry battalions are under-strength.

The Government abolished the Defence Export Services Organisation, to the delight of those who oppose the arms trade. In 2004, when we were already involved in two wars, the Government cut the helicopter budget in 2004 by £1.4 billion, and we are still suffering from the consequences. Despite the two wars, this year’s defence spending, at 2.2 per cent. of GDP, is the lowest since the 1930s. To cap it all, the Government have not conducted a strategic defence review for this country in 12 years. It is a desperately sorry record, which will take a very different Government a long time to put right.

2.11 pm

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this afternoon’s debate. I pay tribute to the magnificence of our armed forces and their daily heroism, which we witness across the world. They are engaged on a number of fronts that nobody predicted or imagined. The House is aware of the tremendous job that they do in every part of the world where they represent the defence of this country.

I shall concentrate on what might appear a narrow area of UK defence policy, but, as many will know, I have thought for some time that it is probably one of
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the most important areas, although it is often neglected and not fully discussed in the House: armed forces training. We can only have the best armed forces in the world—I happen to think that we have—if we provide them with the best possible training in the world.

Since the end of the cold war, UK defence policy has gone through major changes, to which the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) referred. Through a series of defence reviews, we have reconfigured our force structures and armed forces to meet the new challenges resulting from the great unpredictability in the world. We need the ability to respond, which we have had in the past eight years, to unexpected challenges, to be flexible, to have much greater reach, and to be much more effective all round in different scenarios. The predictable scenarios of the cold war no longer exist, so we have, by and large, reconfigured our forces. Although there is some debate over that, it is generally agreed that it was necessary.

We have reconfigured our kit to meet some of the new challenges. The aircraft carriers are on-stream to give us power projection worldwide. The one area that we have not reconfigured, however, is arguably the most important: the training of our enlisted men, ratings and NCOs. The training of the officer corps in the British forces in leadership and management has been successfully modernised and transformed, as the Select Committee on Defence saw on its visit to the defence academy at Shrivenham.

The big challenge is modernising and transforming the rest of the services, particularly the skills and technical training of our armed forces. Eight years after the Government published a report stating that our training regime had to be modernised, we are nearing the end of delivering that for our armed forces. The defence training rationalisation programme is well advanced. The Minister made a statement recently in which he said that progress on that vital and radical project is on track and progressing well. Two weeks ago, a minute before the House extended the contingent liability to £40 million for the biggest Government PFI undertaken in any Department, to allow advanced design work and preparation for the scheme to continue.

The project will completely transform and modernise our delivery of training. It will compress all our training in engineering, mechanical engineering, aeronautical engineering, electro-engineering, computer science and information technology, into one site in my constituency, at St. Athan. It will be the largest technical college by far in the United Kingdom, and one of the largest technical colleges and centres for technical excellence in the world. It will offer British armed forces, especially new, young recruits, the best technical training in the world. Nothing will compare with it anywhere else.

All that training will be recognised in the civilian community, because qualifications will be civilian as well as military. I learned a skill in the armed forces in the 1960s, but it was no good to me when I finished, and I had to retrain. Many of our servicemen and women still have to do that today, despite the fact that 90 per cent. of them get civilian occupations within 28 days of leaving the forces, which is a tribute to their calibre and quality. However, the new training regime, at the defence technical college at St. Athan, will ensure that all our military personnel will leave with civilian qualifications. That is good for recruitment, because it will make a career in the armed forces much more attractive. It is
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also good for society, because the engineers who will be turned out over the next 30 years—the duration of the PFI—will serve the community at large. They will be provided with the most modern training environment in the world, using modern, computer-based equipment, virtual training techniques, and student-based and task-oriented training, not the traditional chalk and talk, which has served us well for many years but is out of date for the 21st century and the challenges that we face.

The most important challenge is working in a much more integrated fashion, through jointery involving the three armed forces, and working much more closely with allies. We need a training regime that reflects the challenges that we face daily.

Mr. Walter: The hon. Gentleman is doing a brilliant marketing job, but I am not sure that the instructors at the Defence College of Communications and Information Systems in Blandford would accept his description of the current CIS training regime as “chalk and talk”.

Could the hon. Gentleman give us some idea—I alluded to this in my question to the Minister earlier—of the likely time scale? It seems to be slipping farther and farther into the distance.

John Smith: I will refer specifically to the timetable, because I think that it is critical at present. As I have said, the project is on course, but Members should bear it in mind that it is one of the largest and most complex PFI projects ever tackled. The idea that no complexities, problems or challenges will arise throughout its duration is absurd. There are bound to be challenges, but I believe that there is a clear timetable.

The planning application is due to be submitted in spring this year. It is detailed planning, for a massive 600-acre new-build development. This thing is gigantic. The construction programme alone is on a par with the one for the London Olympics. It is therefore understandable that there will be some delays. However, we can reasonably expect construction to begin in August 2010, phase 1 to be completed by the beginning of 2014, and phase 2 to be completed by 2015.

We should pay tribute to the tremendous work of the defence training review integrated project team, which has been under the leadership of Brigadier Geoff Nield for the last four and a half years—an extended period—to ensure ownership of the project. Brigadier Nield will be moving on shortly, but it is important that we record our thanks for his achievement in tackling the huge challenge posed by radically transforming our training provision.

Let me return to the original point made by the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter). I apologise for possibly accentuating my argument a bit too much. The term that I used was not intended to be derogatory towards the current providers, who supply excellent training on the nine legacy sites and the three existing military technical colleges. That training has been excellent, and has served us well over the last 60 years. The problem is that it is not the training that we need to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

We need greater integration, greater jointery and greater flexibility in delivering our training. That will be possible only on a compressed site, with all our service personnel being trained side by side, and we could not
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wish for a better site than St Athan, which will be a purpose-built facility. I recall with horror and terror going to my first camp, as a young recruit, on a dark December evening. I thought that I had descended into hell. There was no heating. It was an old second world war barracks in Newark, for goodness’ sake. It was a quite terrifying experience. These youngsters, however, will enter one of the most modern learning environments imaginable: brand new, and offering the best training—largely from the private sector—and the best trainers in the world.

Furthermore, during their stay at St Athan, the length of which will vary, men and women will have a choice. They will be able to go sailing along the beautiful heritage coast in the morning, go climbing in the Brecon Beacons in the afternoon, and at night go clubbing in Cardiff, one of the fastest-growing and most popular cities in Europe. What more could we offer them?

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and he must forgive me if I have forgotten, but I am not sure whether he has mentioned the overall cost of this magnificent project at St Athan, which is due to begin in 2010. What investment is required from the British taxpayer?

John Smith: Very little. This is a £12 billion PFI project spread over 25 to 30 years, but much of the risk will be carried by the private sector, and in particular by the two equity partners in Metrix, QinetiQ and Sodexo. This is a PFI project with much of the risk shifted to one side.

As for the cost to the taxpayer, not only will we benefit from the most modern training in the world, but we will save money. The cost savings associated with reducing nine sites to one and getting rid of the current duplication in parts of our training provision over the next 25 years could be enormous. We win both ways. We win by securing the most modern training on offer in the most fantastic environment for learning, and we win by, over time, saving money in the defence training budget. That is what makes the project so attractive, and that is why—certainly in Wales—it has received all-party support from day one.

Progress is being made, and it is being made well. We want that progress to continue until construction starts next year. The facility will provide 1,200 courses. Up to 6,000 recruits at any one time, and up to 25,000 military personnel per year, will be trained on the purpose-built site. The MOD and the Metrix consortium have worked very closely with members of the local community, and have adapted some of their proposals after consulting them. We expect the detailed planning for this huge development to proceed relatively seamlessly in the spring because of the involvement of the community.

Until recently RAF St Athan was the largest military base in the United Kingdom, so we are used to having large numbers of military personnel in the area, but we have challenges to meet if the project is to succeed and our military personnel are to maximise the benefits that they deserve. It is sometimes forgotten that the better trained and better equipped our armed forces are, the fewer casualties result when they engage in warfare. Superior training is much more valuable than large numbers.

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The Russian invasion of Georgia was mentioned earlier. One of the reasons the Russians are considering modernising their forces is that, by and large, that invasion was a disaster. There was little control over the military personnel. They succeeded because of their overwhelming numbers, not as a result of being highly trained and highly professional.

We have a big challenge ahead of us, and we must get the infrastructure right for the project to succeed. The building programme will take three to five years, and we must ensure that the transport network is upgraded to match the large numbers of personnel.

The project is based around the super-hangar, which was part of the Red Dragon project, and an auditor’s report on the matter is imminent. Whatever the report says in criticism or otherwise of the Government or of the Welsh Assembly, we should not lose sight of the fact that the hangar was a critical factor in securing the £12 billion investment to transform military training. The hangar will become the core site in the training development.

Our armed forces deserve the best, and through that project they will receive the best. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of this House will continue to support the project, as they have in the past. I hope that those who are responsible for making the decisions to improve the infrastructure—they are not necessarily in this House—will ensure not only that our youngsters benefit, but that the local community does not suffer. I also hope that they take those decisions now.

One or two critical decisions are coming up shortly. We will see a further extension of the contingent liability. Next month, the director of joint technical training for all three services will move to St. Athan. For those who doubt whether the project is on course, I point out that the director is taking a large team to oversee the transition from the existing colleges, as excellent as they are, to the brand-new, purpose-built site. The men and women who represent this country so courageously every day in some of the most difficult environments imaginable—in recent years, the Defence Committee has had the privilege of visiting some of them—deserve nothing less than the best possible training in the world. They will get that at St. Athan, and I hope that the whole House rallies to ensure that the project is delivered on time and to budget.

2.31 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Like the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State, I start by expressing condolences in respect of those who have died recently not only in Afghanistan, but, as we have heard, tragically and appallingly in Northern Ireland. The Minister pointed out that that takes the count of those who have died in Afghanistan to 152. Each of those casualties is an individual tragedy not only personally, but collectively for our armed forces. In addition to those 152 deaths, we must remember those who have been seriously injured or wounded, some of whom have been wounded in life-changing ways. We do not discuss those people as often as we should. There is something rather British about that, and it is certainly conspicuous that the Americans and, I think, the Canadians often pay greater tribute to their wounded personnel than we do.

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It is not easy to make this point, but I shall make it nevertheless. Although the figure of 152 deaths is shocking, if one considers the length of time that we have been in Afghanistan, the huge number of our personnel who have served there and the extraordinarily dangerous work, it is worth pausing and counting our blessings that that number is not a great deal higher. I take the view that that figure might have been higher, which would certainly have been the case in the past. Among other things, we should pay tribute to the advances in medical expertise that have prevented the situation from being a great deal worse.

Both Front Benchers rightly referred to the disgraceful scenes when the Royal Anglian Regiment paraded in Luton, and I echo the sentiments expressed by other hon. Members. It occurs to me that those who mounted those ill-judged protests shot themselves in the foot in terms of the cause that they were trying to promote. The overall effect was to give far more public attention to the home-coming parade than might otherwise have been the case and to unite public opinion in appreciation of what those troops have done on our behalf and in abhorrence at the protestors and their message. The public are now showing a greater appreciation of our armed forces; that has increased a lot in a remarkably short period of time. The regular scenes in Wootton Bassett that we have heard about are a leading example of that. In previous debates in this House, many Members have made the point that our work in Afghanistan is sometimes misunderstood by the British public, but I draw some encouragement from the fact that there is now growing appreciation of what we are trying to achieve there.

Only five months have passed since we last had a debate entitled “Defence in the UK”, but a great deal has happened in that time: there has been a grave worsening of the economic crisis; there has been the decision to issue a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq; and a new US Administration have arrived, with a very different approach from their predecessor. I particularly welcome the announcement of a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, and I recall with some amusement that when we Liberal Democrats argued previously for that, we were lampooned on the basis that we could not have a timetable for withdrawal and it was naive of us to think that such a thing could be done as we should never signal our intentions to the enemy. However, we said at the time that the day would inevitably come when the Government would announce a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, and they have now done so, and so too have the Americans. It is my sincere belief—as it was when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) first suggested to this House that there ought to be a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq—that that is long overdue and could have been done a great deal earlier.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I am pleased that a debate on defence in the UK can be interpreted as covering defence in the world, and I would just point out that the Liberal Democrats were proposing a timetable for withdrawal before the surge had happened and succeeded, and at a time when the outcome of the conflict in Iraq was very much in the balance.

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