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From the 1950s, we have had ongoing campaigns against nuclear weapons, so the issue has been very visible in the public eye. Since the 1950s, we have seen considerable shifts to the left in public opinion. Parties of the left are far stronger in Scotland than in other parts of the UK, and social democratic ideas are much more central in the political establishment. There is also the fact that nuclear weapons systems—Polaris, Poseidon and Trident—have been physically based on the west coast of Scotland, which is our major population base. In constituencies such as mine, we do on occasion see the submarines travelling up and down the Clyde, so people feel that this is far closer to them. That cuts both
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ways. A number of jobs are provided at the Faslane nuclear weapons base, but there is awareness of and concern about the situation and a debate about whether it is appropriate for Britain to possess nuclear weapons at all.

I welcome some of the statements recently made by the Government, particularly by the Prime Minister, on the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their possession by countries throughout the world. Those statements are reinforced by what is being said by the newly elected Administration in the United States of America. As the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said, we are moving towards next year’s non-proliferation treaty review conference. It is therefore appropriate that the British Government are trying to put this issue far higher up the political agenda, not only because of the new US Administration but because of the greater risks that we all face in the world as the years go by.

The position taken by the Conservative Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), suggests that his party sees no circumstances whatsoever in which Britain could move towards not having nuclear weapons. My fear for many years has been that many of the arguments made for Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons could be used by any country in the world. The implication of those arguments is that any and every country in the world will possess nuclear weapons as time goes on, and that is a world that we should all fear. We need to put moves on restricting and removing weapons of mass destruction at the top of the international agenda.

Such points have been put to me repeatedly by my constituents, and increasingly in the last few months I been asked whether, given the current difficult economic circumstances, it is appropriate for Britain to be spending something in the region of £76 billion on these weapons. The figure is indeterminate; we do not know exactly what it will cost to replace the current Trident nuclear weapons systems, but we know that historically such projects have tended to end up being more expensive than originally envisaged. Whatever the cost, it is likely to be huge, and given some of the other comments made in the debate about our armed personnel and the support that people receive not just through pay, but when they return home having been in the military—particularly those suffering from physical or psychological injury—we have to question whether that is the best use of the nation’s resources.

I place on the record my hope that the Government will look again at the issue of Trident renewal, and use opportunities available in the coming debates on the non-proliferation treaty to consider ways Britain can move to a non-nuclear future, and perhaps more importantly, to use that as a mechanism to ensure that we restrict as much as possible the possession of such weapons of mass destruction throughout the world. Any other position that Britain took would be hypocritical. If we say that it is good enough for us, it is difficult to say that it is not good enough for other nations. In our foreign policy in general, such hypocrisy has damaged us, particularly in the past few years in the lead-up to the Iraq war, and in the repercussions of that war and the war on terror. It would be a significant failing if we continued down that path.

The other issue I want to talk about is the future of the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency, which affects my constituents and those of a number of other
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hon. Members. The DSDA was formed three years ago after the Ministry of Defence won an in-house bid in competition with two private sector companies. Indeed, since its formation, another look has been taken at whether the service should be privatised or remain in house.

There was great concern that in the pre-Budget review before Christmas the DSDA, along with a wide range of other public sector organisations, was named as an organisation that would be looked at again for efficiency savings, and to establish whether it is an appropriate part of the public sector to consider for outsourcing, privatisation or some other model. More than 250 privatisation programmes are running in the Ministry of Defence, and an operational efficiency programme is currently being looked at by the Treasury to determine whether the DSDA should be looked at again.

Approximately 350 people are employed in a military depot in my constituency by DSDA, and there is a great deal of concern about the proposals. I have written to the Secretary of State and asked him, along with Treasury officials, to meet the relevant staff trade unions to talk through the process. I have also asked them to meet not just myself but other interested MPs in whose constituencies affected depots are sited, on a cross-party basis. We understand that there might be some kind of announcement on the issue in the Budget, so I ask Ministers again whether such a meeting could be set up.

One frustration is that since the announcement, it has been difficult to get information about the process. This might be an early stage, and there might not be a huge amount of information to share, but there is concern that there might be an announcement in the Budget when staff have not had an opportunity to take part in the process. Will Ministers get back to us on that, either in the debate or in the next few days, and will they meet the relevant Members? There is a great deal of concern, given the Ministry of Defence’s history on the issues of privatisation and job security. I therefore ask Ministers to reconsider the matter, and I would appreciate it if they would come back to us with some dates for a meeting.

3.36 pm

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in what has so far, quite rightly, been a wide-ranging debate. I begin by paying tribute to those who have given their lives in the service of this country since the last defence debate, and to their families, who are left to bear the burden for a very long time.

There have been some excellent speeches, not least from my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, although I am rather concerned that he did not make the point that we are living in the deepest recession in my lifetime, which will severely restrict his hopes and aspirations for future defence policy. There will be slippage in many programmes and in the amount of money that the current Government have committed for the future. Those problems will land in the lap of the next Secretary of State.

I do not disagree in any way with my hon. Friend on the principle that, as well as being able to fight counter-insurgency wars, we need to be able to tackle what I call conventional, state-against-state warfare. As a down-to-earth person, however, the question that comes into my
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mind is how Members of all parties think that that can be paid for. The current Government will not be holding the reins, because I do not believe that they will be returned to office at the next general election. That very difficult question will therefore have to be dealt with by the Conservative party, if, as I hope, we are on the other side of the House.

Mr. Arbuthnot: Does my hon. Friend believe that the problem that she has set out was significantly exacerbated by the announcement in December of, in essence, the postponement of all major defence procurement decisions until just after the next general election?

Ann Winterton: That is the point that I was seeking to make, and my right hon. Friend has made it much more succinctly. Of course, he is absolutely correct. Decisions are being made now, but the payment problem will not arise until after the next general election. That will exacerbate the situation by limiting the choices of an incoming Government.

No one in this House or the UK doubts for one minute the bravery, determination and skill of our armed forces, but we as a nation have failed in our engagement in Iraq, and although heavily committed in Afghanistan, our forces are struggling from a lack of appropriate equipment, especially protected vehicles and air power. Iraq and Afghanistan are two wars for which the United Kingdom, and more specifically the Army, was totally unprepared in terms of both weaponry and training. On more than one occasion, I have welcomed new kit, which has proved most excellent, but we still lack sufficient numbers of protected vehicles, helicopters and airlift capacity. Both training and weaponry have been more suited to conventional warfare than to the sort of counter-insurgency operations to which our troops have more recently been committed. The United Kingdom is now too small, militarily speaking, to engage well in both conventional and counter-insurgency warfare. We have recently been most heavily involved in the latter, and given the present instability in various parts of the world, that is unlikely to change in the near future.

The future Army structure, for which the Army has been completely reorganised, is concentrated on a medium-weight capability based on airlift. With the life of the Hercules C-130K coming to an end in 2012 and the J-type not due in service until 2026, combined with the A400M programme looking extremely dubious, a hopeless mess is likely in a few years unless a decision is taken in the near future. Otherwise, some difficult decisions will have to be made by an incoming Government. It is highly likely that not one A400M will be delivered within the framework of the contract for the whole order of 25 aircraft. The Minister will not disclose in answer to my parliamentary questions what the penalty clauses are or who will pay the damages for late delivery. I should have thought that quite an important point.

Nor is the problem the much quoted “lack of funding”. We need only look at the Merlin helicopter as an example. According to RAF presentations, it is a superb aircraft, and I do not doubt that it is in certain circumstances, but it is also very expensive. The six Danish aircraft cost the United Kingdom £29 million each; the RAF Mk 3 costs £19 million, and the Royal
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Navy Mk 1 costs a cool £39 million, and their running costs are £34,000 and £42,000 per hour respectively. Yet the Merlin cannot fly in Afghanistan without, according to a parliamentary answer, a £1.8 million upgrade to each aircraft to fit new blades—presumably Carson blades—because the aircraft cannot fly hot and high, which the Huey helicopter could do more than 40 years ago in the Vietnam era.

Following the fanfares extolling the excellence of the Pinzgauer, WMIK and Jackal vehicles, their safety has been promoted by quoting their respective speed, off-road performance and manoeuvrability, and yet we find that they are now being used for convoy patrols. When I have tabled questions to the MOD about this, the reply has always come back that that is due to the choice of commanders. I bet, however, that it is a case of Hobson’s choice: that is the vehicle with which commanders have been provided, and they have no choice but to use it or walk.

Mr. Kevan Jones: The hon. Lady misunderstands the nature of the convoys that take place in Helmand province. They go over not tracked and tarmacked roads, but wadis, deserts and difficult terrain, which is the function that the vehicle is designed to carry out.

Ann Winterton: I am very grateful to the Minister. In fact, most of my information comes from the people who have performed all those tasks in Afghanistan. That is what I have been told by them, and sometimes I prefer to rely on what they say.

Commanders do not have a choice. [Interruption.] No, they do not have a choice in every circumstance. If the Minister wishes to intervene and say that commanders have a choice of vehicle on every single occasion, I shall be grateful to him.

Mr. Jones: The hon. Lady’s point was that the vehicles were being used in convoys, and that that is not the purpose for which they were designed. I was in Afghanistan three weeks ago and saw convoys crossing deserts, wadis and other difficult terrain. It is simply not the case that these vehicles were not designed to perform that role in Afghanistan.

Ann Winterton: The Minister has completely ignored my request for reassurance about the choice available to commanders in the field. That is because he knows that they do not always have a choice—that, in fact, they rarely have a choice.

Mr. Jones: I am surprised by what the hon. Lady is saying, because I know that, like me, she is something of an armoured-vehicle anorak. She is aware of the range of vehicles currently in operation in Afghanistan that the Government provided—indeed, during our last debate she congratulated the Government on them. The ultimate decision on the ground, however, is for individual commanders. It would be wrong of any politician, including me, or of anyone else to start to direct what our commanders should do operationally and which equipment they should use. They have a range of equipment, which is there to be used.

Ann Winterton: The Minister has not been able to reassure me that commanders have a choice, because we know perfectly well that they do not. I have praised the Government in the past for their procurement of many
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protected vehicles, but there are still so few Mastiffs and there will be so few Ridgbacks when they come into service that, in reality, as I have just said, there is no meaningful choice. It is time that Ministers came clean and admitted that the decision that there would, in effect, be no choice was made at the top. Providing a choice of suitable vehicles would undoubtedly interfere with the long-term strategy for future conventional warfare.

I am not convinced that a defence review is necessary. I believe that it would merely kick the whole subject into the long grass once again. We know what the problems are today. Incoming Governments—all Governments—are there to make decisions, and to justify them in the light of circumstances and the money that is available at the time. As we all know, however, the United Kingdom has committed its forces to counter-insurgency warfare of the most difficult and treacherous kind, and that should at present be its first priority. Surely, therefore, the UK has a moral obligation to provide the very best and most appropriate equipment to protect the lives of our fighting men and women. If it cannot or is unwilling to do so, it should withdraw from those engagements and never again commit the lives of our armed services to similar situations.

The United Kingdom used to be the very best at counter-insurgency operations. We used to excel, but to be successful in the future, as we undoubtedly were in the past, requires us to rededicate ourselves and provide the means to reinforce our will to win. We must make a decision soon about the type of future war to which we will commit our troops. In other words, we must decide in which direction we wish the Army and other services to go. Having made that decision, we must ensure that sufficient funding and equipment are available at the outset of any campaign. Finally, we must make the vital decision to remain an independent United Kingdom force, rather than become merely part of a European Union force, with all that that implies militarily and in relation to procurement. If we do not make those right decisions, the back of the British Army will be broken; and that is not a situation that I, for one, would find tolerable.

3.49 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I apologise most sincerely for missing the first two Front-Bench speeches, but a pressing constituency matter kept me from the Chamber longer than I had intended. I have already heard some excellent speeches in the debate.

Like other hon. Members, I was spitting mad when I saw the images of that despicable protest at Luton against soldiers taking part in a homecoming parade. Those soldiers had returned from places of danger, where they had put their lives on the line. They had probably seen or heard of friends and comrades who were killed most violently while they were there. Some soldiers return with horrendous injuries, including the loss of limbs. As soldiers, all those people endure those experiences on our behalf and for our nation, to uphold our democracy and our rights. Those rights include the right to protest and freedom of speech, which were abused on that day in Luton.

I will counter that with an entirely different account from Stafford. Some hon. Members may remember that when we debated the subject last year, I described the procession through Stafford in 2008, when the newly
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reformed 22 Signals Regiment and the long-serving RAF tactical supply wing in Stafford were both granted the freedom of the borough. There was a procession and parade in the town centre, and the streets were lined with members of the public, who cheered and warmly welcomed the troops who participated.

On 28 February 2009, the same 22 Signals Regiment was newly returned from six months’ duty in Afghanistan. The town celebrated the regiment’s safe homecoming with another parade through the centre of Stafford ending in the market square. I am pleased to report to the House that the crowds that lined the streets were even thicker and more voluble than last year in their support for the soldiers. Later in the day, I had the opportunity to talk to some of the soldiers and their families who had taken part in the parade. Many of the soldiers expressed how strongly they had been moved by the presence of so many members of the public welcoming them back to Stafford. One young man said that it was the most moving event of his life.

I will discuss further the welcome that the military receive in Stafford later in my speech. The other part of my speech last time concerned Operation Borona, which involves the return of thousands of soldiers to Britain from bases in Germany.

Mr. Brazier: I commend what the hon. Gentleman has just said, as I am sure that the whole House does. The downside of the growing concentration of our regular forces on a small number of so-called super-bases is that events such as he describes are gradually ending. Some of those super-bases are located in places such as Catterick, where there is no civilian population.

Mr. Kidney: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is never a good thing to put all the eggs in one basket.

On Operation Borona and troops coming home from Germany, the Government’s emerging thinking about the so-called super-garrison, at least in the west midlands area, is not to try to shoehorn thousands of extra troops into one base, but to provide a range of places within a locality. In the west midlands, for example, the potential sites for those soldiers include MOD Stafford, Cosford and Shrewsbury. As will become clear a little later, the base in Stafford is not remote and is part of the town. One reason why soldiers have found the civilian population so welcoming is that soldiers and civilians live cheek by jowl in the town. Will the Minister say a little about the emerging thinking on venues in the west midlands for troops returning from Germany under Operation Borona and about the present thinking on Cosford, Shrewsbury and Stafford?

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