Previous Section Index Home Page

4.23 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): It is a particular pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), not just because he and I both have the privilege of representing very fine cathedral cities, but because he has unrivalled expertise in and practical knowledge of our reserve forces. It was also a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), because over many years the Staffordshire Regiment was part of the backbone of the infantry, just as in its day, once upon a time, the Wiltshire Regiment was too—it is now part of the Rifles.

I shall concentrate more on the civilian side of defence in the UK. We face a paradox. When I was a child growing up in Salisbury in the 1950s, a substantial proportion—perhaps 20 per cent.—of the people on the streets, particularly at weekends, would have been in uniform. In a garrison town, surrounded by garrison towns on Salisbury plain, I recognised the importance of the military and may even have taken it for granted. Now, Her Majesty’s forces have as much popularity, status and respect as at any time since the 1950s, when of course they were regarded as the saviours of our country, which indeed they were. Now, they again enjoy great status.

Perhaps the Royal Navy, as the senior service, does not enjoy as much status as the other forces, simply because people in the Navy are more restricted to their home bases. However, if one visits Estonia, as I did
26 Mar 2009 : Column 522
earlier in March, one finds that the Royal Navy is held in the highest regard there. Its visits, such as the visit of HMS Illustrious to Tallinn later this year, are anticipated enormously by the whole population, not least because the Royal Navy helped the Estonians in their independence war in 1919. The Royal Navy should have more status. People do not recognise the purple role that it plays now, or how prominent it is in running our operation in Afghanistan. It may have fewer ships than it did but, my goodness, it is proving its expertise, not just at sea but in military theatres generally.

I want to mention rehabilitation for Her Majesty’s forces at places such as Headley Court near Leatherhead. The need for a special swimming pool there led to the remarkable establishment of Help for Heroes by my constituents, Bryn and Emma Parry. It has caught the imagination of the nation. It started with a swimming pool and it has grown and grown. The attention that we are at last beginning to give to stress disorders and mental disorders among serving and former members of Her Majesty’s forces has led to new support for Combat Stress, for example. The Army Benevolent Fund has never been busier, along with the Army Families Federation and its sister organisations for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

Of course, the respect shown in local communities as coffins are borne from RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire—my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) will know a great deal about that—is reflected throughout the country in the welcome home parades for soldiers returning from active service held in many of our towns and cities. Only last week—indeed, the process finished this week—we reformed legislation governing the way in which Her Majesty’s coroners carry out their duties with regard to military inquests. We can at last say that we are doing the decent thing by military families.

On 27 June, we will celebrate armed forces day. Flags will fly throughout the country for the whole of that week, and we will show our appreciation. Yet when the pollsters and focus groups report their figures, that support is not translated into political priorities, so political parties do not respond by giving defence a higher spending priority. For example, the Ipsos MORI poll of October 2008—the latest one that I have been able to find—found that over four fifths, or 81 per cent., of British adults say that they are favourable towards UK armed forces. That is the highest figure that MORI has recorded since that tracking study began in 2003. Only a tiny minority—3 per cent.—are unfavourable. Some 52 per cent. support the UK armed forces’ presence in Afghanistan, while just over a third—35 per cent.—oppose it. Some 43 per cent. support the UK armed forces’ presence in Iraq, and 45 per cent. do not. Levels of support for both those operations are higher than they were last year.

It is interesting that a distinct divide appears to have emerged between civil society and the military. There is much greater casualty sensitivity in the west than there was. There has been a growing polarisation of religious belief across the world. There is growing concern for universal human rights across the world, and prosperity has emerged as the overriding socio-political value when considering defence, rather than territorial gain, or Russian tanks rolling across the north European plain.

26 Mar 2009 : Column 523

Although the public’s attitude to war is less positive than it was, public support for the armed forces has generally remained consistently high. As Peter Riddell commented in the Royal United Services Institute Journal in February last year,

between the military and the public,

So it is an extraordinary paradox that defence of the realm is way down the list when it comes to why people vote for a particular party. I hope that that is not a reflection of the fact that most of the time in the House of Commons, defence is regarded as a bipartisan issue. It certainly is on the Defence Committee. That is an extraordinary situation.

The present position, which we all recognise, of overstretch and underfunding, as regards both people and procurement, means that we have to take a long view of how we got to where we are, and where our nation and our military are going in future. Our history and heritage teach us, and economic necessity demands, that we sustain and pay for our armed services to be trained and equipped for high-intensity warfare with global reach, complemented by a strong diplomatic service—a comprehensive approach, as we are learning to call it. Both should be underpinned by increasingly sophisticated security services and intelligence networks.

The British have taken their language, ideas, trade and armies around the globe for many hundreds of years, but gone are the days of empire. The legacy is there, but we are not stopping and withdrawing to our island. The reason is straightforward: British forces are needed to protect UK global interests in trade and shipping. More than 90 per cent. of our imports come in by sea, and those trade routes and vessels must be secure against foreign state intervention, as well as terrorism and piracy. That is why our forces must have global reach, and that is why they need aircraft carriers. They must have power projection by land, sea and air, and that must include amphibious capability and unmanned maritime systems, increasing use of unmanned combat air systems and space-based remote sensors.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Does he agree that all those goods by definition end up in British ports, so we must have the capability to keep those ports clear of mines?

Robert Key: Yes, of course. I was extremely interested in that part of my hon. Friend’s speech in which he talked about the importance of clearing and detecting mines around our shores. That issue deserves far more attention and research, and we must undertake, too, practical detection and destruction of those mines. Doubtless, we shall return to the matter.

There are new aspects to defence that we did not think about very much before the last decade. We have to think afresh, as we and other European nations need to define our defence in new terms. Obviously, homeland security and territorial defence are vital, but increasingly we have to think in defence terms about energy infrastructure protection, from gas and oil pipelines to wind farms and nuclear power stations. While the politics of energy may dominate in our part of north-west Europe, there are other parts of Europe where the
26 Mar 2009 : Column 524
politics of water and food is increasingly important. As the climate change crisis climbs the political agenda, carbon emissions will threaten peace and stability. Poverty and economic migration already cause great friction between states—the day of state-on-state war is not necessarily over.

I should like to turn to some of the extraordinary things going on in the UK against all the odds to improve the equipment used by our armed forces. I should like to begin in my own constituency at Boscombe Down airfield, which I visited only last Friday, where I saw for myself the extraordinary work of the dedicated and experienced work force that is under way to convert the eight Chinooks, for which we have been waiting for so long. The Sea Kings are being fitted with Carson blades, which will allow them to be used in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the Nimrods are being worked on.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): My hon. Friend referred to the eight Chinooks that are being modified in his constituency. There is a rumour going round that perhaps only one of them will be available for deployment by the end of the year, but it will not have full operational capability. It will be put into theatre merely to prove that it can be done. From his knowledge, is my hon. Friend in a position to comment on that, or should I ask the Minister?

Robert Key: I fear that I am not in a position to be able to answer that. If I could change places with the Minister after the general election, doubtless I would find many Chinooks flying operationally.

I saw, however, that real progress has been made on that programme, and there is a huge determination on the part of the work force at Boscombe Down to ensure the highest standards of workmanship. People do not realise the complexity of those helicopters. Stripping down and replacing the wiring means replacing 20,000 wires per helicopter. It is an extraordinary undertaking.

I mentioned the Nimrods. Then there are the unmanned aerial vehicles, which will increasingly be seen in the skies over south Wiltshire as we introduce the training regime led by the Royal Artillery in order to deploy UAVs operationally and in infantry tactics.

The science and technology apprenticeship schemes at Boscombe Down are a splendid innovation. When I was first elected to the House, every year I had to present the prizes to the apprentices at Boscombe Down—RAF Boscombe Down, as it was then called. There would be 50 or 60 apprentices a year. Then there were years with none. Now, I am glad to say, they are coming back. There will be more than 20 apprentices this year. That is a great compliment to QinetiQ and to the work force at Boscombe Down.

Only an hour or so ago there was an announcement from an important defence procurement manufacturer in my constituency. Chemring Countermeasures has announced that there is to be a new £18.5 million investment in two new flare decoy manufacturing facilities. Every time any of us travel on a military helicopter, particularly if it is in theatre, we are used to the noise of the flares going off and of the chaff going out behind the helicopter, or any other kind of aeroplane. They have to be made somewhere. They happen to be made at High Post outside Salisbury.

That company has an ancient and interesting history. The sadness is that there will be a loss of jobs over the
26 Mar 2009 : Column 525
next year or two because higher safety requirements mean that fewer people and more machinery have to be used. It is safer, better and even more reliable, but the downside concerns the people. I am glad to say that the company is working hard to ensure that the skills of those people can continue to be usefully deployed—locally, I hope. There is great family loyalty in the defence industry. In that factory I know, because I have met them, that three generations of several families are still working there.

The story of Chemring Countermeasures goes back a very long time and is typical of defence procurement companies all over the country. It started back in 1941 with Chemring developing processes for metallising fabrics, which sounds an unlikely link, but it went back longer than that. In 1933 the Wessex Aircraft Engineering Company was set up. It was taken over by Bryant and May. Eventually that became Schermuly, which in turn became the British Match Corporation, incorporated with Wilkinson Sword. It is an extraordinary story of the interlinking of defence industries within the manufacturing base of our country.

Eventually the business all came together in 1997 as Chemring Ltd. On this important day for that company in my constituency, I pay tribute to the company and to the work force who have made it so important a part of the everyday life of our servicemen and women at the sharp end, not just on land, but in the air and at sea, because that remarkable company provides countermeasures and flares for all three services, and sells substantially to our NATO allies as well.

I finish by making another point about defence spending in this country. Sometimes senior figures in the shadow Cabinet groan when they see me coming because they know that I will say we should double defence spending. I know that that wish is unlikely to come to fruition in current economic circumstances. We all have to be hard-nosed about that, but we should seriously consider why we have the lowest defence spending as a proportion of our gross national product since the 1930s.

It would have an electrifying effect on the country’s economy and much else for which this nation stands if we were to rebuild confidence in our nationhood, as well as in our defence industries and the armed forces, by increasing substantially the defence budget. This, I believe, would not be resisted by the electorate because of the paradox with which I started. We know that Her Majesty’s forces have never been held in higher regard except during the second world war and the years immediately afterwards. Why can we not match that former regard, and remind people that their quality of life, standard of living and ability to buy white goods in the sheds on the edges of our towns and cities depend on the defence budget and the dedication of all three forces? We should start arguing from that point of view. Defence is very much in our national interest in respect of consumer spending, energy, water supply and climate change, because it changes all our economic and political perceptions. If we harness that fund of support for Her Majesty’s forces, we will do the nation a service, and—above all—say to those forces, “Well done and thank you.”

4.40 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): Like my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) and others, I was a little perplexed by “Defence in the UK”, the title of today’s debate. I have
26 Mar 2009 : Column 526
a major military establishment in my constituency; I referred to it in my interventions, particularly on the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith), whose constituency will get my defence college when it eventually moves. There is also a major defence contractor in my constituency.

The Minister probably struck the right focus in explaining the title as a reference to a consideration of the relationship between the armed forces and the people of this country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) has just said, according to the opinion polls, our electorates focus on the economy, health and education. In our debates, we therefore have a responsibility to rehearse the issues and emphasise the importance of the defence and security of this country. My remarks will focus particularly on our alliances, which are essential for the projection of our foreign policy. We should consider our alliance with the United States and the relationship between Europe and the United States; that may change and develop under the new US Administration. I particularly want to focus on the relationship between the EU and NATO.

In a week or so, we will celebrate 60 years of NATO, and this month we also celebrate NATO’s major expansion of 10 years ago, when the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states joined the organisation. It is important to reflect on that. I want to mention the European security and defence policy, or ESDP, because its most ardent supporters and fiercest critics possibly misunderstand it. It is not collective European defence, or “défense Europe” as the French would call it, and it never could be.

Sixty-one years ago, on 17 March 1948, the Brussels treaty was signed, laying the foundations for a European defence process. The treaty was modified in 1954 and the Western European Union came into being. The key provision of that modified Brussels treaty is its collective defence clause. In parallel, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the other collective security organisation, was also coming into being; it was established on 4 April 1949. It, too, makes provision for a collective response to an attack on individual members. However, in contrast to the modified Brussels treaty, it involves our transatlantic partners.

Over the past 60 years, the collective defence clause in article 5 of the NATO treaty has been invoked only once—following the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States— and it can be argued with some justification that the fact that it was invoked only once was a result of the west’s successful deterrence policy over the cold war period. The main focus of development in recent years, in Europe and in NATO, has been crisis management activities. As we approach the 60th anniversary of the alliance, the question we should ask ourselves is: “Where is all this leading?” Will NATO and the European Union, through its ESDP, be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century?

After the end of the cold war, the organisation of security and defence in Europe started to evolve, with NATO and the EU both embarking on an enlargement process. Since the NATO alliance was created in 1949, its membership has grown through five rounds of enlargement from 12 founding members to today’s 26 members, and NATO’s door remains open to any European country in a position to subscribe to the commitments and obligations of membership and to
26 Mar 2009 : Column 527
contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area. In parallel, the European Community, subsequently the European Union, has grown from six founding member states in 1951 to today’s 27 EU member states, following six rounds of enlargement, and is also open to other European countries willing and able to join.

Let us look at the added value in the defence and security arena of NATO and the European Union’s ESDP. What is the added value of NATO? Its strong, integrated chain of command gives it the ability to conduct difficult combat missions. This multinational military structure is unique in the world. Neither the United Nations nor the EU has anything on such a scale. In contrast, the trademark of the ESDP is the EU’s ability to deploy a wide range of instruments for monitoring, policing, peacekeeping and rule-of-law missions, including relatively high-risk military operations such as the one in Chad, which concluded a couple of weeks ago, and the anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia. The EU can also apply economic, political and diplomatic pressure.

Like many other members of the European Security and Defence Assembly—formerly the Assembly of the Western European Union—I have worked hard over the years to ensure that the ESDP has developed in such a way as to complement NATO rather than compete with it. That makes sense in practical as well as political terms given that 21 EU countries are also members of NATO, and their troops can be used for EU-led or NATO operations, depending on requirements. The WEU, which in the past played a major role in establishing Europe’s defence capability, drew up the Petersberg tasks in 1992. They covered a wide spectrum of activities, including humanitarian rescue, peacekeeping and crisis management missions, and were incorporated into the common foreign and security policy under the 1997 treaty of Amsterdam. In parallel, at the 1996 NATO summit in Berlin, the idea of creating a European security and defence identity in NATO emerged. A key development since then has been the Berlin-plus arrangements, which gave first the WEU and later the EU the possibility of drawing on NATO assets for military missions sponsored by them.

All this is good, and much progress has been made, but perhaps the time has come for our Governments to agree to go a little further than the Berlin-plus arrangements and overcome the current political obstacles that are preventing NATO-ESDP co-operation from moving on to the next phase, which is so crucial if we are to meet all our global obligations and enhance the security of our peoples. The announcement by President Sarkozy of full French reintegration into NATO is an important step. It should also be taken as a sign that France recognises that defence in Europe is not a choice between the EU and NATO but complementary. As I said, the ESDP is not “défense Europe” or collective European defence. Nothing in the EU meets the provisions of article 5—not even the Lisbon treaty, if it is finally ratified. It does not, and cannot, provide the kind of collective defence commitment that membership of NATO implies.

Next Section Index Home Page