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4 Jun 2009 : Column 463
4.6 pm

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): On the day when this debate was announced, I asked the Leader of the House at business questions whether, in a week when four young soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan, it was a good idea to hold such a debate on the day of local and European elections. She said that the reason for it being held on that day was that there would be no vote. There are no votes on most Thursdays because of the ridiculous modernisation programme the House has undertaken in recent years, and I suggest that it is an insult to our armed services that the debate is being held today.

Notwithstanding that, the debate has been excellent, and I am sure that, after my contribution, it will continue to be so. Before I move on to the main part of my speech, I want to pick up one or two issues. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), who, sadly, has just left the Chamber, said that as a history teacher she taught that since the second world war the peace had been kept by the European Union. That is absolute stuff and nonsense. The peace has been kept by NATO, and we should remember that.

I also want to cross swords with the hon. Lady, and the Secretary of State, on co-operation and further integration in defence policy and acquisition through the European Union. I remind the House that one of the reasons why we have a shortage of airlift capacity is that the A400M aircraft was commissioned, if that is the right word, in the days of the Government led by John Major. It was due to be delivered in 2007, in the light of which the order for Hercules J aircraft was diminished. Therefore, our lack of airlift capacity is because of the European Union’s incompetence in co-operating to fulfil its obligations. The Minister for the Armed Forces is shaking his head—

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: Frowning.

Ann Winterton: Well, both are equally bad; I would much prefer that he was cheerful. [Interruption.] He is smiling now, and that is good.

I listened to the Secretary of State with a great deal of interest. He made some interesting points, other than that which I just referred to, which chime in many ways with other things happening in defence. The recent Whit recess gave me a welcome opportunity to read the speech made at Chatham House on 15 May by the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, entitled, “A Perspective on the Nature of Future Conflict.” Some very important issues were raised in that speech, which I believe are worthy of further debate—especially as the supertanker of United Kingdom defence policy is slowly changing course, although not as fast as the Americans are changing policy and adapting to the realities of present conflicts.

Let me quote a paragraph of General Dannatt’s speech. He said:

The question that I pose to the House this afternoon is “Have we, and will we?”

The House will have to forgive me if I stick to my last, but before I do so, let me observe that what General Sir Richard Dannatt was saying was more or less what the Secretary of State was saying. The campaigns in which we are currently having to be involved are connected with what I call “next-war-itis”. They are predominantly concerned with counter-insurgency and reconstruction. Perhaps the changes that may be coming will feed through to quicker, smoother and more effective procurement which will support the needs of troops on the ground.

We began badly in Iraq with the Warrior, which had no air conditioning and was hardly ideal for conditions of heat and humidity. Then the Snatch Land Rover was to be replaced by 166 disastrous Vector Pinzgauers. The Vectors were initially highly praised in many quarters, but I believe that those who have been injured or have died in them have been failed by the media, the parliamentary scrutiny system and indeed the Army itself. It is no good the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), saying, as he did during defence questions on Monday,

I assume that he meant that it did not live up to expectations, but—with due deference to the Minister—we knew that before the Vector was deployed, and in my view it should never have been deployed at all.

I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, that he and the members of his Committee should consider an inquiry into the issue. I think that what has happened is a national disgrace—not just the cost, but the loss of life in particular.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: As my hon. Friend knows, I saw the Vector before it was unveiled. I happened to be driving the ordinary Pinzgauer. One of the questions that I asked at the time was whether the new armour being added to the vehicle required a strengthening of the suspension. I was told that that was not necessary.

My hon. Friend has done a tremendous job in fighting battles on behalf of our soldiers who have not been provided with adequate equipment. May I ask her a question that I asked the Minister on Monday, when he failed to answer it? What sort of evaluation process does the Ministry of Defence have, given that the Vector was passed by a technical evaluation? We are not technical people in the House, and we must rely on technical people in the Ministry of Defence, but it appears that that is where the failure occurred. Has my hon. Friend a view on that?

Ann Winterton: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I was once given a briefing at the MOD when I argued with a young gentleman about the Vector Pinzgauers. I said to him that bearing in mind both that the driver was right over the wheel and also the plain, ordinary physics of how bombs explode and where deflections
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go, it would be a death-trap, and it has proved to be so. I have stated the following many times in this House, and I will state it again on later occasions, because in politics we sometimes have to keep on repeating and repeating before finally, it is to be hoped, someone takes up the point being made: the design of vehicles is vital to saving the lives of the people in them. Unless that point is grasped within the MOD, we are whistling in the wind.

The Snatch Land Rover has now been upgraded to the Vixen and more than 200 Huskys have been procured at a cost of just under £600,000 each. They will prove to be another failure, replacing an earlier failure. The Americans rejected this vehicle as it sustained a hull breach on the mine resistant ambush protected—MRAP—level 1 standard test.

The 401 Panther command and liaison vehicles, which cost a cool £413,000 each, have taken longer than the duration of world war two to bring into service, with constant upgrades. They are in every way an expensive and inferior vehicle and were originally capable of NATO standard mine protection STANAG 4569 level 2a, which roughly translated means that they have protection against 6 kg of explosive, but they will be put into operation where 7.5 kg Russian mines are prevalent. Will the Minister please confirm in his winding-up speech whether the latest £20 million upgrade has taken protection up to level 3a and 3b, and if he cannot do that today, will he please drop me a note?

When the procurement of the Jackal—or M-WMIK, as it was initially known—was announced, it was agreed that it would be good for special forces. Too much emphasis, however, was placed on the David Stirling, world war two concept when equipment acted as the predator, whereas the Jackal, by being used for general duties, has now become the prey. I remember a discussion on Radio 1 in which a young Territorial Army private infantry soldier who had just returned from Iraq took on a sergeant who was extolling the Jackal’s brilliance by explaining the faults with the vehicle. What listeners were not aware of was that the TA private soldier was in civilian life an engineer working in force deflection, and in the TA he was a “pioneer” dealing with explosives. The 200 Jackals in service, and a further 110 Jackal 2s, have again highlighted the failed concept of bolting on armour, as proved by the American Humvee vehicle. Can the Minister confirm how many Jackals have been lost, because some reports suggest the number is as high as 20 per cent. of those deployed in Afghanistan?

The whole protected vehicle fleet is, in General Dannatt’s word, unbalanced, because if we add to the vehicles that I have previously listed the Coyote, Viking, Tellar and Warthog, then compared with the 306 Mastiffs, 157 Ridgebacks, 90 Wolfhounds and 24 Bushmasters, blast-absorption vehicles with added armour vastly outnumber blast-deflection vehicles which have their defence built into the original design of the distinctive V-shaped hull.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I know that the hon. Lady studies this issue and always tries to bring some thought to it, but she must accept that we cannot put all our people into the same kind of vehicles. We have to give them a range of different vehicles of different sizes. We have to try to mitigate the effect of using a smaller vehicle, and that can be done only to a degree. The main protection
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of the Jackal is its massive manoeuvrability; it does not have to go down the well-trodden path. If the hon. Lady goes to theatre, she will know that it is a very well thought of vehicle among all ranks.

Ann Winterton: It may be very well thought of by some, but I would not like to hazard a guess as to how many young men have been killed in it unnecessarily. I will leave the subject there and move on, unless the Minister wants me to give way again.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Lady is suggesting that there is some easy alternative that would give our people the capability that they need to do the job and yet remove if not the entire risk, a lot of the risk associated with the Jackal. I do not believe that she is correct.

Ann Winterton: I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does not think I was born yesterday. War is bloody and people get killed in it, but what is desperate is the fact that this country has not supported its soldiers in conflict with the right kind of vehicles, which can be obtained, and has instead made major mistakes in procurement. He and I are not going to agree on this subject, so I should move on because I have made my point and we have had our disagreement.

Blast absorption vehicles are not cheaper, and when they encounter an explosion not only are the occupants killed or maimed, but the vehicle is a write-off. Compare that with the record of the Mastiff: only one early version was lost due to a fire, and although there have been injuries sustained in explosions, nobody has yet been killed. [Interruption.] I shall come to something else in a minute—I am making a point now. The Oxford Mail reported last Tuesday that four local soldiers—I believe that they are from Bicester—escaped injury when their Mastiff hit a mine. One of them, Captain Fletcher, was quoted as saying that the Mastiff afforded great mobility across the desert terrain of Afghanistan and, despite its weight and size, afforded unrivalled protection. The vehicle was able to drive away after the explosion under its own power—compare that with the fate of the two soldiers killed recently in a Jackal in the very same area.

Mr. Ainsworth rose—

Ann Winterton: May I continue? Again on Monday, the Minister with responsibility for defence equipment and support, who has returned to his place, praised the Coyote and the Husky, which is likely to be another useless and death-threatening procurement. However, he was right about the Wolfhound, which should prove to be good news. I find it so distressing to hear lavish praise being heaped upon the procurement of vehicles that are potential death-traps and to listen later to expressions of condolence to the families of those who have perished in them.

Just as the Buffalo was originally condemned by the MOD but is now being purchased, I hope that the Department will look again at the new version of the Cheetah, which has been developed by Force Protection and was recently shown to members of Congress on Capitol Hill. I fully support the efforts of South Carolina Congressman Henry E. Brown to promote this MRAP vehicle to ensure that both British and American soldiers
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are properly protected. I am also convinced—Ministers might be interested in this—that Force Protection vehicles could be turned into successful half-tracks if greater manoeuvrability was required.

The Secretary of State is quoted in this month’s Soldier magazine as praising the new American military direction, which includes the cancellation of their equivalent of the future rapid effect system—FRES—project and suggests that we need a similar readjustment in the UK. Perhaps the UK has accepted that concept in principle, but it certainly has not yet done so in practice.

I will end by quoting again from General Dannatt’s speech at Chatham House. He said:

Although I am delighted that General Dannatt has changed his views since he took office, the danger is still that we are not changing fast enough—not just in terms of vehicle procurement, but in many other areas. When we talk about the budget today and future budgets, I would remind the House of the amount of money that has been wasted on equipment and vehicles that have not been fit for purpose. If those disastrous decisions had not been made, more resources would be available to spend on what the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan need now.

4.25 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I concur with the remarks that have been made so far on the timing of today’s debate on the day of the European and local elections. I am sure that the Ministers would agree, if they were allowed to say so. There is nothing to add to the chorus of condemnation of that choice.

However, it is two days until the anniversary of the 65th anniversary of D-day and that is another reason why I have chosen to speak in this debate. I am proud that my uncle, Major-General Tony Richardson, is president of the Normandy Veterans Association. I am delighted that the Prince of Wales will attend the celebrations. The issue was sadly mishandled and the Ministry of Defence failed to appreciate the importance of the 65th anniversary. Given the presence of President Obama, it would have been better if Her Majesty the Queen were to attend, but at least the Prince of Wales is going.

I am also delighted that my uncle had the opportunity to take his grandson, Captain Max Ferguson of the US army, to visit the beaches a week or so ago. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), who is no longer in her place, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) attended a presentation by Captain Ferguson, my cousin and godson on his 15 months in Iraq as an infantry platoon commander, commanding a troop of Stryker vehicles and some 40 soldiers—

Ann Winterton: I attended too.

Mr. Blunt: Indeed, and I listened with interest to my hon. Friend’s remarks about military vehicles. I commend her campaign and the attention she has given to the issue. It is right that Ministers should be put on the spot for the decisions that they have to make, although I acknowledge the difficulty of those decisions and the
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trade-offs that have to be made. It is important that we have hon. Members willing to dig down into the detail and track procurement decisions. My hon. Friend has done a signal service in holding Ministers to account on the issue, and that is how Parliament should work.

My cousin, Captain Ferguson, was ambushed when riding in a Stryker vehicle. It is well regarded by the US army, but that did not stop him being nearly killed when it was hit in Baghdad. One of the soldiers in the vehicle was killed and the young soldier sitting next to him was badly wounded. My cousin was lucky enough to survive and the vehicle was able to drive away from the ambush.

My cousin’s presentation was a remarkable story of 15 months in Iraq, in 2007-08, from a platoon commander in the US army. It was particularly instructive to hear how much of the US concept of operations in Iraq had become more like the British one—in terms of hearts and minds, and living alongside the community in which they were operating in order to draw intelligence from it and take the fight to the terrorists. One can only reflect on that change and what happened to the British forces in Basra—there was almost an inversion of roles over the last six years.

Rather more sombrely, and again involving what I would regard as my family—my former regimental family—on Saturday, Lance Corporal Nigel Moffett became the first fatality of the Light Dragoons in operations in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The regimental family of a regiment the size of the Light Dragoons is quite small. There are only about 400 or so serving in the regiment at any one time, and that fatality brings home the pain and pride in the sacrifice made by Lance Corporal Nigel Moffett.

I did not know Lance Corporal Nigel Moffett. I left the regiment a rather long time ago now and he joined it in 2003. In reading the tributes paid to him by his commanders, his contemporaries and his father, one is struck by and able to visualise the sort of character that this young man was. I want to take this opportunity to draw on those tributes and to try to give the House the sense of the sort of young men and women who are serving our country on operations today. His squadron sergeant-major, of C Squadron, the Light Dragoons, Sergeant-Major David Rae, said in tribute:

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that was the nickname of C Squadron the 13th/18th Royal Hussars when I was in it, and is now the nickname of C Squadron, the Light Dragoons—

His commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Gus Fair, who has a special forces background, said:

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