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Dr. Fox: That is a statement of the obvious. I will come in a moment to the economic backdrop against which future decisions will have to be made.

The point that I am making is that we now know that troops were sent into harm's way in Iraq without the proper equipment for political reasons. Sending troops into harm's way without the proper kit for domestic reasons is a serious breach of the military covenant.

Mr. Davidson: May I go back to the point that the hon. Gentleman was making when I sought to intervene on him? He was speaking movingly about the shortfalls affecting the Navy. Is it true that the first act of a Conservative Government would be, as he said to the convenors of the shipyard unions only last week, to examine the break clauses in the aircraft carrier contract?

Dr. Fox: It would be the act of any sensible incoming Government to look at the unavoidable costs in any project that the previous Government had committed them to-[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] That is a sensible thing to do. If we are going to go ahead with some of the essential projects required for the country's military and diplomatic prowess, we will need to be able to look at what the costs are going to be across all Government programmes. That is exactly the point that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) made a moment ago.

One would have thought that the Government had learned enough, following their failures in Iraq, to ensure that we were prepared for our mission in Afghanistan, but again they failed to understand the situation and sent our forces into a hornets' nest, without the proper resources to carry out what they were being asked to do. An Army board of inquiry into the death of Captain James Phillipson in 2006 found that there had been delays in the delivery of basic equipment, partly because

The Government were sleepwalking into the early stages of our engagement in Helmand province by sending only an initial 3,500 troops. The brigade commander in 2006, Brigadier Ed Butler, has made it clear that that number of soldiers was deployed as a result of a "Treasury-imposed cap", and not as part of an objective analysis of the situation on the ground.

The shortage of key equipment in Helmand-especially helicopters, as has been well documented-has in part led to a number of high-profile military resignations, including those of Colonel Stuart Tootal, Brigadier Ed Butler, Major Sebastian Morley and Major-General Andrew Mackay.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will recall that the mandate to go into Iraq was secured in this House. Prior to that, no activity could take place at ministerial level, or within Government Departments, that would suggest that we were going to go into Iraq, for fear of presuming on the House. He will also know that some 23,000 items were required to be deployed as part of personnel security. Does he not understand that although the intention to deliver is there, it is sometimes not logistically possible to do so?

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Dr. Fox: I simply do not accept that point. Sensible contingency planning ought to have been taking place. It was not that the equipment was unavailable or that it could not be ordered; it was specifically not ordered because that would have sent a specific political signal. That is where the moral culpability of the Government lies.

Perhaps the Government's biggest failure in their conduct of defence is their mismanagement of the equipment programme. The defence and security of the country is increasingly being run on a wing and a prayer, and as the money has failed to materialise for the unfunded projects, they have been delayed and delayed, with the taxpayer left to foot the bill and the military left to ponder their absent capabilities. The default position should be that we spend to save, rather than that we delay to spend. Speedy procurement ultimately saves money, but the Government have too often failed to understand that.

Unfortunately, if half of what was reported in the Gray review is true, the next Government will have not only the task of balancing defence priorities between the conflict that we face today and the wars of tomorrow, but the challenge of putting the MOD's finances back on track after a decade of mismanagement and neglect. The Labour Government came to power with a promise to introduce smart procurement, which would deliver equipment faster, better and more cheaply. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.

None of us knows exactly when the election will come; there have been rumours that it could be announced today, but personally I doubt it, because if the Prime Minister were any more of a serial bottler, he could start a factory. But whenever the election comes, the Government in office after it will find themselves with a military that is overstretched, undermanned and in possession of worn-out equipment.

We know that the equipment programme is underfunded-by exactly how much is anybody's guess, but most estimates put it at billions of pounds. Bernard Gray, the Government's own analyst, placed the figure at £16 billion over the next 10 years, which equates to an unfunded liability of some £4.4 million a day. The plunging value of the pound, which we have seen again today, has left an estimated £1.3 billion black hole in Britain's defence budget.

According to the most recent figures available from the National Audit Office, the top 15 major procurement projects are £4.5 billion over budget and delayed by a total of 339 months. The A400M aircraft is £657 million over budget and will be delayed by 82 months. The Type 45 destroyer is £1.5 billion over budget and will be delayed by 38 months. The aircraft carriers are more than £1 billion over budget already, and the service entry date for the first carrier has been delayed from 2012 to 2016. The decision in 2004 to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion-in the middle of two wars-was inexcusable, irresponsible and irreconcilable with the basic duty to maximise the safety of our troops while carrying out a dangerous mission. In the words of the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Ashfield, to the Chilcot inquiry,

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Due to this failed procurement programme, billions of pounds have been needlessly wasted-money that could have gone into equipping our front-line troops.

The Ministry of Defence's record of waste is staggering, as £2.5 billion has been spent on external consultants, but it could not find £20 million to train the Territorial Army. Furthermore, £2.3 billion was spent refurbishing the MOD, but it could not find £4 million for officer training corps training.

A further £6.6 billion was wasted on account of lost equipment, including among other things 3,938 Bowman radios and an untold number of laptops. Another £113 million was wasted on a super hangar for fast jet repair that was never used, while £118 million was wasted on armoured vehicle cancellations, £8 million was lost on cancelled training courses and almost £250,000 lost on works of art to hang on the walls of main building. How can all that be allowed to happen? It is a picture of serial incompetence and a lack of grip by Ministers on the Department.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what the cumulative efficiency savings have been in each of the comprehensive spending review periods from 2001 onwards?

Dr. Fox: No, I do not have those figures, but I look forward to being enlightened about them when the hon. Lady speaks.

New Labour's deluded belief that we can all live beyond our means indefinitely has produced an economic train crash whose effects will be felt for a generation. The enduring legacy of new Labour's brand of socialism has been to saddle us with "cradle to grave" debt. When the Government leave office, they will not only have failed in their duty to support our armed forces properly in conflict, but the economic calamity they leave in their wake will make the task of rebuilding our security in a dangerous world all the more difficult.

Put simply, Mr. Speaker, it cannot go on like this. Our armed forces cannot take another five years of Labour. The damage this Government have done to our armed forces will take years to put right, and will limit our ability to react to the unexpected for years to come. It should come as no surprise that the Government's decade of neglect simply reflects the way in which their leadership view defence. We have had individual Defence Secretaries, including the current one, who have been both competent and committed to the armed forces, but we have had four Defence Secretaries in four years, one of whom was part-time, even though we were heavily engaged in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Besides using the armed forces as props in a photo shoot, the Prime Minister himself has never shown much interest in the armed forces. The former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, described the Prime Minister as

We now know that in 2004 the service chiefs came close to resigning en masse.

The Prime Minister's instinctive lack of interest in the armed forces has been compounded by incompetent procurement and failure fully to fund the conflicts in
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Iraq and Afghanistan. Inevitably, that has resulted in a weakening of the military covenant, with many in the armed forces feeling undervalued. Perhaps we should have known that when, back in 2000, Lord Mandelson described the Brigade of Guards as

Since 2001, 63 members of the Household Division have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. That senior members of the Government should even think like Lord Mandelson is chilling, and I doubt that any member of the Government Front Bench could defend those views today.

Our armed forces are, in the words of the Leader of the Opposition, "the best of British". That is why the words of the Chief of the General Staff in his recent memorandum echo so resonantly:

That is it: our armed forces need to be valued.

Labour has had 13 years, and in that time has failed to understand the value, the essence and the importance of the military covenant. It is a dangerous world, and this Government are tired. The Ministry of Defence and our armed forces need a new vision and a new life, which only a new Government will have the energy to provide.

3.56 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from "2001" to end and add:

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute, as the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) did, to those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan in recent days: Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate of II Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment, Rifleman Martin Kinggett of 4th Battalion The Rifles, and Sergeant Paul Fox of 28 Engineer Regiment. They and, indeed, all who have lost their lives in operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan or closer to home in Northern Ireland, deserve the gratitude of the entire nation. Their families and their friends are in
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our thoughts. I have the utmost admiration for the bravery and professionalism, and the selfless commitment to duty, of our armed forces: they show that day in and day out.

I listened closely to the hon. Gentleman. At a time when our armed forces are engaged in dangerous operations that are crucial to this country's national security and international stability more widely, it is important for us to ensure that defence is widely debated. That is why I find it disappointing that the Conservatives want only to look backwards. Perhaps that is because of their lack of clarity on their own policies for the future.

The strategic defence review of 1998, and the updates that followed in 2002 and 2003, modernised our armed forces to enable them to take on successfully the many challenges that they have faced over the last decade. The Conservatives supported every major operation since the strategic defence review, and they were right to do so. I must say to them, however, that it is not possible to will the ends, oppose all the means and try to score political points with the benefit of hindsight without proposing anything different. That is not a responsible approach to opposition.

Let us take Afghanistan. The Conservatives agree with us about the need to be there. They agree with the military and political strategy that the Government are pursuing. They have supported each deployment of further troops. They have supported the increase in funding of equipment and support for personnel in theatre. [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) disagrees, she disagrees with her party's Front-Bench team and not with me. They agree that we can succeed. They agree that we cannot put a limit on how long this will take. Yet the hon. Member for Woodspring tries to score political points about equipment, publicly accusing the Government of betraying our troops without even checking his facts. He claimed that Ridgback armoured vehicles were stranded in Dubai for lack of airlift to take them into theatre when, in reality, those vehicles were being sent to Afghanistan ahead of schedule. False claims do not just damage the Government; they risk damaging the morale of our troops and the public, and they also risk damaging the mission. Let me set the record straight, and I challenge the Conservatives-

Dr. Fox rose-

Mr. Ainsworth: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. I challenge the Conservatives to say what they would do differently. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman now, if he stands up and tells us what he would do differently. Going forward-not going back-what would he do differently?

Dr. Fox: Any strategic defence review has to be fully funded. Therefore, any SDR that a future Government would decide on would be fully funded; it would be irresponsible not to do that. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether, on the Government record, it is true that the Government cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004, in the middle of two wars?

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Mr. Ainsworth: I was about to come to the Government's record. It is a record of which the Government can be proud, and the facts are as follows. First, operations are not funded from the core defence budget. By the end of 2008-09, the Treasury reserve contributed more than £14 billion to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. We estimate that a further £4.5 billion will be provided this financial year, and we expect the reserve to contribute some £5 billion to the cost of operations in Afghanistan in the next financial year. More widely, compared with 1997, we now have armed forces that are more capable and better equipped, and successfully working together. To achieve that, we have had to invest more to get more. Since the 1998 defence budget, the budget has grown by more than 10 per cent. in real terms-that is aside from the commitment from the reserve-and there has been the longest period of sustained growth since the 1980s, which is in marked contrast to the situation in the 1990s, when, under a Conservative Government, the defence budget decreased substantially. The defence budget will be some £35.4 billion this financial year, rising to £36.9 billion in 2010-11. We have ring-fenced that increase next year, again in marked contrast to the Conservative party, which has refused to guarantee that the defence budget will be safe from the axe in their proposed autumn Budget.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con) rose-

Mr. Ainsworth: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if he is going to stand up now and tell us whether the defence budget will be safe from the axe in his party's proposed autumn Budget.

Dr. Lewis: It is very kind of the right hon. Gentleman to give way, but when I try to intervene it is because I want to ask him questions, not because I intend to answer any he might wish to put. The question I wish to put to him is this: does he, or does he not, accept that if any money that is forthcoming from a Treasury reserve budget in order to fight wars is added to the core budget, yet the proportion is still only 2.5 per cent. of GDP, it is no good the Secretary of State saying the Government are funding the wars separately if the overall peacetime defence budget as a proportion of GDP is remaining the same? The Secretary of State is giving with one hand and taking away with the other, and he is not fully funding the wars that he undertook.

Mr. Ainsworth: That is not the case, and the hon. Gentleman is aware of his sleight of hand here. We are talking about a period of substantial growth, and the facts are as follows. The defence budget grew by 10 per cent. in real terms additional to the £14 billion from the reserve. He knows those facts to be true, yet he tries to suggest they are not.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Given what the Secretary of State has just said, can he explain why, according to the Ministry of Defence's own statistics, there has been a £4.3 billion underspend in Scotland in recent years?

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