Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Ainsworth: May I say to the hon. Gentleman that, much to his annoyance, defence is a UK-wide activity? He would like to stop that arrangement, but I am opposed to its being stopped as I believe in the
1 Mar 2010 : Column 671
United Kingdom, and I see defence as a whole. I know that he would like to do something different and that, under any Scottish nationalist regime, defence would be slashed to the bone, at great cost to the people of Scotland.

We recognise that we also need to continue to improve how we use our resources. We are aiming to deliver efficiency savings of more than £3 billion over the current spending review period and we are also working to ensure that we get the maximum value for the resources that we spend on buying and maintaining equipment. Defence acquisition is a complex and expensive business that all nations find difficult. Despite shortcomings, our acquisition system compares favourably with those of our allies, and we have already made considerable improvements on the system that we inherited in 1997. Nevertheless, significant cost pressures on the defence budget exist, which is why the Government have examined how we can make further improvements to defence acquisition, including through regular defence reviews, improved transparency and indicative 10-year budgets.

We should not forget that over the past 12 years very substantial investment in defence has enabled us to provide the equipment and support required to conduct today's operations overseas and to prepare for the future, and I wish to set that out. For Afghanistan, 1,700 new vehicles have been supplied since 2006; we have doubled the number of helicopters in theatre since November 2006; we have more than doubled the number of helicopter hours available to commanders; more than £100 million has been provided for the Counter-Improvised Explosive Device Task Force; there has been a doubling of the Reaper drone capability; an additional C-17 aircraft has been supplied to strengthen the air bridge and improvements have been made to the Hercules fleet; and 22 new Chinook helicopters are on order, with the first 10 set to arrive during 2012-13.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con) rose-

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con) rose-

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way in just a moment. The individual soldier in Afghanistan is better equipped than ever before. Our soldiers are fighting in dangerous circumstances in Helmand with great success, and few other nations can do the same. For defence as a whole, we have made significant strides forward. We have brought into service-

Mark Pritchard rose-

Mr. Ainsworth: I hope that the hon. Gentleman would like to hear the list. We have brought into service more than 170 new helicopters, including the hugely impressive Apache attack helicopter; six new giant transport aircraft; 63 multi-role Typhoon aircraft; and 31 new warships. The first of the six new Type 45 destroyers will enter service later this year and will provide a step change in capability.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Ainsworth: I will give way in a moment. Looking forward, we have taken steps to maintain the armed forces at the forefront of air power with our commitment
1 Mar 2010 : Column 672
to the joint strike fighter. Work on the two new aircraft carriers is proceeding well. I challenge the hon. Member for Woodspring to set out his party's position on the carriers so as to provide clarity-he can do so now if he wishes; let us hear what his party's position is on those. Has the shadow Chancellor prevented him from doing so?

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), as perhaps he can tell us his views on the carriers.

Sir Peter Tapsell: I am intervening on the Afghanistan point that the Secretary of State has just made. Given the enormous commitment of material and money to Afghanistan that he has just outlined, is it not an extraordinary example of the fundamental misjudgment that the Government made on the seriousness of the commitment that they sent in 3,300 troops in 2006 and the Secretary of State of the day stated that he hoped they would get in and out without firing a shot? The Government completely misread the strategic task that they were undertaking.

Mr. Ainsworth: I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the record, because I was sitting in the House at the time when those comments were made. The then Secretary of State sent 16 Air Assault Brigade south-people do not send 16 Air Assault Brigade south without some serious intent. My right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State knew that southern Helmand was a dangerous area.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). Perhaps he can enlighten us on the position held by the hon. Member for Woodspring on the two new carriers.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He is a reasonable man. Does he agree with me that it is completely unacceptable when troops are returning from the front line in Afghanistan that they should be delayed unnecessarily, not because of bad weather but because of problems with ageing, old airframes delayed in Cyprus? That time is taken away from time at home with their loved ones. I have had a constituent this week in tears, saying, "I want my husband home and he is delayed in Cyprus." It is not good enough.

Mr. Ainsworth: We have, from time to time, problems with the air bridge. There is no doubt about that. We do everything that we can to minimise those problems and the RAF seeks, all the time, to make the air bridge as robust as possible, but delays are caused and they cause distress. We have invested in new aircraft to try to minimise those delays, such as the new C-17 that I ordered in December, which will give a new added robustness to the air bridge for Afghanistan.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May I take my right hon. Friend back to the question of commitment and remind him that the tooth fairy does
1 Mar 2010 : Column 673
not deliver equipment-it has to be manufactured and, we hope, manufactured in this country? As a defence worker during the late '80s and '90s, I well recall the thousands of people who were made redundant by the Conservatives. They cut projects and cut orders and thousands of people lost their jobs. My right hon. Friend would be well advised not to take advice on cuts from the Opposition.

Mr. Ainsworth: I agree with my hon. Friend. That is why I tried to elicit an answer to the question of the carriers, just as an indication of wider issues that there might be-

Dr. Fox rose-

Mr. Ainsworth: Aha! It has taken a while, but now there will be a response on the Conservative party's position on the carriers.

Dr. Fox: Patience is its own reward. We have always made very clear our arguments about seaborne air power projection. It would be perfectly reasonable to expect the carrier programme to continue under another Government, unless there were strong reasons in a strategic defence review for it not to do so. It is therefore impossible to exempt any programme. Now that I have clarified our position, will the Secretary of State tell us for the sake of clarity whether the Government will exempt the carrier programme from their proposed SDR?

Mr. Ainsworth: If that was clarity, it was about as clear as mud. We waited a long time, but clarity came there none.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I am sorry to disrupt the dialogue, which should obviously be encouraged-the Secretary of State is taking a justifiably pugnacious approach-but may I ask this question? Obviously, extra equipment improves morale, but could morale also be improved if Ministers attended when fallen heroes return to this country?

Mr. Ainsworth: If the hon. Gentleman means the ceremonies at Wootton Bassett, I have to say to him that I find myself in as difficult a position as anybody. If we attend one, how many do we attend? We are also repeatedly advised, as Ministers, that these are military occasions and that we should confine ourselves to attending proper commemorative occasions when they are called-there have been a few and there should be as many as required-for our services as a whole. I do not see how we can go to one and then not another. I get grief about this all the time-people misunderstand the reasons why we are not constantly at Wootton Bassett watching the coffins return. We simply cannot play politics with a very serious, solemn occasion that is there to provide the families, overwhelmingly, with an opportunity to accept their lost loved one back into their arms.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I would like to make some progress, if I can-

1 Mar 2010 : Column 674

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall have to give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I am most grateful. I think I must be having a bit of difficulty, because I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) ask whether the carriers would be exempted from the strategic defence review. The Secretary of State has been demanding clarity from my hon. Friend; I think that it is only fair for him to give the same to us.

Mr. Ainsworth: The right hon. Gentleman will also have heard the hon. Member for Woodspring say that he had provided clarity, but when the right hon. Gentleman looks at the record, he will see that clarity came there none. Instead, there has been a mealy-mouthed response. The Opposition are attempting to look backwards because they are frightened to say what the consequences of their proposals would be, looking forward.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall not give way because I would like to make some progress. I shall try to give way a little later.

I want to move on to welfare, because the hon. Member for Woodspring has talked about the military covenant. It is not only in relation to equipment that we have modernised. We have improved defence for our people as well. The service personnel Command Paper of 2008 put in place the first cross-government strategy to support our armed forces with a network of champions across central and local government. We have put in place a tax-free lump sum operational bonus worth £2,360 for those fighting in Afghanistan. We have allocated more free phone calls and internet access and free wi-fi for our troops in Afghanistan. We have doubled the welfare grant for the families of those on operations. We have created top-class medical care in theatre, at Selly Oak and at Headley court. We have provided comprehensive in-service occupational mental health care. We have established a compensation scheme-

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: Let me complete the list, which is quite extensive.

We have established for the first time, in contrast to what applied when the Conservative party was in power, a compensation scheme that allows injured men and women to receive compensation while they remain in the armed forces. We have doubled the tax-free lump sums for the most serious injuries, and we are committed to increasing all other levels of the award.

We have delivered 38,000 new or improved single living bed spaces, and we have upgraded more than 14,000 family homes, despite having been saddled with the dreadful sale and leaseback agreements that were made by the Conservative party when it was in power.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

1 Mar 2010 : Column 675

Mr. Ainsworth: Let me complete the list.

Basic pay has gone up in line with the recommendations of the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body, in full and on time, in each of the past 11 years. The largest percentage increases have quite rightly been targeted at the junior ranks. The 2009-10 award means that, for the third year running, the increase for the armed forces will be among the highest in the public sector.

Of course, we have delivered changes not just for serving personnel and their families but for leavers and veterans too. They include grants to adapt housing for disabled veterans; the retention of places on the NHS waiting list when people move between areas; help for spouses to find work when they move; priority places in state boarding schools for forces children; fairer treatment when people apply for social housing; free further or higher education for service leavers; and help with getting on the housing ladder. That is the list of measures that the Government have introduced on the welfare side.

Mr. Baron: All the studies show that veterans are at an increased risk of suicide. What are the Government doing specifically regarding the rising number of those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from Iraq and Afghanistan, given that the Royal British Legion, for example, believes that the Government are not doing enough to reach out to those veterans?

Mr. Ainsworth: Extensive work is being done on mental health issues, some of which will not come to light for many years to come. We are working with the Royal British Legion, and it is not true to say that we are doing anything other than that. We are working with it to try to ensure that proper structures are in place to deal with mental health-to monitor it, to ensure that support is there when the symptoms show themselves and to ensure that compensation is available. If the hon. Gentleman looks at some of the improvements that Lord Boyce has proposed, and that we intend to introduce, to ensure that mental health is covered adequately in the compensation scheme, he will see the commitment that the Government are making.

Alison Seabeck: Does my right hon. Friend share my puzzlement about the position of the Conservatives? The document they have produced does not seem to suggest anything more than what the Government are offering our service personnel.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Conservatives accuse us of not honouring the military covenant, but then they produce a document that mimics almost exactly the proposals the Government are already bringing into force. It is a case of saying something without any justification.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Pelling: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: No.

To prepare our forces for the future, I have announced a formal strategic defence review and delivered a Green Paper setting out the emerging thinking on the future security environment and other key issues facing defence ahead of the review. The work set out in the Green
1 Mar 2010 : Column 676
Paper is being taken forward by the Ministry of Defence. The Government can be proud of their record. It is misleading and inaccurate to suggest that the defence budget is being cut or that operations are not properly funded from the reserve. The Government have increased defence spending and, in addition, we have paid for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet Opposition Members continue to push those lines because they do not want anyone to focus on what they would do.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con) rose-

Mr. Ainsworth: Opposition Members will have all afternoon to answer. Will they take this opportunity to set the record straight? Can they confirm today in the House whether they will maintain, let alone increase, defence spending? George Osborne- [ Interruption. ] The shadow Chancellor has said there will be cuts from day one if the Conservatives win the next election. Would the hon. Member for Woodspring like to take this opportunity to confirm whether he will stick to his pledge of an extra three battalions for the Army? That pledge was made by his party leader as well. Is it a pledge he is sticking to or a pledge that has been quietly dropped? Will he tell the House what his party's position is? Finally, would he like to confirm now whether a Conservative Government would commit to building the new aircraft carriers?

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman and I am thoroughly disappointed by his efforts, belittling the achievements of the past 13 years. His constant undermining of the UK's huge contribution to making the world a safer world is regrettable. Why does he want to run down the UK in that way? Why does he twist the facts and misrepresent the truth, suggesting that our armed forces have inferior equipment-inferior kit-and are not properly supported? Our armed forces are among the most capable in the world. They are the best. They deserve the best and that is what we shall strive to give them in the years ahead.

Dr. Fox: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to take this opportunity to apologise to the House. I have written to the Secretary of State and to you, Mr. Speaker, to say that unfortunately I may be unable to attend the winding-up speeches, and I would not like the House to think I had intended any discourtesy by not mentioning it to the House.

Mr. Speaker: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy. He did indeed write to me explaining that he had a commitment elsewhere. What he has just said to the House will, I think, be understood.

Next Section Index Home Page