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4.23 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I share in the tributes made on both sides of the House to those who have fallen during the past week. The pain and anxiety felt by their families and friends at this time is unimaginable, and it cannot adequately be addressed by a few words in the Chamber. That is why whenever the House makes a decision on defence matters, it is vital that we remember those who have fallen. That is the ultimate consequence of any decisions we take here.

I, too, want to start on a note of consensus. I agreed with the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) when he said that the strategic defence review should have a
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foreign affairs baseline-as the one held in 1998 did-not a Treasury baseline, that 12 years is too long before repeating the SDR and that the original SDR was not fully funded. I also agreed with the Defence Secretary when he identified that the Conservatives agreed with the Government every inch of the way. They were joined at the hip throughout the past 12 or 13 years. To pretend that things were different is incorrect, because they were together throughout that period. The Government now wish to point out their differences with the Government's record, but it is worth remembering that they were together, joined at the hip, during that time and that we were not. [ Interruption. ] I will return.

The competition among the Labour Government's failures is pretty tough-climate change, the mediocre education system and the huge recession-but defence must be up there as one of the biggest failures; it is the hot favourite to win that competition. That is perhaps why numerous changes in the ministerial team have occurred almost annually. Perhaps that reflects the enormity of their task, as they see it, and the Government's failure to support their team in defence.

Let us take housing as an example-something that the Conservatives, perhaps not surprisingly given the Defence Secretary's comments, failed to mention in the motion. Indeed, the speech made by the hon. Member for Woodspring contained not one word about housing. However, the Government should not be complacent about housing: a third of families moving into service properties complained that their new homes were filthy; two in five of them said that they were unhappy with the general condition of the property; and there were a massive 234,000 repair call-outs for 45,000 properties in the year to November 2009. That works out at five call-outs per property-an enormous number-and reveals the state of the accommodation.

I do not know whether the Defence Secretary has a different definition of the word "urgent", but it took 23 days for the repair to be made after at least one of those call-outs, and it took two months for the repair to be made after a routine call-out. It is no surprise that service families are extremely disappointed with the accommodation that has been provided. Progress has been made-Ministers have pointed out that there have been improvements to the housing stock-but at the current rate, it will take another 20 years before we can get the accommodation up to condition 1. That is simply not good enough.

Meanwhile, we are spending an absolute fortune- £67 million-on substitute family and single accommodation, while other properties remain empty. I appreciate that some of those properties are in different parts of the country, but 8,000 of them are empty at any one time. More than 2,000 of them remain empty for more than a year, while the top brass are living the life of Riley. One property-a mansion-has been rented for £7,000 a month for a general. That costs £84,000 a year, which is enough to pay for five privates. I have asked Defence Ministers a series of questions, and we have found out that about 11 members of the top brass are renting properties at more than £2,000 a month. How can that be justified? Has any action been taken since those figures were made public? Are the removal vans moving in already? Have we got them booked to
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move those people out? Paying £7,000 a month is an absolute outrage. Some might say that that is a drop in the ocean, but it is significant. If our top brass are behaving in that way, what does it reveal about the rest of the system? Surely, action must be taken.

Before the Tories get too smug about these matters, they must remember the Annington Homes fiasco. The Defence Secretary is absolutely right about the scandalous decision taken back in 1996. Since then, Annington Homes has received about £1.5 billion in rental income from properties. To make matters worse, Annington Homes does not have to foot the bill for the repair of the properties. That amounts to another £300 million for the same period-a total of £1.8 billion directly into the pockets of Annington Homes at the stroke of a Conservative blue pen. That is an outrage. The Conservatives should be embarrassed about it, and perhaps they are. That may be why there is no reference to that matter in the Conservative motion today.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Did the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity, when he was doing his research, to see where the money from the sale of those homes went to? Did it go into the MOD budget, or did it merely go back to the Treasury?

Willie Rennie: The hon. Gentleman probably knows the answer to that question.

Linda Gilroy: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Annington Homes should put some money back into homes for the military from the profit that it has been making?

Willie Rennie: The hon. Lady makes a sensible point. If the company had a conscience about these matters, it would repay a contribution. The state of some of the accommodation leaves a lot to be desired, and a contribution would be appropriate, as she suggests.

I shall move to a slightly more consensual topic, health, where there have been some improvements. The Selly Oak facility is recognised as first class. Bringing the best of the military together with the best of the NHS means that soldiers who, in the past, would probably have died in the front line on the battlefield now have modern medicine available to them. Despite the pain that the Government went through in making a decision to move to that model of care, it probably is the right one.

Mr. Pelling: May I offer an example of a positive response from the NHS? In my local area, it has been very willing to work with the Royal British Legion on a special centre for those returning with combat stress. Officials at Mayday Healthcare NHS Trust made a great effort to respond quickly and positively to the need.

Willie Rennie: The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable contribution, but I am afraid the response is rather piecemeal across the country. Some work has shown that not all health boards and health authorities are responding in the same way. Among GPs, awareness of veterans care is not as it should be. I shall return to that shortly. However, there have been some examples of good care, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

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Headley Court is another good example of the partnership between charity and the Ministry of Defence in treating those who, I say again, might have passed away on the front line in the past. Miracles have been performed at Headley Court with some of those people. When I visited, I was extremely impressed by the work that has been done. The ethos is to get people not just back to good health, but in some cases back to work. That employment discipline at the facility is first class.

Mark Pritchard: The hon. Gentleman mentions miracles, and he will know that the chaplaincy of all three armed services plays a very important part in the delivery of the health care system. Will he put on record for the House and for those outside a tribute to the chaplains who do so much work on the front line and behind the scenes?

Willie Rennie: We underestimate the contribution that the ministry makes to general health care in the military and to the social well-being of individuals who are in hospital. We should recognise and praise that. We sometimes dismiss things that have been there for some time; we take them for granted, and we should not do so. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.

There is a centre at Chilwell for the Territorials who have returned from conflict. The stress and trauma that they underwent in previous conflicts was not recognised, but now that they are an integral part of the armed forces, it is vital that they have that service, so that when they return from conflict, they can get the support that the rest of the armed forces receive.

There are concerns, however, and an awful lot more needs to be done for veterans. The six pilot projects are making good progress, and good work is being done. However, some 2,500 ex-servicemen make up about 3 per cent. of the prison population, and the suicide rate among veterans is high, so it is absolutely vital that we advance the progress on support for veterans, who feel ignored and rejected by society. They feel very proud to be in the armed forces, and rightly so, but that recognition does not necessarily exist when they return home. Many health authorities-and about one in three GPs-are simply unaware of priority treatment status in the health service, and it is vital that we overcome that inadequacy and advance the work of the pilot projects.

Moving on to procurement, I believe-I can see the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) getting excited; I think that he lives on an aircraft carrier-that we need to begin by acknowledging the sheer enormity of the public debt. Even before the current downturn, the MOD had massive debt, and Bernard Gray, in his report last October, noted the gap of about £35 billion between our commitments and the resources that are available to fulfil them. Some analysts estimate that the annual shortfall is as much as £10 billion, and that is out of a total budget of about £37 billion. The figures vary and estimates come and go, but in reality there is an enormous gap between our commitments and our resources. That is Labour's legacy-a budget that is out of control and a programme that is years late.

The Eurofighter is beset by overruns, delays and technical problems. It is now expensive and unnecessary, and its capabilities are inappropriate. The future rapid
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effect system was committed to in 1998, but it will not be completed until 2017, and perhaps even later. The aircraft carriers-

Mr. Davidson: Yes?

Willie Rennie: The hon. Gentleman is paying attention. The Government committed back in 1998 to construct the aircraft carriers, but the deal was signed only in 2008. Embarrassingly, only months later the project was delayed by another two years, costing the taxpayer an additional £1 billion. The hon. Member for Woodspring stole my line-the "spend now to save later" principle has been changed to "save now to spend an awful lot more later".

Angus Robertson: For the purposes of clarity, may I take the hon. Gentleman back to his comments on the Eurofighter, which he seemed to say is not needed? Will he clarify exactly what he said and the consequences that his comments would have for RAF Leuchars?

Willie Rennie: We have made considerable progress with the Eurofighter contract, but we are referring to tranche 3, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, because I am sure that he has studied these matters.

The MOD spent £259 million buying eight Chinook Mk 3 helicopters for the Special Air Service, but the cost to the MOD is now £500 million and those helicopters are still not in the air.

Mr. Davidson rose-

Willie Rennie: The hon. Gentleman was a wee bit slow to intervene.

Mr. Davidson: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to say more about the aircraft carriers. Does he agree with his colleague the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who, when he met the convenors of the shipyard unions last week, indicated that the aircraft carriers were safe with the Liberals, and that they supported the building of the aircraft carriers, irrespective of a defence review? That went some way to lift the workers' mood, compared with hearing from the Conservatives that on day one of any future Conservative Government they would examine the break clauses. The Liberals did not say anything like that, and the unions very much welcomed their position.

Willie Rennie: I am relieved to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said, because I have not spoken to him since his visit. That shows the Conservatives' position on the matter-they are not committed to the aircraft carriers. Revealingly, however, the Defence Secretary also refused to answer the relevant question, and I was a bit puzzled by that, so I hope that he will take this opportunity to contribute.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I can help out the hon. Gentleman, because last Thursday I, like the Secretary of State for Defence, had the pleasure of going to Portsmouth to attend the steel-cutting ceremony for the first of the aircraft carriers. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State, who said that the Government were committed to the aircraft carriers-I think that I am using his words correctly-unless there were to be some very radical
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recommendations from the defence review. I took that to mean that the Government's position is that they are not exempting the aircraft carriers from the defence review, even though they believe that they will probably be confirmed by it. That is a sensible position for the Secretary of State, and indeed for us, to take.

Willie Rennie: I thank the hon. Gentleman-that was very helpful.

The cost of the three Astute class submarines has risen from £2.5 billion to £3.8 billion, and the Type 45 destroyers are costing £1 billion each-£1.5 billion over budget in total-and are two years late. There has been a whole plethora of mismanaged projects over the years. That is the background against which we move forward to the next strategic defence review. It is essential that that SDR is not just a crude hacking job-there has to be some strategy around it.

The Tories seem to have perpetuated the myth that Britain can act alone. The last time we did that was in the Falklands, and even then we relied on intelligence from the United States. They seem to think that Britain has not changed, and that the world has not changed, in the past 50 years, and that we can carry on as we are. We need to share and to work with others. That does not mean working only with the United States but-I know this will make the hair stand up on the back of their necks-with our colleagues in Europe. The record of co-operation with some European nations has not been great, but it is one of the few options open to us-they need to work with us and we need to work with them. I believe that we can achieve an awful lot by working together and that, over time, the situation will improve.

There were no references to Trident in both speeches made by Front Benchers. Given that we have the non-proliferation treaty negotiations coming up very soon, that is a very disappointing development. This does not seem to be the priority that the Prime Minister led us to believe that it was going to be. It is simply misguided to continue with a full-blooded, gold-plated nuclear weapons system. The Government's attitude to the defence of the nation is stalled in a cold war mentality that is hopelessly anachronistic against the threats of sub-national terrorists and insurgents. President Obama has given us an awful lot more hope. Perhaps the shine has come off his presidency, but he is still prepared to discuss this with others-others to whom his predecessor would not even have picked up the phone. That is a welcome development that we must grab with both hands.

We must take forward the opportunity presented by the NPT. We opposed the decision back in 2007 prematurely to decide to go ahead with the new nuclear deterrent. That decision was premature, and we should not have made it at that time. In effect, it sent a message to the rest of the world that Britain was carrying on as normal and that we intended to renew Trident.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): The hon. Gentleman seems to be proposing an alternative nuclear deterrent to Trident-what is it? Is it an existing system or would it have to be designed and created, how much would it cost, and what would be the timing of its introduction?

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Willie Rennie: These are excellent questions, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will pose them to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who is sitting behind me and who is carrying out a review on this important matter, which must be considered to ensure that we get the right system. I am sure that we will have a discussion later, when the hon. Gentleman can feed in his views about what that system should be.

It was misguided to make the decision in advance of the NPT talks that will take place later this year; we should have waited. The main gate decision was due to be made in 2014, but we decided to make it way in advance of that, and there was no need to do so.

Linda Gilroy: I think I remember correctly that the hon. Gentleman served on the Select Committee on Defence when we examined the various reports on the matter, and I ask him two things. First, what is his assessment of the maintenance of the nuclear skills base in the context that he is setting out? Secondly, did he not look at all the alternatives set out in the White Paper? What alternatives that were not considered or that were dismissed in it is the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) likely to come forward with? The hon. Gentleman must have some idea, having looked into the matter in detail.

Willie Rennie: I have answered the second question, and the hon. Lady knows the answer to the first-we have been over it before. The skills base would not have been affected if we had made the decision at the beginning. We did not need to make all the decisions then, and the main gate decision was the important one. Britain said that Trident would go ahead no matter what the 2010 non-proliferation treaty said, which was simply misguided.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): I am sure that my hon. Friend has not forgotten the important issue of continuous at-sea deterrence and whether four submarines are necessary. Has he noticed that the Prime Minister has floated the idea of having three instead? That rather suggests that the unqualified enthusiasm for the project on the Labour Benches may not be mirrored in No. 10 Downing street.

Willie Rennie: I had not mentioned that, because I did not want to steal my right hon. and learned Friend's thunder. He is right that we should consider a whole range of matters, and I will read his report with interest when it comes out. It will be a great contribution to the debate.

I hope that I will not bore you too much, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I read out part of the NPT, which mentions the desire

I am therefore puzzled by the position of the Government and the Opposition Front Benchers.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Willie Rennie: Not yet; the hon. Gentleman will get his chance.

The Defence Secretary recently said:

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