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Where in all this, I have to ask, is the Royal British Legion? It seems to have lost the plot. You and I know, Madam Deputy Speaker, and everyone else in the House knows, that the Royal British Legion provides services for current servicemen and servicewomen and their families as well as for veterans, but that is not the public image. At the weekend I talked to some 30-year-olds who clearly thought that the RBL was all about poppy day and parading around the town once a year. I
enlightened them, of course, but nevertheless that is the image, and that is why Help for Heroes and a number of other charities have become so popular.
Linda Gilroy: I agree with the hon. Gentleman to an extent about the perception of the Royal British Legion, but does he share my welcome for the support that it is giving to Citizens Advice, which it is helping to fund a national network of advice on matters that service families, service personnel and veterans need to know about?
Robert Key: Of course I welcome that hugely. I also welcome the RBL's support for people who are leaving the forces, which is really important. However, I hope that the RBL will raise its game and help the public to understand the work that it does, every day of the week and every week of the year, not just for veterans but for young men and women who come out of the forces with either a physical or a mental difficulty.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North mentioned new threats. Of course he is right about cyberwarfare, which I have been going on about relentlessly in the Defence Committee ever since I visited Estonia, that doughty partner of British forces in Afghanistan. I visited its cyberdefence college. Estonia has a NATO-sponsored college, in which Britain plays a modest role. It is the only NATO nation that has been subject to cyberthreat and cyberattack, and it has a lot to teach us.
I also agree with the hon. Gentleman about climate change. When the Select Committee was preparing a report on the future of NATO two or three years ago, I was struck by a visit that I paid to Denmark. We heard that the Danes were way ahead of the curve in assessing the impact of climate change on strategic sea routes around the northern hemisphere. It was to the Danes' advantage to ensure that they were on top of defence strategy, because Greenland was suffering from a retreating ice sheet which was opening up opportunities not just for fossil fuel exploration and development, but for the strategic defence of new northern trade routes around the whole of the north American continent. When the Committee went to Moscow, I pursued that point with the Russians. They too have that new opportunity, all around the northern shores of the Russian Federation, with the possibility of new trade routes throughout the world.
That is another reason why it is utter folly to talk of abandoning the Royal Navy aircraft carrier project. Britain must continue to have global reach. We need the Royal Navy, and we will need it even more in the next 10 to 20 years. We must not forget that. Given that more than 90 per cent. of Britain's trade depends on sea routes, our seaports-the great ports of Plymouth and Portsmouth, for instance-will depend on the Royal Navy for the preservation, conservation and growth of the nation's prosperity. New threats will need new solutions, therefore, and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North is right about the importance of intelligence, such as that from unmanned aerial vehicles, in various phases.
It is in the interests of the nation for the Ministry of Defence to do all it can to improve the quality of its equipment and its people, and to help the families who support our servicemen and all those who follow the
flag. I will no longer be a Member of this House when future defence debates take place, so I will not be able to contribute to them; this will be my last defence speech, after almost 27 years and an awful lot of defence speeches. My message has always been the same, however: we should spend more of our GDP on defence. It is folly not to do so.
It was, of course, right that we rolled back our defence spending at the end of the cold war, but the peace dividend was, in my view, entirely illusory, because new threats replaced the old threats. That will always be the case. In respect of defence policy, unpredictability is the only thing that is predictable. We should never forget that. We should never drop our guard; we should always be right at the forefront, as my constituents are every day, at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, for example, and at the Health Protection Agency's Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response. All the defence scientists and all the people who are prepared to lay down their lives for this country deserve the undying support, recognition and affection of our constituents and of every Member of this House.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): First, may I share in the expressions of support for our armed services and of regret for the loss of life, and pay tribute to all those who have made that sacrifice?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on the occasion of his final defence speech. He has been consistent in his support for the armed services, in speaking up for more money for defence, and in taking a balanced approach to the scrutiny of defence issues. One might wish that he had been the Conservative Member introducing the motion at the beginning of the debate-although he will not be surprised to learn that I cannot agree with him about supporting the motion-because the opening speech from the Conservative Front Bench Spokesman was far too pugnacious, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) has suggested.
It has been a pleasure to serve alongside the hon. Member for Salisbury on the Defence Committee in this Parliament. It has been my first term as a member of the Committee, and I think we have provided constructive scrutiny, based on in-depth inquiries, on the subjects of deployments, health and welfare packages, and procurement. There has been plenty for us to get our teeth into, and I have to say that the Government responses to our reports have been a little mixed. On the whole, however, their responses have been positive, particularly on health, education and welfare issues.
The welfare issue is one subject on which I cannot possibly agree with the motion. It states that we have failed to "honour the Military Covenant". Far from it: the responses to the many Select Committee reports on education, health and the welfare package have been comprehensive. The Royal British Legion has also played a considerable part in lobbying on those issues, of course. I welcomed the summer 2008 personnel Command Paper and the establishment of the external reference group, which was set up to make sure the issues raised were followed through. On compensation, housing, travel and education, we have gone rather further than was proposed in the Conservative-commissioned paper on those matters. Compensation for the most serious injuries
doubled, to £570,000, and the 2010 review included further improvements, such as a 30 per cent. uplift in guaranteed income payments for young servicemen with life-changing injuries, recognising that they might well have had a military career ahead of them that would have enhanced their income over time.
Conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been sustained over what will soon be a decade. Tory complaints that they have not been funded ignore-when this is looked at in the round-not just the 10 per cent. real-terms increase, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned in his opening statement, and the funding from the reserve for the deployments, but the significant contribution that cumulative savings in the defence budget have made in each comprehensive spending review period. They have enabled either cost pressures to be relieved-those have not gone away-or more to be spent on defence priorities.
On 16 December 2009, at column 1210W, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out in answer to a written question that in the CSR period 1998-99 to 2001-02 the cumulative savings in cash and resources were slightly more than £2 billion, that in 2004-05 to 2006-07-in the three-year period of the Gershon review-the cumulative saving was £3 billion against the 2004 baseline, and the figure for the first year of the 2007-08 to 2010-11 CSR period against the 2008 baseline was £600 million.
Linda Gilroy: I was surprised by that, and by the whole nature of the contribution made by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), given that he gave a sensible speech to the Royal United Services Institute. Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that it did not differ a great deal from what is set out in the Green Paper, except that it perhaps put rather more emphasis on a capacity to act alone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North said, such an approach is decreasingly likely to be taken.
It is a sign of a confident Minister and Ministry that they are willing to engage with and respond to scrutiny. The evidence shows that that has been demonstrated not only in relation to the Command Paper, but in other respects, notably on the Gray review. One would sometimes think that it was not the Government who had commissioned that review, in order to take seriously the pressures and issues that have arisen, but they did and they were ready with a response to it-and on the Defence strategy for acquisition reform, which was published alongside the Green Paper.
"the UK's allies are by and large complimentary and in some cases envious about what the UK has done to drive reform in this area."
Indeed, table 10-3, on page 215, suggests that the UK compares favourably with the United States and Australia. The Defence Equipment and Support agency features in the top quartile of the Human Systems Ltd benchmarking of UK and international organisations managing complex projects. It is therefore not exactly the basket case alluded to in the motion.
On urgent operational requirements-examples include the Jackal, which is procured in my constituency, and built in Devonport dockyard, and the L129A1 Sharpshooter rifle, deliveries of which were made in January 2010, just two months after the order had been placed-the contrast with the Conservative Administration could not have been greater.
I commend to the House, and to any Member who was not present at the time and who has not heard reference made to it, the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) on 28 February 2000, in which he set out an A to Z of Conservative failures during his period of service on the Select Committee on Defence. That covered everything from the infamous Annington Homes deal, which has been mentioned on a number of occasions, Apache, Bowman, the cancelled common new generation frigate and the Eurofighter-the consequent problems still beset us-to, going on to the end of the alphabet, the Tornado F3 upgrade, the Upholder class submarine, Westland, Yarrow, of course, which saw the beginnings of its demise under the Conservative Government, and Zircon, the satellite about which information was withheld.
I think that our service personnel and the people who work so hard in the United Kingdom to support them expect more than cheap shallow politicking, which we heard not so much in the motion but in the rather pugnacious speech that was made at the beginning of the debate. I hope that the Opposition spokesman who sums up will, as well as giving us some insight into what Conservative policies will consist of, be a little more balanced and generous. Our troops deserve better than such politicking.
Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): May I begin by paying tribute to all our serving armed forces and their families? We remember, in particular, those who have lost their lives recently or who have been injured in the service of their country.
This could well be my last contribution to a defence debate as a Member of this House and I am grateful to Her Majesty's Opposition for securing the debate and for giving me the opportunity to make a brief speech.
Over the life of this Parliament, I have tried to focus on three areas of defence: the personal safety of our troops; the correct equipment for the conflict; and appropriate expenditure to match the threat. I was once referred to, in a Westminster Hall debate that I had instigated, as an armchair general by no less than the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who sadly is not in his place today. He said that he imagined me playing with my toys at the kitchen table. I was a little cross at the time, but I did not take him to task about it. Even in that capacity it was not difficult to predict, as I did in 2006, the future deadly use of improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan based on the military's previous experience in Iraq and to realise how unprepared we were for that type of warfare.
Some military thinking is, thankfully, changing at long last. I was delighted to read the address made by the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir David Richards, to the International Institute for Strategic
Studies on 18 January this year, to which I will refer later. There is no doubt that the infantry, in particular, has changed beyond all recognition over the last decade in its provision of body armour, weaponry and vision and night sights. Those who have contributed to that advancement deserve all credit. However, there are still areas in which constructive criticism can be made, especially those concerning mine route clearing vehicles. That was an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and I raised in oral Defence questions last week. To quote the Secretary of State, the big task that our troops need to undertake is to
"tackle the IED networks, through the increased use of intelligence, so that we can be proactive in taking apart the networks that seek to target our troops."-[ Official Report, 22 February 2010; Vol. 506, c. 5.]
I should be grateful if the Minister could update the House on how the Talisman project is performing, although I am still at a loss to know why we entered into the Iraq and Afghan conflicts virtually unprepared when we had appropriate equipment in Bosnia in the form of Chubby sets.
The House will know that I have, in modern parlance, "banged on" about vehicles being designed from scratch for blast deflection rather than blast absorption. On that basis, I have been critical of certain vehicles-none more so than the Jackal. It is a superb vehicle for special forces but not for general patrol duties. The entry of the company Supacat with its SPV400 into the light protected patrol vehicle programme vindicates the strong case that I made initially in the face of hostility and criticism, with the vehicle being designed around a V-shaped hull. The managing director of Supacat has been quoted as saying that the new design was developed as a result of the experience of the Jackal. It has, of course, been developed not just because of the fundamental flaws of the Jackal but because of competition from Force Protection, a company that was years ahead of the game, which, in relation to the Rhodesian and South African experiences, took a leaf out of that book. Force Protection must be credited with having saved the lives of thousands of service personnel in the British, American and Canadian armies in contrast to those that were playing catch-up. We have made progress in that area, but there are still those who think that those vehicles are at the lower end of the military pecking order. I believe that they are wrong, for without those vehicles the UK does not stand a chance in low-tech conflicts. Without them, the Army would probably be defeated. I believe that those vehicles will be used continuously in the future, not least because their design allows greater freedom and scope for different strategies and tactics to prevail.
My one regret is that little or no progress has been made on aircraft that use single or twin propellers, which is very disappointing. As soon as I mention that, the fast jet brigade try to shoot me down, although those aircraft are very difficult to shoot down. However, I see that I now have an ally in General Richards himself, who has recognised the advantages of aircraft such as the Super Tucano. In a recent speech, he said:
"If one equips more for this type of conflict while significantly reducing investment in higher-end war-fighting capability, suddenly one can buy an impressive amount of 'kit'. Whilst, as you will hear, I am emphatically not advocating getting rid of all such equipment, one can buy a lot of UAVs or Tucano aircraft for the cost of a few JSF and heavy tanks."
"Can we take the risk? Well we have to take risk somewhere or run the far greater one of trying with inadequate resources to be all things to all conflicts and failing to succeed in any."
Other nations' air forces are rapidly increasing numbers of those aircraft, not to displace fast jets, but to work in tandem with them. There are considerable advantages to using such aircraft, especially in counter-insurgency operations. It is surely a great error of judgment that that area appears not to have been more thoroughly explored.
Helicopters are another area in which there was no need to go overboard with such expensive, over-technical aircraft, however great they may be. We have had massive expenditure on the Danish Merlins, Chinooks that did not work, and all our helicopters have had to be upgraded to make them fit for Afghanistan, many with Carson blades, but we could have had a fleet of twin-bladed Bell 212s, known as Hueys, or the four-bladed version, the Bell 412. The UK could have had sufficient numbers of aircraft that were perfectly adequate for purpose and considerably better value for money. Some tasks could have been undertaken more efficiently with fixed-wing aircraft such as the Pilatus Porter, which has a payload of just over a tonne. I fear that some minds are still set in the state-on-state conventional war scenario, harking back to the past, rather than facing up to the present, decidedly murky character of counter-insurgency. I see that what I am saying is amusing the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) greatly.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): I meant no discourtesy to the hon. Lady, but I have heard her making similar comments before, and I was merely smiling in recognition of her strong commitment to her case.
Ann Winterton: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. In this House, it is necessary to make one's case not just once, but 250 times, before common sense eventually prevails, so I do not apologise in any way for making the same case for as long as I am here.
What was refreshing about General Richards's speech was his understanding of expenditure. The military sometimes appear to think they have an open cheque book-a situation possibly exacerbated by cross-service rivalry. It is obvious that they do not, and more so now.
From a recent parliamentary answer, I was relieved to learn that the use of mortars is still strong. They are a very effective weapon and considerably cheaper to use than Javelin missiles and guided multiple-launch rocket systems. Guided multiple-launch rockets cost £68,000 each and Javelins cost approximately £49,000 each. We can compare that with the cost of mortars. The cost of a 51 mm mortar ranges from approximately £80 to £160; a 60 mm mortar ranges from approximately £185 to £640 and an 81 mm mortar from approximately £190 to £890, depending on the variant fired. We could get a hell of a lot of mortars for the cost of some of the other equipment.
It must be recognised that in a low-tech conflict, cheaper, less complicated equipment is often more effective and reliable than its high-tech short-lived cousins. That is not to say that technology does not greatly assist; it
certainly does, as has been seen in the enhanced capability provided to the infantry, which I mentioned earlier, and in many other areas. Technology is not always the answer to every problem and it needs to be used intelligently.
As we move nearer to the future strategic defence review, I hope the three areas I have highlighted-safety for our troops, appropriate equipment for the task and expenditure, including affordability-will not be overlooked, but will be fully explored. The UK could then confidently face the future with defence forces cutting their coat according to the cloth of our finances, strategy and responsibilities as an independent nation-at least while we still have a vestige of independence.
The European Union poses the greatest threat to that independence, as the United Kingdom is no longer master of its destiny and the European Union does not have-as this country has had throughout its history-alliances, interests, influence and direct involvement with countries throughout the world. Nor does it have the common purpose that has been the strength of the military covenant between those who put their lives at risk on behalf of us all and those who wholeheartedly support United Kingdom forces both in peacetime and at war.
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