Previous Section Index Home Page

6.31 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): The hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) suggested that this had been a lacklustre debate. I take issue with him, because the opening exchanges between my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)-as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he has apologised because he is unable to be here for the winding-up speeches-and the Defence Secretary were spirited and feisty. In addition, of course, we have had five splendid contributions from Conservatives, none of which lacked any lustre whatever. Indeed, they were characterised by two splendid valedictories.

The first valedictory was from my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), who, as was pointed out, has given superb service to the Defence Committee, and indeed, once occupied my position as Opposition Defence spokesman at the Dispatch Box. I have been able to learn from him, although any mistakes are entirely my own. The second was from my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), whom my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) described as bringing a "freshness" to the debate. That is not entirely how I see it-she made her case with a stiletto-like performance on the need for armoured vehicle designs that are more likely to save lives than lose them, as she has done so effectively in the past, as has been acknowledged. Everyone in the official Opposition will miss my hon. Friends-although of course we will be in government by then-but we will look forward to their contributions from further afield. I am sure they will not hesitate to continue to give us advice.

There were three valedictories from the Government Benches, including one from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), who is a regular in defence debates. In my experience, he always produces some interesting comments and is a great contributor. If I may say so, in a spirit of cross-party unison, the whole House will miss his contributions to such debates.

Not a single Liberal Democrat Back Bencher made a contribution, but that is par for the course. They do not turn up for these debates. Presumably they are busy with pavement politics around the country. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) did his best to hold the flag aloft, and was joined for a very short time by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). He generally contributes to such debates, and we are sorry that we did not hear from him today.

1 Mar 2010 : Column 709

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North suggested that such debates should not be too partisan. I am sorry, but I think they need occasionally to be partisan. The idea that the Government have not been partisan is rather wide of the mark. I have a rather interesting leaflet, which I gather is circulating in South Ribble. It has the very non-partisan title of , "Vote Conservative And Destroy The Defence Industry." I can tell the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who is looking at me smugly from the Government Front Bench-before he makes his own valedictory and disappears-that that is a scurrilous leaflet. It says that:

We are not looking to scrap a number of defence projects. We are looking to build a vibrant defence-industrial base in this country. However, we will have a proper defence review, from which nothing but the Trident successor will be exempted. The electors of South Ribble have a fantastic candidate in Lorraine Fullbrook, who I am sure will make a splendid job of representing them. Putting out lies on behalf of the Labour party will not help the Government's cause.

Angus Robertson: The hon. Gentleman is ruling out defence cuts under the Conservatives. Will he take this opportunity to rule out closure of important strategic assets, such as RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Kinloss and RAF Leuchars?

Mr. Howarth: We will have a defence review and all those things will be looked at. The question of force structures, as well as equipment, must be examined in that review, and that is what we will do.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth: I am afraid I will not give way to the Under-Secretary: he has not been here for the whole debate.

This debate is about the Government's record on defence, but some say that we are making a mistake in raising that aspect, and I must begin on a positive note. I readily accept that the Government have spent substantial sums on urgent operational requirements, with the result that there is at last some impressive equipment to support operations in Afghanistan. All who have had the privilege of going to Afghanistan have seen the Mastiff, the Ridgback and other items of equipment in theatre. However, I am bound to say that some of that equipment is belated. I raised the question of protective vehicles with a former Secretary of State. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton pointed out, the Government were slow in recognising the kind of equipment that was needed by our armed forces in the field.

In addition, there are some superb facilities at Camp Bastion. I want to put on the record-on behalf of all hon. Members, I hope-that the hospital at Camp Bastion is unquestionably one of the finest medical facilities anywhere in the world. It is a great morale boost to our armed forces to know that if they are injured, that equipment will be available to them and that that is where they will be treated. That is a good confidence-building measure.

1 Mar 2010 : Column 710

However, that is not the complete picture. For the benefit of the record and the country, let me set out that complete picture. This is what has happened on the Government's watch: the number of frigates and destroyers has been cut from the 32 recommended in their own strategic defence review of 1998 to 23, and we have one ship patrolling the whole Atlantic ocean- [ Interruption. ] The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), asks what I would do, but the fact is that I am describing what we are likely to inherit. It is as well that the public should recognise the way in which this Government have run down our armed forces while fighting two wars. The public need to understand that that is what the incoming Government will inherit, and I am going to help them understand it.

One ship patrols the entire Atlantic ocean, and we have seen the effect of piracy in our sea lanes; attack submarines have been cut from 12 to eight; we are down to two aircraft carriers, with one effectively mothballed-it will not be restored to service for at least 18 months; and four infantry battalions have been cut, resulting in the overstretch with which all hon. Members are familiar. Cuts in TA training were reinstated only following pressure from the Opposition Benches: the Government were forced to change their mind and restore TA training.

As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring, £1.4 billion was cut from the helicopter programme in 2004 by the current Prime Minister, against all the advice- [ Interruption. ] It is fine the Secretary of State saying, "We're about to order new Chinooks." That is very welcome, but if that £1.4 billion had not been cut from the helicopter budget in 2004, those helicopters would be in service in Afghanistan today, supporting our armed forces.

Mr. Henderson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth: I will not at the moment, but I will try to do so later, time permitting.

Manpower shortages across all three services amount to 2,500. Vital defence research expenditure has been cut by 23 per cent. in the past three years. Future equipment depends on today's investment, and that investment is not there. Essential Nimrod reconnaissance capability will be progressively abandoned from next month. There is a £6 billion black hole in the procurement budget, thanks to a process described by the Government's own adviser, Bernard Gray, as

Severely wounded soldiers are having to go to court to secure proper compensation. So much for honouring the military covenant. I could go on, but I refer those who wish me to do so to successive reports from the Defence Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office.

Mr. Henderson: The hon. Gentleman and I have talked about these issues outside the House for many years, and we did so a few weeks ago. As he knows, the audience, comprising industrialists in the defence industry from Britain and Europe, made it clear that they did not believe that the Conservatives would increase defence expenditure. The audience asked the very question that has been asked in the House today of the Conservatives. If they do not like these cuts and would reinstate them, what other cuts would they make?

1 Mar 2010 : Column 711

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman will know that we are going to have a defence review, and I will talk about that in a moment.

Above all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring said, the Government failed, in the years of plenty, to fund their own SDR fully, creating a spending bow-wave of tsunami proportions. It is all very well the Secretary of State saying that the war has been funded by the reserve. That is not what he told this House on 15 December. He said:

the enhancements in Afghanistan-

It is not true to say that the Government are funding this campaign out of the reserves. They are resorting to the core programme, which was never intended to be the case.

On any analysis, this country faces lean years. The cupboard is bare and our capacity to meet the unexpected almost non-existent. Military capabilities that we have regarded as essential are being wilfully surrendered. With a public sector borrowing requirement-or national overdraft-of £178,000 million, five times the current defence budget and 20 times the overdraft inherited by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, restoring the health of the public finances will be, and must be, our first priority.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North said that it was difficult to predict the threat that we face, and he is right. Admiral Lord Boyce said in December 2008:

The hon. Gentleman challenged me to set out our vision, so let me do so. The world is becoming a more unstable place, with known knowns-to use the language of Donald Rumsfeld-in Iran and North Korea; known unknowns in Russia and China, and possibly in the Falkland Islands, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) pointed out; and unknown unknowns in terms of energy security, population growth, climate change and, of course, the inexorable rise of violent Islamic fundamentalism. There is also, as has been mentioned, the threat of cyberwarfare. Against this international backdrop of unprecedented threats, what do the Government do? They bequeath their successor a broken society, a bankrupt economy, overstretched armed forces and a gaping black hole in the defence equipment programme. In the last dying days of this decaying Government, the Minister with responsibility for defence equipment and support is haring around the country signing up orders for major items of equipment just weeks ahead of a defence review which is intended by both sides to undertake a root-and-branch review of policy and force structures. Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex that we need that review to establish the strategic concept of which he speaks.

Through all this gloom stands out one shining light, a beacon of success that rightly commands the universal respect of the people across the land and beyond our shores. It is called Her Majesty's armed forces. It is
1 Mar 2010 : Column 712
sustained in large part by Britain's world-class defence industry, which has to be maintained in order to secure operational sovereignty. For the benefit of the Porton Down constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, as well as my own constituents at QinetiQ, can say that I add them to that hall of fame.

If the United Kingdom wishes to retain the power to exercise influence in this uncertain world, we sacrifice those assets at our peril. For the UK to surrender its role in the world would have disastrous consequences-military, political and economic. Recovery of that role would take at least a generation, if it could ever be done. That implies exercising choice, and that is something that we shall have to decide once we have the findings of our SDR.

The current catastrophic state of affairs is the poisoned chalice about to be handed by this Government to the next. The Prime Minister stands condemned as the man who since 1997 has squandered a rich inheritance from the Conservative Party, and a man who has systematically starved the armed forces of the resources they require to do the job. No last-ditch attempt by him to pose as the soldier's friend will undo the damage that he has wilfully inflicted on this country. He has to go. And for the sake of the country, of our beleaguered armed forces and of their families, he should go now.

6.46 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Bill Rammell): In large part, we have had a good and constructive debate, and despite the political hyperbole, there is a greater consensus on defence than is sometimes apparent. I wish to start, as did the Secretary of State, by paying tribute to our brave servicemen who have lost their lives in Afghanistan in recent days. They are Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate of II Squadron RAF Regiment, Rifleman Martin Kinggett of 4th Battalion The Rifles, and Sergeant Paul Fox of 28 Engineer Regiment. We are enormously in their debt for their bravery, their dedication and their professionalism, and they are fundamentally serving our national interest.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) started the debate by saying that 9/11 had fundamentally changed the security environment in which we live, work and operate, and I agreed with him on that, but I did not agree with much else of what he said. He made the erroneous allegation that the Government have not matched those changes with funding. I could go through the record, including the 10 per cent. real-terms increase that the Government have delivered to defence over the past 12 and a half to 13 years, but for the Opposition's critique to carry conviction and credibility, they need to face up to the challenge that they are not committed to spending one penny extra on defence compared to this Government-

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: Probably less.

Bill Rammell: That is the truth. If the Opposition are committed to the same expenditure level, they could set out with clarity and conviction how they would spend the budget differently. Again, there is a deafening silence. As we observe the 26 per cent. poll lead that the Conservatives have mislaid, we see an underlying theme in defence and many other issues: their position does not add up. The general public want politicians who
1 Mar 2010 : Column 713
will deliver criticism, but they also want a credible alternative. We have not had that from the Conservatives in defence or in many other areas.

There was not one word of critique of, or engagement with, the Green Paper that we launched a few weeks ago in the run up to the SDR. It covered the need to defend beyond the home front, the need for a comprehensive approach, the need for partnership with both the United States and the European Union, and the need for more flexible and adaptable armed forces. But on those critically important issues, which will inform the SDR in the early part of the next Parliament, we heard not a word of engagement from the shadow Secretary of State. To me, that suggests that we have not had a serious contribution towards that Green Paper and the SDR process.

Linda Gilroy: I might have missed this while I was out of the Chamber, but does my hon. Friend agree that on neither side of the House has anyone mentioned the role of civilians, such as cleaners, cooks, firefighters and logisticians? Will they, too, receive consideration in the Green Paper for the important role that they play and the important contribution that they have already made to the efficiency savings that I mentioned?

Bill Rammell: I wholeheartedly agree. There have been some frankly quite disgraceful attacks on the role and work of civilians in the Ministry of Defence over recent months. It is important that we place on record the belief of those in the military that they could not do the job that they do without the support of the civilians.

We then had an interesting debate, generated and led by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), who reported on the discussions between the shadow Secretary of State and the trade unions last week. What my hon. Friend said about the lack of clarity or detail from the Opposition about their commitment to the carriers was extremely forthcoming. Let me be clear that we expect the carriers to continue to be a tool that we need. That is why we have signed the contract and cut the steel. That is quite different from the hon. Member for Woodspring, who in this very debate offered no such reassurance and did not deny that he had discussed with union shop stewards his willingness to look at the break clauses on the first day of a Conservative Government.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I am sorry, but the Government's position has now been clarified: they expect the carriers to be part of the programme. That is what we have said as well-that, on current plans and projections, we expect that to be the case-but unlike the Government, we are clear that there is no point in having a strategic defence review unless we are prepared to look at everything and put it all on the table. Are the Government now saying that the carriers will be exempt from their own review?

Bill Rammell: I have made the Government's position on the carriers very clear, but what the hon. Gentleman outlines is not consistent with what the shadow Secretary of State said to the trade unions last week: that on day one of a Conservative Government, they would start examining the break clauses, item by item. That is a very different position.

1 Mar 2010 : Column 714

Mr. Davidson: Surely my hon. Friend was wrong when he said that there was very little difference between the two sides on many defence issues, because we can clearly see that the carriers and the Royal Navy are safe with Labour and sunk with the Conservatives.

Bill Rammell: I agree very much with my hon. Friend, who is an incredibly strong campaigner for his constituents and the carriers. The message that he puts forward is clear and precise.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the Minister give way?

Bill Rammell: I will make some progress, then I will give way.

The shadow Secretary of State also referred to the leaked report from the Chief of the General Staff, but he did not highlight the fact that, in that report, the Chief of the General Staff rightly said that

Next Section Index Home Page