|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
" on other departments but he didn't give much to defence."
Somebody who had the benefit of a private education-not Eton like the majority of the Opposition Front Benchers, but Harrow-is complaining about the Government spending money on education for those who have not had the privileges that he had; somebody who, in his 70s, is already older than the average life expectancy in Glasgow is complaining about the Government spending money on health for populations such as mine. He is a man who, days after the Tories said that they would consider the break clause on the carriers, rode in behind them to say that he would cancel them altogether. I think that the Conservatives, having spoken movingly in favour of Lord Guthrie and his right to intervene, ought to make it clear whether his notion of a Navy operating with motorised bathtubs is one that they share or whether they reject completely his proposal to cancel the aircraft carriers.
I want briefly to make three other points, the first of which is to do with veterans. Last week, I had a ceremony in the Tradeston ex-servicemen's club, to which BAE Systems and others came, when we presented a number of veterans with medals. We have had several similar occasions where veterans from the merchant navy, the land army and the Bevin boys have all received medals. I wonder whether the Government would consider introducing a medal for those women who were conscripted and served with the Ministry of Munitions during the war rather than the land army. They served, and their contributions ought to be recognised in some way.
I certainly want to express my gratitude to the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, its Clydeside chair, Jim Moohan, and its Clydeside secretary, Kenny Jordan, as well as Harry Frew, the Scottish secretary of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians. All came along to that event and discussed with me the threat posed to the Clydeside shipbuilding industry by the Conservatives' proposals on the break clauses.
My second point concerns the Falklands. We are often told that we have a special relationship with the United States. Is that special relationship one in which they say, "Jump," and we say, "How high?", or is it more reciprocal than that? How much support can we expect from them on the Falklands? The comments of American spokesmen have not been as helpful as they might have been, and I hope that the Government will point that out to them as quickly as possible.
My final point is about co-operation with allies. I am strongly in favour of joint working with allies to try to cut procurement costs, but, as has been said, bilateral arrangements are by and large much more effective and efficient than the multilateral arrangements that are entered into simply on political grounds, which often result in time and cost escalations. I hope that the Minister will reject the clarion calls from the right hon. Member for Rotherham and Brussels, West (Mr. MacShane), whose view of almost every subject is that more Europeanisation is the answer. On the issue of defence procurement, it is clearly the wrong road.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to commence the wind-ups at such an early hour. We have had a series of good contributions-a total of 11 from right across the House-and, although I tend to get rather cynical sometimes, especially after six hours of sitting in the Chamber, I have to say that they have all been of exceptional value. I must add, however, more in sorrow than in anger, that it is a pity that we did not get any Back-Bench contributions from the Liberal Democrats. If they want to be taken seriously on this subject, as on any other, they need to show a bit more interest.
Mr. Davidson: Will the hon. Gentleman also recognise that no Members from the Scottish National party are present to make Back-Bench or other contributions? That is also very much to be regretted given the importance of shipbuilding in Scotland.
Let me start by discussing the speech of the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). I rather regret that he fudged the issue of the independent strategic nuclear deterrent. He seems to think that we could whistle up a deterrent virtually overnight, but that is disingenuous. I am afraid that it is an example of the Liberal Democrats trying to have it both ways so that they can sing different songs to different audiences. That point was picked up obliquely, and understandably, by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), when she spoke about submarines.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about European defence and I intend to spend some time dealing with that. He also made a point about accelerated senility in relation to equipment, and the fact that urgent operating requirements do not really address it properly. He might have mentioned that procurement clawback is very relevant to that issue and that the two things combined are storing up trouble for the decade ahead, as we address the replacement of kit. His point about senility was well made, however. We first became aware of it in relation to sand and vehicles in Iraq in 2003. It seems that we may not have learned some of the lessons.
The hon. Gentleman wanted minimisation of civilian casualties in Helmand and Kandahar. He is absolutely right to point out that it should be an imperative. General McChrystal has made it clear that it is mission critical. Of course, we have to consider how such things play not only internationally but also on the stage at home. As I shall point out later, the danger is that we might lose the war on the home front. Our domestic audience is keen that we reduce collateral as far as possible, as I know is the case on the ground.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton was savaged by the Liberal Democrats-a bit like being savaged by a dead sheep, but there we are-when she suggested that we need to maintain critical skills. We are probably dealing with our sovereign capability, and she is right to say that we cannot simply invent skills of that sort, as I know full well from my own service: they are of a high order and need to be maintained in one way or another.
The hon. Lady asserted that we need European defence to deal with piracy. Having been nice to her until now, I point out ever so gently that she did not provide much evidence to back up that assertion. A miscellany of nations is operating off Yemen and Somalia, in a highly complex overlapping operation, which hardly depends on the EU except in so far as it relies heavily on Permanent Joint Headquarters, Northwood.
Linda Gilroy: The hon. Gentleman has just referred to the fact that the headquarters is co-located with PJHQ, but the mission is one of more than 30 conducted under the European security and defence policy. He should give more credit to what is happening under that banner.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) talked about the relationship between the state, the public and the armed forces. She cited the case of her grandfather, who is numbered among the fallen of the great war, and she spoke movingly of him. She talked about mental health and the consequences of conflict. She will of course have seen the somewhat troubling answer to a written question that I received recently from the Minister. It outlined the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and the consequences of mental illness. The figures are alarming, and we need to be mindful of the occupational effects of participation in conflict and do everything we can to reduce the toll it takes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) gave a very moving speech about his opposition to the Iraq war and his reservations about Afghanistan. Of all the things I did as a Back Bencher, I am happy to say that withholding my support for the Iraq war was the one I feel most comfortable about. Nothing I saw when I served in Iraq in late 2003 changed my mind about that conflict. Equally, I am perfectly happy-as I know my hon. Friend will be-to be proved wrong by history. The important thing is that parliamentarians made their assessment at the time and voted one way or the other in good faith.
I should declare my interest-I usually do, but have forgotten to do so this evening. It is recorded in the Register of Members' Financial Interests that I am a serving officer in the Royal Naval Reserve.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) cut to the quick, as ever, and asked where the UK should be in the world in defence terms. I would like that debate to be carried to the wider public, because it strikes at the heart of where we should be right now. We need to determine what we are and where we are going to be, whether we are to continue to be a player on the global stage or, indeed, whether we are to retrench. Upon that we can base our future spending commitments. In the minds of many, although not in my mind, is the question whether we have indeed reached another "east of Suez" moment.
We look forward to the Prime Minister being called back before the Iraq inquiry for a more forensic examination of the role he has played in curtailing defence spending. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State giggles-I am not sure what we should read into that-but let us dispense with the fiction that the defence budget has been rising every year in real terms. We now know the inconvenient truth, which flatly contradicts the Prime Minister's assertions about increases throughout his watch and, crucially, those previously claimed between 2003-04 and 2004-05. The evidence of senior officials and soldiers, and that of the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), about how resource accounting and budgeting was applied in those vital years and the impact that cuts had on airframes in Afghanistan is devastating. RAB lives on. It is an artificial accounting construct that charges top-level budget holders interest on assets and makes it extremely difficult to hedge equipment and skills against future contingencies. It is a mechanism ideally suited to fighting today's conflicts, but serves poorly our defence against potential conventional threats of the future.
Several hon. and right hon. Members spoke around the issue of procurement, as well they might. The UOR experience has taught us that efficient procurement is
possible and that getting 80 per cent. effect is good enough if it is delivered on time and on budget. It has the added advantage of sidestepping the conspiracy of optimism that binds together officials and industry in a "bid high spec, bid full spec" compact with "bid low entryism" in the full and certain knowledge that, once in the equipment plan, projects are rarely deleted or changed. In the back of every contractor's mind is the potential to claw back against the MOD-against a tight contract that both parties knew was untenable.
US overruns and cost ceiling breaches result in the US Department of Defence being hauled before Congress. Here, nothing much seems to happen, although in the House 10 days ago we voted for stronger Select Committees. Perhaps the authors of our procurement failures should be arraigned formally before the House of Commons Defence Committee. There will be no shortage of work. If our highly complex, multi-billion pound North sea oil industry can procure what it needs efficiently, so can the MOD.
Several hon. Members spoke around the subject of aircraft carriers-the hon. Members for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), for Plymouth, Sutton and for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson). I enjoyed my exchange with the hon. Gentleman and fully understand his partisan need to create between the Government and Opposition a gulf on the subject of aircraft carriers, although I hope our exchange clarified some of that. In so doing, I am afraid, he does a disservice to his constituents. His rhetoric is, in my view, irresponsible, and it is unkind. He should go back to his constituents and tell them that the positions of the Opposition and of the Government are extremely similar, if not identical, and explain why Ministers-his Ministers-wrote in the break clauses that he is waving like a shroud in Glasgow.
The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is not in his place- [Interruption.] I have no idea where he is, which is a pity, as I owe him a debt of gratitude because he mentioned Europe. That gives me an excuse to talk about it. The right hon. Gentleman talked a great deal about it, which is unsurprising; he often does. Conservatives are usually accused of banging on about Europe, but there are hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the Labour Benches who are just as capable of doing that as I am.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly dispelled the myth about the Exocet and 1982. He might, of course, have mentioned Belgium in rather less flattering terms, but we will let that one pass. He also talked about procurement, but although he rightly said that many European countries make things, he was unable to articulate who in Europe actually does the spending on defence matériel.
"I...want the European Union to show what it can do when it focuses on outcomes rather than institutions".-[ Official Report, 4 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 437.]
That is a sentiment I think we would all share. The suspicion that I think he was touching on was the suspicion that a nascent EU military identity is viewed as a building block taking us towards the goal of ever closer union, rather than as a means of force generation.
It is hardly surprising that the head of the European Defence Agency, of which there has been much press coverage this weekend, concluded of the six-year-old agency that although there had been a "slow start",
"we are starting to see real progress."
In Committee last year, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who was here earlier, spent some time trying to convince me that the EU had brought peace to Transylvania. Truly, time spent on the Committee corridor is rarely wasted. We were at it again on 1 March, when he and I debated upstairs what forces the EDA had managed to generate. He was able to offer only three antique eastern European helicopters. I recall discussing those self-same airframes with the NATO Secretary-General during a visit to Brussels a couple of years ago. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) was at the same meeting.
Progress at the European Defence Agency has indeed been exceedingly slow. European procurement collaboration has been characterised by excessive costs and elastic time frames. It seems that complex undertakings such as the A400M and the Eurofighter are allowed to proceed only at the pace of the slowest, so the UK-the country that spends most on defence and, of that spending, the most on procurement-suffers disproportionately. A wise Government will treat with tried-and-trusted peers and view with suspicion permanent structured co-operation, with its invitation to the sleeping partners of the European security and defence policy to enjoy cover without paying the premium.
Several right hon. and hon. Members discussed the MOD in one way or another, and a surprisingly large number were really quite cutting about the top brass-senior officers, both serving and retired. Let me list those Members. The right hon. Member for Rotherham appears to have been somewhat surprised to have sat down in standard class with a major-general, late of the Irish Guards. I suspect that the gallant gentleman was as alarmed as the right hon. Gentleman. It is worth while putting on the record that it is now common practice for senior officers to travel standard class, so the right hon. Gentleman should not have been that surprised.
The hon. Member for North Devon also mentioned top brass, as did the hon. Member for Bridgend, who thought that they were biased. It is funny how people think that others are biased only when those others do not happen to agree with them. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) mentioned top brass, too, as of course did the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West, who attacked the noble Lord Guthrie for going to Harrow.
More generally, MOD reorganisation has been talked about today, and not specifically with regard to those who have lots of stars on their shoulders. Having been unkind about the European Defence Agency, I will express my indebtedness to it for some interesting facts. For example, we learn that the UK has four times more officials to uniformed personnel than Germany. Fortunately, it seems likely that the head count at the MOD will come under scrutiny in the course of both strategic
defence reviews that have been promised. I hope that we will benchmark against other countries, particularly Germany.
Cutting numbers may be necessary, but it is certainly not sufficient. We must undertake a root-and-branch appraisal of the way in which the MOD supports defence output, and central to that is an attack on tribalism. The most obvious tribalism is service tribalism-perpetrated, I have to say, by the service chiefs in a way that percolates right the way through the services that they represent. If I am going to take a swipe at the top brass-it seems to be de rigueur to do so in today's debate-it would be on that subject.
There is another sort of tribalism, which is as insidious a form of tunnel vision. Campaign tribalism is the dangerous idea that Britain now and for all time will be engaged exclusively in asymmetric warfare against Islamic fundamentalism, which truly threatens the defence of the United Kingdom. We look to a strategic defence review to establish an appropriate centre of gravity for our defence posture. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton touched on that in advocating preparation for conventional warfare.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney discussed deficiencies in the MOD, and said that we are spending money inefficiently. As I have said, he was somewhat critical of generals who appeared before the Defence Committee, and who apparently said one thing then went off and said something else when they retired. There is a learning point in this, because we are accustomed to and, indeed, benefit from the can-do attitude of our armed forces, which goes right through the military. There is sometimes a tendency for serving personnel to be positive about what they are asked to do with the resources that are available to them. As we are required to examine the evidence and consider what we are told, it is incumbent on us to moderate and allow for that natural tendency. I would therefore tell the hon. Gentleman that the fault, if there is one, rests just as much with our failing properly to interpret the evidence that is presented to us, just as much as it does with their presenting the evidence in the first place.
Mr. Havard: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that I also made a suggestion about how we might resolve some of the real conflicts for serving officers so that they can say things publicly? There are ways in which the parliamentary process could allow that to happen in future-it has not happened in the past-to help to resolve the problem.
Dr. Murrison: I absolutely acknowledge that. As I said in passing, the House has recently strengthened the Committee structure, so perhaps that might be part of that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned giving evidence off the record as a way of addressing the problem, given the highly sensitive nature of some of the things with which we deal.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|