Our edge is our technological advantage, together with the defence industrial base that underpins it. Let us not forget what really counts in conventional asymmetric and hybrid warfare. It is what this country does so very well-it is the men and women of our armed forces. Several right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken movingly of them this evening. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East
Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) used the limitations of the Maxim gun to illustrate the importance of soldiers despite advances in technology, and he rightly said that we have perhaps rediscovered that in current asymmetric operations.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) spoke about the importance of training. Clearly, he has a strong constituency interest, as well as a more general interest in the training of the men and women of our armed forces. He also argued for the return of the Army from Germany. Training is at the heart of the military, and we have seen how ready Ministers have been to economise in their attitude to the training of the Territorial Army. How can it possibly be right for regular Army training to be cut by a third last year? Who will take the rap for the apparently poor preparation for IEDs revealed by the Wiltshire coroner, David Masters, this month?
The hon. Member for North Devon spoke about Mr. Masters's concerns about metal detectors, and he was right to do so. Mr. Masters's court is in Trowbridge in my constituency, and I have met him. He is concerned about the men and women of our armed forces, and he is extremely concerned that we should do absolutely everything in our power to keep them safe. We owe it to our troops to optimise their safety, and we owe it to the mission too, because if this battle is lost, it will be lost on the home front among a British public who may not be up for the fight indefinitely.
I am bound to ask the Minister what sort of interpretation of the military covenant it is that leads to the diversion of funds earmarked from the early 1990s for improvements to the married quarters estate. Much of it lies in a parlous state, as the Armed Forces Federation recently pointed out, and as I have seen in my constituency. It is hardly surprising that when the Prime Minister drops in for a photo-shoot with the boys in desert combats as a politically obliging backdrop, the only smile on display is his rictus grin.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Bill Rammell): It is an unusual experience for a Minister of State responding to such a debate to begin his speech with 55 minutes remaining. I hasten to add that I will not take that length of time for my summing up. In general terms, we have had a good and well-informed debate. I pay tribute to all those heroic men and women who have lost their lives in recent years serving our national interest. We are and will always be enormously in their debt.
We began with a contribution from the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who leads for the Opposition, and who is not in his place. For once, there was quite a bit in his speech with which I agreed. He talked about the situation in Musa Qala, the fact that we are not downgrading the UK effort-I agree with him in that regard-and the fact that we leave Musa Qala in much better shape than we inherited it. I visited Musa Qala three or four weeks ago for the second time in six months and saw for myself the significant improvement in security and safety for the local citizens, which would not have been possible without the efforts of our troops.
The hon. Gentleman argued that 9/11 had completely altered the western view of global security. He is right. He also said that the state-on-state threat to our security
continues, that nuclear proliferation is a real threat and danger, and particularly that we cannot assume that future threats will mirror today's conflicts. As we move from the Green Paper to the general election and to the strategic defence review, we need to bear that in mind.
It was at that point that the consensus began to break down, although not entirely. The hon. Gentleman made some interesting comments on the role of the French, the Germans and the European Union. He said-I think I quote him accurately-that there may be a role for the European Union where NATO cannot or will not act. At that moment, the look of sheer horror on the face of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) was a sight to behold. There was then a contribution from the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who reinforced the scepticism about a relationship with France.
The hon. Member for Woodspring went on, erroneously and unjustifiably, to launch a critique of our record on funding the armed forces. He said-I am quoting-that we cannot afford five more years of the Government's stewardship of defence. I say with conviction that, on the facts, he is wrong. Every comprehensive spending review period has increased defence spending in real terms under this Government. Overall, we have seen a 10 per cent. real-terms increase in Ministry of Defence funding. In addition, we have seen £17 billion through the Treasury reserve for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Let us look-my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to this in his opening address-at what the present Government have done in the past 13 years, and compare and contrast that with what happened in the 18 years that the Conservatives were in power. I have looked at the real-terms changes in defence funding during those 18 years, and regularly there were significant, draconian real-terms cuts to the defence budget: in 1987-88, a 3.88 per cent. real-terms cut; in 1988-89, a 4.3 per cent. real-terms cut; in 1993-94, a 5.5 per cent. real-terms cut.
Bill Rammell: As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State rightly pointed out, there was a staggering 10.24 per cent. cut in 1995-96. Before I give way, let me make it clear that we will not take lectures from the Opposition on defence spending.
Bill Rammell: Just as Oppositions make statements and claims, Governments have the responsibility to act, and this party and this Government have acted in the defence of our overall armed forces. The Conservative party did not do so.
Despite the rhetoric of the shadow Secretary of State, in his calmer moments there has been some candour on these issues. I came across an interview that he gave back in October 2006, when he accepted Conservative responsibility for slashing defence spending. He said:
"I think very frankly we"-
"made some mistakes ourselves in government in that we were very keen to take a peace dividend at the end of the cold war."
"You're saying the last Conservative government cut the armed forces too severely?",
"I think we were too optimistic about the security position world wide following the cold war."
Mark Pritchard: The Minister speaks about responsibility, but let us pause for a moment, because right now our armed forces in Afghanistan are flying around in ageing Chinook helicopters, and they do not have enough Merlin helicopters. Those are serious issues, so will the Minister, for once, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government take responsibility for the fact that, clearly, there are not enough helicopters in Afghanistan tonight?
Bill Rammell: The public expect us to be judged on our record, and in the past three years we have increased our flying-hour capacity and the number of helicopters by 100 per cent. The Merlins recently arrived in theatre, and we have further commitments and plans to increase those numbers.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) has apologised to me, because, owing to a family commitment, he cannot be with us this evening. He raised some concerns about what he described as the politicisation of the military. That does raise a risk of which our senior military personnel are mindful, so the point must be borne in mind. There was a very perceptive article from the renowned academic Vernon Bogdanor in The Times last Friday. Let me be clear that I am not absolving Ministers in any way, shape or form from overall, ultimate responsibility for spending decisions, but Professor Bogdanor said:
"Decisions on the defence budget are taken jointly by politicians, officials and the heads of the Armed Services. None should seek to evade responsibility for decisions jointly taken."
Mr. Davidson: Does the Minister believe that it is simply coincidence when, as we move towards a general election, all those allegedly impartial generals come off the fence and attack the Labour party?
Bill Rammell: I genuinely have the most enormous respect for the military, and I work with them daily. I know that many serving military officers are concerned about an impression of the politicisation of the military, and that is not in the interests of any party in this House or, I believe, our armed forces.
Mr. Jenkin: As it seems that the chiefs of staff went to the Defence Committee and, in their answers, presented the Government's view and line but that when they left the military they said something different, who was politicising the armed forces?
Bill Rammell: I reiterate that I have the greatest respect for the military, and I know that among many personnel there is concern about politicisation of the military. That is not in anyone's interests, and it is certainly not in the interests of our armed forces.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who leads for the Liberal Democrats, commented on the elections in Iraq and on the violence, which I regret. Nevertheless, if we look at where Iraq was and where it is today, we find that those elections demonstrate real and tangible progress that certainly would not have taken place if Saddam Hussein had still been in power.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the inquest into the deaths of Corporal Bryant, Corporal Reeve, Lance-Corporal Larkin and Private Stout. I reiterate what I said last week: my thoughts are very much with the families of those brave personnel who lost their lives serving our national interest. The coroner's criticisms have to be addressed by the Ministry of Defence. The training regime that existed in June 2008 could have been better; we made that very clear. However, we also need to be very clear that there has been a significant and dramatic improvement, with £1.7 billion spent on 1,800 new and better-protected vehicles, and a transformation in the way that we respond to improvised explosive devices.
The hon. Gentleman raised issues about the Falkland Islands. I want to restate our position. There is no doubt whatsoever about the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, and our defensive position in the south Atlantic has not changed. This Government are fully committed to the defence of the south Atlantic overseas territories, and there cannot be negotiations on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands unless and until such time as the Falkland Islanders wish that to happen.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Trident. He wrongly, unjustly and erroneously said that this party and this Government were hell-bent on renewing Trident. Our position-I want to make it very clear to him-is that we believe in seeking a world free of nuclear weapons. We have been, as is acknowledged by independent experts, the most forward-leaning of the nuclear weapons states in terms of disarmament, with a 75 per cent. reduction in the explosive capability of our nuclear arsenal over the past 13 years. We committed to starting the process of renewing Trident and keeping that policy constantly under review because not to do so would have meant effectively committing to unilateral nuclear disarmament at some stage in the future, regardless of the circumstances and of progress in multilateral disarmament.
Bill Rammell: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is the reality, and that is why Members across the House reached the conclusions that they did in the debate on the White Paper. I listened to what he said about the Liberal Democrat position on Trident, and I was no wiser at the end of his comments than I had been at the beginning.
The hon. Gentleman gave a critique of our funding record on defence. The Liberal Democrat party has published alternative Budget statements-not, I have to say, very well-thumbed documents, although I have taken the trouble to read them-and I do not recall any commitment to spend one penny extra on defence compared with the Government's approach. Unless there are proposals from the Liberal Democrats either to raise taxes or to cut expenditure from elsewhere to fund defence, we are hearing from them merely hollow words that carry no conviction whatsoever.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) demonstrated a detailed understanding of defence and defence equipment matters. She argued that given the nature and scale of the threats that we face, we cannot be wholly Army-centric as we look to our equipment and to the strategic defence review. She makes a very good case in that regard.
The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who chairs the Defence Committee, talked about the situation in the MOD in 2005. I do not go wholly down the road of his argument. However, he accepted, with characteristic candour, that if there is a challenge on resources, there is some cross-party responsibility for that situation. He also made an important point about the need for a serious debate on the balance between equipment spend and spend on personnel; that will be one of the important issues for the SDR. I pay tribute, as he did, to the work of the Defence Committee, which does an excellent job of scrutinising the Department and the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) spoke powerfully about the situation in Iraq, the 62 per cent. of people who had voted, and the Government there rightly being held to account. She, too, raised the issue of the politicisation of the military, and stated-I think that I am quoting accurately-that the public are not sure who to believe. There is concern about how quickly some former military commanders have become partisan and politicised, and as I said earlier, that concern is reflected by serving military officers.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) made what he said would be his last speech in the House, and I pay tribute to him for his work as an MP. He spoke movingly, bringing his personal experience to the subject of the price paid by families who lose their children in military service. Nothing that any of us can say or do will mitigate their loss. He also spoke movingly about the dilemma of sending troops into conflict and made a powerful argument in favour of Parliament making that decision.
My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) talked about the courage and forbearance of families and the support for our troops that exists in the valleys. I saw that myself when I was at the homecoming parade for the Welsh Guards the week before last at Cardiff castle. He also imagined a situation in which he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He said that, whoever was Chancellor, there would be a need for the MOD and the military to convince the Treasury that they were capable of spending resources effectively and efficiently. He made a well-reasoned case for that.
The hon. Member for North Essex rightly spoke very strongly about the global role that the UK plays, which is a critical matter to be addressed in the strategic defence review. I am a supporter of and believer in our global role, but we cannot just assert that role. When I speak to my constituents, at first, a majority do not support that global role, and I do not believe my constituents are any different from others. However, after debate and persuasion, people come around to it because they see how it is in our national interest. We all have a job of persuasion to do to convince people of that case.
I am grateful to the Minister for his kind remarks. May I ask him how that global role will be defined? He says that it is something to be decided in the defence review, but does it not go way beyond the
MOD's remit? How will the Government institutionally address that question, and how would he advise the next Government to do so?
Bill Rammell: A strategic defence review is not just a matter for the military and the MOD, just as our Green Paper was not solely an MOD matter. There have to be consultations and discussions right across Government, and foreign policy will inform that debate intrinsically and directly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) spoke strongly about families, and I pay tribute to her for her work in supporting families in her constituency. She also mentioned the importance of the Royal Navy, and I agree with her that there is a false argument that the Navy is no longer relevant.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) said that debt is the biggest challenge that the military faces. If that is the case, and indeed it is a serious challenge, the Labour party and this Government have a credible plan to halve the deficit within four years. The Opposition want to go further than that, and even if they go just one year further, that will mean an extra £26 billion of public expenditure cuts. If that strategy is to be credible, we need an explanation of what implication it will have for defence spending.
There are however areas of consensus. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to see the Afghan conflict through and that we all need to make the case for the mission. He asked me about the FRES programme, and I reiterate what the Secretary of State said earlier: there has been a competition and the process has been long and thorough. We are absolutely mindful of the jobs involved, and there would be a lot of jobs in the UK through both bids. However, it is fundamental from the defence point of view that the decision has to be based on capability. That has to be the overwhelming consideration, and there will be a decision very shortly.
Mr. Arbuthnot: Now that the Minister has the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who is responsible for defence equipment and support, sitting next to him, can he clear up one question? Is the FRES programme dead, as that Minister has told us?
Bill Rammell: As my hon. Friend made clear before the Select Committee, there has been a reconfiguration of the programme. That is what he was describing, and if the right hon. Gentleman looks at the record, he will see that that is what my hon. Friend said. As I said, there is will be an announcement very shortly-
The hon. Member for The Wrekin also asked about the Borona programme and mentioned the allegation of a five-year gap at RAF Cosford. Let me be clear that that is not true; there is no intention to mothball the site. On current planning, the Army will assume ownership of the site, following the Defence College of Aeronautical Engineering vacation, in 2015. It is planned for the 102 Logistic Brigade to occupy the site in 2018.