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The Secretary of State seems to have said that a process to examine the value for money of alternatives to Trident has already started and will be all over before the summer. We are only five weeks away from that and from the future successor, but we have heard nothing about it from him or his coalition partners. If we hear nothing at all on this before a final decision is taken, it
will only increase the cynicism that many of us had about the Liberal Democrats' position in the first place-that it was about them trailing their coats in the direction of unilateralism without actually going there. They never had, as I think the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) effectively exposed in his paper, a sensible alternative to Trident. Is there going to be a process and will we be told anything about it, or is this just a way of getting a rather embarrassing chapter in the coalition's creation off the agenda as quickly as possible?
I understand as well as anyone the very difficult decisions with which the Secretary of State is confronted. I appreciate and totally agree that salami-slicing is not the way to go. I agree that a step change is probably needed and that some difficult decisions will therefore need to be taken. I am sure he regrets some of the rhetoric that he used in opposition and some of the promises he made, such as those about a bigger Army and a bigger fleet. Now he is in government, he will need not just to say those things but to deliver them. I hope he will do that in an open manner in which we can all engage, and I think it would be in his interests to do so.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Did the shadow Secretary of State ever consider whether the strategic defence review might have taken place a few years ago? It seems to have taken a very long time to get to, and it might have been quite useful to have had it in 2004. Both parties have said that they would go ahead with it, but did he consider doing so much earlier?
Mr Ainsworth: We carried out a strategic defence review in 1998; we updated it through the new chapter and the White Paper. I became Secretary of State in the late summer of 2009. We committed ourselves to a strategic defence review in exactly the same way as the Conservative party did. We would have been carrying out a strategic defence review in exactly the same way as the Government are. We would be confronting the same difficulties. We would try to be as open and inclusive as we possibly could. I genuinely believe that defence is more than a simple party interest and that it ought to expand beyond that.
Mr Davidson: Surely, the Opposition spokesman would agree that we would not have carried out the defence review in exactly the same way, since he and his colleagues were much more supportive of the aircraft carrier contract than some in the Government are.
Mr Ainsworth: I do not think we will get an answer on specific capabilities from the Defence Secretary-we have not got many answers from him at this stage-and I suppose that that is understandable. I did not expect him to come to the House and be able to tell us today what his conclusions will be. I am asking him-I think this is perfectly reasonable-to share his emerging thinking with the House and not to think that he can present a fait accompli at the end of the day, because that would make things a lot worse.
I want to raise two points of contention. First, the Government announced, and the Prime Minister repeated this in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday, that £67 million has been applied to doubling the number of improvised
explosive device teams. As we applied £150 million to the IED capability in Afghanistan a few months ago and that doubled the IED teams, I wonder how the new Government have managed to double them yet again with only £67 million. We should not be spinning about that; we ought to be clear. I hope we will hear some explanation when the Minister winds up about exactly what that £67 million has bought. Are they re-announcing the doubling that took place under the previous Government, or have they managed by some means or another to redouble an already doubled capability for about half the cost? That really would be magic money indeed.
Secondly, I do not believe that the manner in which the impending resignation of the Chief of the Defence Staff was dealt with was in any way appropriate. To suggest that he is in some way responsible, as it was put, for past failures in Afghanistan or was too close to Labour is quite a sad thing for anyone to have suggested. The existing Chief of the Defence Staff is a man who, as far as I am aware, believes in democratic control. He therefore believes that Ministers ought to take decisions and that commanders ought to give advice. If people detract from that, they do themselves no favours whatsoever.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): The defence review inevitably involves, as we have heard this afternoon, the consideration of abstracts and concepts, but the 300th death in Afghanistan is eloquent reality. As the shadow Defence Secretary indicated a moment ago, for every one of those people, 300 families are in mourning. We have a brief acknowledgement of the sacrifice, but for those families, the sacrifice goes on for as long as they live. Particularly when we see the montages of the 300 people who have lost their lives, we must think about the promise, discipline and service that have been cut down by the fact of their deaths. That is why on these occasions we should think more than in a perfunctory way about what it costs to defend our country and the sacrifice that, sometimes painfully, must be made.
Iraq and Afghanistan have skewed our priorities, but more than anything else, they have breached the assumptions of the 1998 defence review. They have put an intolerable financial burden on the Ministry of Defence, and indeed on the Government's Contingencies Fund. I spend a little time referring to Iraq and Afghanistan because neither the duration nor the intensity of either was anticipated by the 1998 defence review, which was none the less regarded as a successful operation. Indeed, if I may pick up a point that the shadow Defence Secretary made, part of that success was due to the degree to which there was consultation, and the degree to which people were invited in-not asked to make written submissions, but actually allowed to sit face to face with John Reid and George Robertson, and to argue the case with them. If that is not to be possible on this occasion, the Government will, in a sense, be restricting
themselves, and perhaps shutting off a degree of help, assistance and contribution that would enable the conclusions of the defence review to be well founded.
The principles of a defence review are easy to articulate. One must establish the foreign policy objectives or baseline; assess what military capability is necessary to enable one to achieve those objectives; and finally allocate the resources. In 1998, the Government never published their foreign policy baseline, but if they had, it would not have included the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, because that came after 1998, in a speech made by Prime Minister Blair in Chicago. However well founded and well regarded it is, it is an element of British policy, with military consequences, that was not embraced by the 1998 review.
The review envisaged one short-term, high-intensity conflict going on at the same time as a medium-term operation such as peacekeeping, but in fact we had two hot wars being fought simultaneously, plus Sierra Leone-a notable success of Prime Minister Blair's, in my view, and, of course, there was Kosovo, where, it has to be acknowledged, he was responsible for holding the feet of the rather reluctant American President to the fire, thereby producing an outcome that all of us regarded as the best possible.
In spite of the success attributed to the 1998 review, there was a continuing argument about resources and, in particular, helicopters. The reason that I point to that is that we imagine that there is some kind of immaculate conception of a defence review, but the truth is that it is based on assumptions and judgments, and the unexpected will almost certainly be part of the terrain that defence has to cover in the next 20 or 25 years.
There is an element of rush about the review. When one considers the complexity of the issues at stake, setting a time limit of a few months is unwise. I would like the foreign policy baseline to be not only published, but the subject of debate in this House, because it is on that baseline that subsequent decisions will rest. If there is not unanimity, or at least general consensus, on the foreign policy baseline, what comes thereafter will undoubtedly be regarded by some as flawed.
Angus Robertson: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is generous to give way. Does he appreciate that it is not simply carrying out the strategic defence review within the time scale that is problematic, but the fact that the comprehensive spending review and the Ministry of Defence's planning round 11-PR11-are all happening at exactly the same time?
Sir Menzies Campbell: Indeed. During earlier exchanges, the thought occurred to me that, if there were any Treasury Ministers looking in on the debate, they certainly were not getting any encouragement about a willingness on the part of anyone in any part of the House to give up any capability or programme, or any installation or base that happened to be in their constituency.
Sir Menzies Campbell:
No, I will not, because I will deal with the hon. Gentleman in a moment. The central question is: what role do we want Britain to play, and how much, as a nation, are we prepared to pay for that?
On this occasion, the question is: how much can the nation afford to pay? The blunt truth is that a large part of the review will be an expenditure review, and not necessarily a defence review.
I have some sympathy for the hon. Gentleman in his argument about the carriers. The carriers are the answer to this question: should Britain have a global role? However, can Britain afford a global role? If I might offer him a moment or two of advice, perhaps he will find that line of argument a little more compelling than his understandable determination to maintain jobs in his constituency.
Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman not agree, though, that we also have international responsibilities that must be met, including towards Britain's overseas territories? With regard to the carriers, one overseas territory for which we still have a huge responsibility is the Falkland Islands. Given those far-flung territories, we must have the defence capability to meet those responsibilities.
Sir Menzies Campbell: It is all a question of flexibility and adaptability; the hon. Lady will find that in the Green Paper. Take, for example, Afghanistan. We enjoy aerial supremacy there. There is no challenge in the air. That has been enormously important in the provision of close air support or interdiction, in the protection of our forces, and, indeed, in allowing them to take part in the kind of operations in which they are now engaged, but just imagine if there were not host nation support-if we did not have available airfields. The obvious platform from which to provide close air support and interdiction would, in that case, be a carrier, so carriers have enormous utility in a variety of circumstances. That is one of the reasons that I think that we should build the carriers; they provide the sort of flexibility and adaptability that lie at the very heart of the Green Paper. In that sense, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) may find, much to his surprise, that I am rather more sympathetic to him than he anticipated.
In the days of the cold war, we had the four-minute warning. Now we have an eight-minute warning, perhaps almost to the same effect. The reason that I have such enthusiasm for the Green Paper is that the shadow Defence Secretary, then Secretary of State, invited the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) and me to be part of the group of people who considered its terms. We are not responsible for everything in it, but I hope that we made a valuable, or at least valid, contribution to it. Page 32 talks about partnership, and asks
"how we can strengthen European nations' contribution to global security, including through more effectively aligning resources and priorities; how we can further improve cooperation between NATO and the EU"
"whether there is scope for increased role specialisation or capability-pooling within NATO and the EU in order to create a more coherent and capable output".
It is partnerships of that nature that will enable us to provide the all-round spectrum. No one here who I have heard so far has sought to argue that we should finish with one particular capability. There is a determination to maintain an all-round spectrum, but we cannot afford that. The only way in which that will be done is with our neighbours, and as part of a partnership.
On Trident, let me say briefly that my views are well known. I do not see how one can have a value-for-money assessment unless one considers what alternatives are available. In that sense, the review, which the coalition document embraces and endorses, will be much wider than many people think.
These are difficult economic times, with more problems to come, no doubt. The temptation to cut the defence budget is inevitably high. If there are efficiency savings to be made, we should make them, but they must be made in the back office, and not, in these circumstances, in any way that affects the front line.
Robert Flello: Does my hon. Friend agree that something that we should look at very carefully is the number of top brass? Indeed, the suggestion has been made that there are more admirals than there are vessels in the surface fleet.
If we can make efficiency savings in the back office, I am in favour of doing so, but may I take the opportunity to emphasise the fact that there is nothing more important than the defence of our people and the land in which we live? To cut any further our already stretched resources will put our security and service personnel at even more risk. I do not accept that our forces are overstretched, but only because they demonstrate the absolute reverse through their ability to cope. However, they have certainly been under immense pressure for too long, and that simply must not continue.
I have consistently held the view that the defence budget is too small. To cut it now would be unthinkable. Education and health are vital, and it is right that they should be ring-fenced, but their importance will pale into insignificance if our way of life is threatened by terror or, even worse, if we find ourselves under the heel of a foreign power. The difficult question is, as always, estimating the level of the threat that we face, but we must always err on the side of caution and fear the worst. The justification for defence expenditure should be based primarily on necessity, rather than affordability. In conjunction with the strategic defence review, we must look at our foreign policy commitments, because we must decide what sort of country we want to be before we make up our mind on our strategic defence position. We could, for example, model ourselves on Belgium, Switzerland or Scandinavia, and send the message to the world that we do not intend to do anyone any harm, in the vain hope that they will not do us any.
Alternatively, we could growl fiercely at our would-be aggressors, declaring that if they give us a problem, we will sink our sharp teeth into them. One thing is clear: we would be unwise to flip between the two models. It is sensible not to be too aggressive, but Britain's history,
its place in the world, and our culture define us as a nation. For my part, I confess to feeling much more comfortable with an ability to bite potential invaders, as opposed to begging for forgiveness and pleading for mercy.
"replaced by a complex mixture of uncertainty and instability."
That certainly has not changed. The 1998 review was radical, and it reflected a changing world. The reality is that the Ministry of Defence has reformed, and made considerable progress since 1998. Our forces are much better configured to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Change was essential, and there is room for more, to enable us to meet and to defeat the new threats that we face, but such ambitions do not come cheap, and no defence review is effective if it is used simply to save money.
Government after Government have failed to provide the financial resources needed, which is simply unfair on our Army, our Navy and our Air Force, and it just cannot go on. We are extremely fortunate that Britain's armed services have dealt with a lack of resources in most ingenious ways-it is what we would expect-but make do and mend cannot last, and time to train, and to recover, is absolutely vital to maintaining the world-class standards of our forces. I therefore urge the Conservative-Liberal coalition not to make the same mistakes as previous Governments by under-resourcing and over-expecting. If we are not prepared to lay out the resources that will increase our forces' size and complexity, we have a responsibility to downgrade our global role.
I do not think that we should do so, but we cannot have it both ways. As the 1998 review explained, we can decide not to have a significant military capability. What was true in 1998 is even more true today, and we must now add Iraq and Afghanistan to our commitments. We must always be prepared to be able to defend ourselves against threats that we do not expect. For example, the discovery of oil around the Falkland Islands means that we must be ready to defend ourselves against increasing tensions in the south Atlantic. My genuine fear is that coalition government is not exactly the ideal vehicle for the task in hand, especially a coalition as diverse as one including Conservatives and Liberals. I really hope that I am wrong.
An important question is the future of tranche 3 of Eurofighter Typhoon. In the general election campaign, the Liberals said that they would cancel tranche 3, and the Conservatives said that they would retain it-I agree with the Conservatives. It would be interesting to know what the coalition intends to do with Typhoon-and the industry is entitled to know sooner rather than later. The prospects for our new aircraft carriers are another worry, and their acquisition is in the interest of those who will gain useful employment from their construction. Much more importantly, they are vital to Britain's independent defence capability.
We need two aircraft carriers, and we must have joint strike fighters to fly from them, and indeed the support ships to defend them. The Treasury must be quaking in its boots, because all of that will be expensive, but I return to my earlier point: our defence capability must match our foreign policy expectations. If we are not willing to keep our forces up to speed, we should not
expect them continually to perform miracles without resources. In conclusion, the most important job for the coalition is not just delivering an effective strategic defence review, but paying for it.
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