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"The importance of defence within constituencies, but also across the country as a whole, warrants far greater attention from us all."
I agree, and I echo those sentiments. But to give some meaning to the words, will he commit to including an assessment of the economic impact on constituencies of any decisions made as a result of the review?
The new Chancellor may be looking to the defence budget to save billions of pounds, but does he have any idea of the economic impact and financial cost to my constituents if he gets his way on defence cuts?
Alison Seabeck: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is some confusion on the Government Benches, given that the Business Secretary is clearly of the view that it is really important to keep manufacturing in the UK going, yet some of the changes that might come about could have completely the opposite effect?
My constituents watched the demise of their world-class shipbuilding industry under the previous Conservative Government, and I can tell the House that that might have something to do with that party's share of the vote in West Dunbartonshire even today. It has taken not years but decades to try to recover from the devastation caused by the decisions and inaction of the previous Conservative Government. We are only now in the middle of regeneration works on the former site of John Brown's shipyard. As such, Members will understand my concerns, which arise not only from the prospect of cuts to the defence budget but the further damage that is likely to be done to my constituency because of this Government's desire to cut public spending at the expense of vital services.
The Secretary of State should note that some 6,000 jobs in Scotland are dependent on the aircraft carriers alone, along with, I believe, another 4,000 jobs in other parts of the UK. Any slippage in the project could cost jobs and skills, and I urge him to give some reassurance to these workers that their jobs are safe. I mentioned that Faslane naval base is at the other end of my constituency, just outside it. Some 7,000 jobs are based there, and given that the entire submarine fleet of the Royal Navy will be based there in future, I understand that that figure will increase.
There has recently been much gnashing of teeth in the press by SNP Members concerned about the impact of cuts on defence projects and jobs in Scotland. They should stop their crocodile tears, however, because under their plans for an independent Scotland, all UK defence contracts and jobs would be lost. They advocate the scrapping of Trident and, according to reports, would be happy to see Faslane run down to become a small facility. What it would be doing in an independent Scotland I am not quite sure, but perhaps this shows that they agree with the sentiment once expressed on the Conservative Benches that unemployment is a price worth paying.
On that note, I should mention that many of my constituents work at the MOD personnel centre in Kentigern house in Glasgow. I imagine that it will be tempting to target cuts at so-called backroom staff. The Secretary of State should know, however, that the previous Government had already reduced the number of MOD civil servants by a third to maintain investment in the front line, and he should be cautious of further reducing back-up services to front-line staff.
"Defence R&D matters to Britain's manufacturing future because it offers able graduates the incentive to work as engineers and scientists rather than as bankers or analysts."
That is an important point that those of us who support Britain's manufacturing industries should bear in mind. Under the previous Government, the strategic review would have examined what our modern defence needs are and how we can best meet them. I am afraid that this Government will not follow our lead and will instead use the strategic review as a smokescreen for cuts.
Yesterday I attended a service to celebrate Armed Forces day in Clydebank town hall. As this is the first time I have spoken in this place on defence, I would like to put on the record my gratitude to our armed forces, although my words hardly seem adequate. We now have an entire new generation of men and women who have seen active battle, many of whom are from my generation. They are heroic men and women who serve their country with such skill and bravery. Their job is the difficult one; mine is only to speak up for them.
I have the great privilege of representing the wonderful people of Castle Point. As everyone here should know, it is a borough constituency on the north side of the Thames in Essex. The seat takes its name from two of its most prominent landmarks: the ruins of Hadleigh castle, which overlook the Thames, and Canvey Point, the easternmost point of Canvey Island-a true island, below sea level, which fortunately enjoys some of the lowest levels of rainfall in the country. Hon. Members will know that the castle is the subject of a beautiful and haunting painting by John Constable. Indeed, I am often confused by people who say they are going to visit Constable country and then mistakenly head off for Suffolk instead. I very much look forward to being able to show off the beauty of my constituency when Hadleigh downs hosts the 2012 Olympic mountain biking event.
Castle Point has a rich history. Canvey Island hosted an early Roman settlement and was drained by Dutch engineers in the 17th century, and the Saxons fought off the Vikings at the battle of Benfleet. Castle Point's recent political history has been no less interesting. My immediate predecessor was Dr Bob Spink, who was an extremely active Member of the House and an enthusiastic presenter of petitions. In recent years he was associated with several parties, including a short fling with the UK Independence party as its only ever MP, however briefly. He ultimately fought the election leading his own Independent Save Our Green Belt party-an important issue in Castle Point. I have met many people whom he
has helped over the years of his service, and he was a very hard-working Member of Parliament. I wish him the best for the future.
However, no Castle Point MP should talk about the constituency without paying proper tribute to the late Lord Braine of Wheatley, who served the area with great distinction for 43 years and was Father of the House until his elevation to another place. Sir Bernard is still remembered with real affection, and at my first meeting with a local campaign leader I was presented with a 30-year-old copy of Hansard recording his marathon three-and-a-half-hour filibuster as he strove to talk out a railway Bill that would have made more likely the construction of two oil refineries on west Canvey marshes. The development would have blighted the whole borough to this day.
Like a lot of men, Sir Bernard seemed to have no great difficulty talking for three and a half hours without pause. That said, he was helped by supportive colleagues on the Back Benches intervening to complain, after only two hours, that he was pursuing his argument in too hurried and superficial a way, and requesting that he please give more background and context in order for them to get a better grasp of his arguments. I am happy to say that Sir Bernard and the tenacious local residents won the day. The refineries were never built, and one of my first public engagements as a Member of Parliament was attending the formal opening of a superb new Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve where one of those refineries would have stood.
Bernard showed how an experienced and determined Member might use this Chamber to deliver real benefits to the community that he represented, benefits that are well remembered nearly 40 years on-quite a lesson for a new Member like myself. He understood the Castle Point community and saw it grow rapidly as people moved there from London. In doing so, they sought to bring up their families in the safe, green, pleasant villages of Benfleet, Thundersley, Hadleigh, Canvey Island and Daws Heath. That housing development, though, is balanced by the presence of ancient woodlands, heathland, marshes and glens and vital green belt, the preservation of which is hugely important to the local people, who want to ensure that Castle Point remains a peaceful and attractive place to live-a subject I will return to in future debates. As Members may guess, I and my constituents are delighted at the abolition of regional housing targets.
Despite its rapid growth, Castle Point has maintained an exceptionally strong, even old-fashioned, sense of community-something that its people have preserved, and that I as their MP wish to help them preserve. Castle Point residents are very proud of their community, and also fiercely proud of our country-even, it seems, of our national football team. Above all, they are hugely proud of our armed forces and will line the streets for them on Saturday for Armed Forces day. I am delighted that this year, the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglians, better known as the Vikings, will be joining the parade.
The Vikings recruit in and around my constituency and are just back from a third tour of duty in Afghanistan, where they have fought bravely, helping to provide security to the Afghan people and to us in the UK in
turn. They lost five of their number and many more were injured. I had the privilege of receiving last week a briefing at county hall from their senior officers on their achievements during the mission, and was greatly encouraged by the progress they have made on reconstruction and development, on winning over the local community leaders, and on investment in the training of the Afghan national army and police. More than 10,000 Essex people turned out last week to give them a proper Essex welcome, demonstrating their heartfelt support for those who bravely put their lives at risk on our behalf.
However, that support has not stopped those same people from asking searching questions about the mission and equipment, and about the care we give to the injured and their relatives, both in mind and body. Some ask why we are in those locations, what we realistically hope to achieve, and whether all the money and personnel could be better deployed in protecting our domestic security in a more direct way. Like many others, my constituents have experienced terrorism first hand and its changing character over the years. The IRA sought to detonate an oil storage tank on Canvey in the '70s, and many of my constituents work in London and were affected by 7/7.
I hope the defence review gives us a proper chance to look hard at our priorities as we consider how best to make our country secure again, with the background of a diverse and rapidly changing security threat, and the realities of our economic circumstances. My briefing from the Vikings showed clearly the principle that security can be won and maintained only through the combination of military and policing action, negotiation and diplomacy, and aid and investment, and that one should not undermine or work against the other. I hope that the strategic defence and security review, while determining the future shape of our defence and armed forces, will also give the British public confidence that when our brave men and women are sent to war on our behalf, it is for this country's security interests.
I shall close by saying what a great pride I have in representing the people of Castle Point. I offer total commitment to serving them in this House, to repay the trust they have placed in me by sending me here.
Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): It is an honour to speak after so many fantastic maiden speeches, in particular those of my hon. Friends the Members for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), for Winchester (Mr Brine), and for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester on his wedding anniversary. Mine is tomorrow, so I know the feeling of being away from family down here in London. It is also an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who spoke with such passion and authority on the necessity of ensuring the resilience of our front-line units in Afghanistan.
It is well known that the percentage of gross domestic product that we spend on defence is at historic lows. However, as a result of our equally historic deficit, it is now likely to fall even lower. I was a soldier, and I do not want that, but I am a realist on the state of Government finances, so I recognise that the Ministry of Defence must take its share of the pain. I am hopeful that if that
is done through the prism of a comprehensive strategic defence and security review, we can ensure a sustainable balance between resources and requirements.
The SDSR cannot be conducted independently of a thorough review of the defence industrial strategy. A quarter of our defence budget is spent on equipment and services, and our current approach to acquisition is, at best, a mixed bag. The urgent operational requirement system allows for a valuable degree of flexibility and provides a way into the procurement system for our strong phalanx of small and medium-sized defence companies, but in too many cases, the core programme level is a disaster.
At this stage, I must take issue with the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who praised the A400M aircraft. They said that it was a fantastic aircraft with which we should be delighted to be involved. I do not doubt that the aircraft that finally results from the programme will be a fine aircraft, but the acquisition process that has got us to this point is an example of how not to procure an aircraft. It is more than three years late and almos £10 billion over budget, and arguably, it is now considerably over-specced for the initial requirements.
Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), in her maiden speech, noted that the United Kingdom has not exported a naval vessel since the 1970s. Type 45 destroyers were originally supposed to cost something like £280 million each, but they now cost more than £1 billion each. Is it any wonder, given the gold-plating that happens in our procurement process, that we end up with bits of kit that are simply too expensive to export? It cost the previous Government £100 million simply to avoid making a decision on the future rapid effect system for a year. The frictional costs at Abbey Wood have been estimated at some £0.5 billion a year. That would pay for a brigade of soldiers.
I am a strong supporter of the UK defence industry. It is a UK good news story, employing some 300,000 people and representing 10% of UK manufacturing jobs, and these are high-quality jobs-they are high-tech, high-value added jobs. The industry turnover is some £35 billion, of which 22% is from exports. However, the question must be asked whether the current acquisition process is designed to support our armed forces or our defence industry. It is supposed to do both; it is in danger of doing neither.
I am old fashioned: I believe that the defence budget is there to equip and train our armed forces, and to support them in performing their duties at home and abroad. The defence budget is not there to support industry-there are other Departments with that remit. I am not even convinced that the defence industrial strategy as it currently operates is good for our defence industry. We have some of the most successful high-tech, highly skilled companies in the world-companies that are hampered, not helped, by the MOD's constant gold-plating and moving of the goalposts. The MOD too often limits the industry's export potential by specifying equipment that is simply too expensive and too specialised for the export market. I am not arguing for scrapping the defence industrial strategy or for abandoning partnering between the MOD and industry, but anybody who thinks that the current acquisition programme is working is deluding themselves.
Alison Seabeck: I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman, but from the tone of his argument, he seems to be suggesting that those on his Front Bench should perhaps have the opportunity to purchase off-the-peg items from overseas, rather than from British industry.
Dan Byles: There is a balance to be struck. In fact, before the hon. Lady intervened, my very next sentence was going to be: there is a balance to be struck between supporting our vibrant defence industry and ensuring that our soldiers get the equipment that they need in a timely manner. I recognise that there is a balance to be struck-it is not about one thing or another-but we are simply not striking it at the moment. We have to look hard at how we equip and sustain our armed forces, and we must do so as part of the strategic defence and security review, not later as a stand-alone review. I sincerely hope that that will be the case.
Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con): I am glad to have the chance to contribute in such a vital debate and to follow so many fine maiden speeches, most recently from my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Mr Brine) and for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris). I greatly enjoyed hearing about the rich historical heritage of Winchester, and I also enjoyed the fluent and amusing speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point. I now know which is the true Constable country, and I will not be fooled by anybody else's claims.
During the election campaign, defence was, perhaps surprisingly, a major issue on the doorstep in my constituency. There was a strong feeling that our troops had gone into battle overstretched and under-resourced. I know that a strategic defence review is the only way to square that circle, and I am encouraged by what I have heard from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and in particular his commitment to restoring our military covenant. However, I implore the Government to go still further. We have heard, in many fine speeches, from all parts of the House in this evening's debate, great concern about the welfare of our troops when they are off the field of battle, with the issues ranging from health care to mental health provision. I implore our coalition Government to go still further: to be bold and to make the proverbial virtue of necessity.
As the profligacy of 13 years of Labour Government has necessitated this root-and-branch review, let us add something completely new to the mix. I advocated this in my maiden speech, and it would be remiss of me not to advocate it again today. This country needs a Veterans Administration. Tracing its roots back to 1636, when the pilgrims of Plymouth colony established a fund to help disabled veterans of wars with the native Americans, the modern Veterans Administration in the United States was set up in 1930 with a specifically co-ordinating function: to
"consolidate and coordinate Government activities affecting war veterans."
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