As my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) said earlier, we welcome the responsible way in which we will make a contribution
to this debate. However, there is still confusion around what programmes are included in all this and about the finance. For five years, the Secretary of State has been going around promising larger Armies, bigger Navies, better accommodation and higher pay. Some of his Front-Bench team have even called for higher defence expenditure, although I notice that he has never offered a penny more in relation to any of those commitments. Will he now, with his party and its new Liberal Democrat friends, be straight not only with the armed forces but with the country? We need an effective strategic defence and security review not just to meet our commitments at home and abroad, but to do the right thing by the men and women who daily put their lives at risk on our behalf.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Nick Harvey): This has been a frank and important debate at a crucial time for defence. Many of us will remember Thursday afternoons in the last Parliament when defence debates were typically rather poorly attended by the same people making-I hope it is not too rude for me to say this-the same speeches. It has therefore been very welcome to see so many new faces here and to have that participation. We look forward to seeing a huge improvement in our defence debates to come.
The strategic defence and security review gives us the opportunity to look afresh at the role we see for our armed forces in the 21st century. It is a chance for us to harmonise defence policy, plans, commitments and resources. There is a good deal of consensus in the House on the need for change and there is recognition of the need to take difficult decisions. There is probably even quite a lot of agreement about what some of those decisions will have to be. However, we also have to be aware that the nature of the review and the difficult decisions that have to be taken mean that we will not be able to please everyone. My ministerial colleagues and I are grateful for the thoughtful contributions that have been made today on a wide range of topics, and we will consider them further as the review moves forward.
More broadly, we are engaging with the defence community as a whole-with industry and academics as well as with the charities and volunteer groups that support our efforts. That will include giving an important voice to members of the armed forces, as the Secretary of State highlighted earlier. The crucial thing is for defence as a whole to emerge stronger from the review. If it is to do that, we cannot make changes at the edges. Efficiency savings can be made, but they alone will not fix the structural difficulties in the Ministry of Defence's finances, so we will have to face up to the realities and prioritise.
Structural problems can be resolved only by structural solutions. The review will therefore grapple with fundamental issues. We face a more unpredictable security situation than we have had for many decades. In Afghanistan, which I visited last week, there are clearly many challenges, but I have seen for myself that real progress is being made.
Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con):
On Thursday, 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment- the Vikings-held a post-Afghanistan homecoming parade in Southend
that was attended by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) and me. Will the Minister join us in congratulating the regiment on its achievements? In particular, will he ensure that the troops from the battalion who were injured in the conflict will be properly cared for?
Nick Harvey: I entirely endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments. It was a particularly distinguished tour of duty, and the homecoming parade, which I have read about in his local newspaper, and which was mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), was certainly very notable and shows the depth of appreciation in the communities for the work that those forces did.
It is imperative that we continue to build up the size and strength of the Afghan national security force. That is the direct route, ultimately, to our troops coming home. Sometimes that is not as well understood as it could be. While conducting our strategic defence and security review, we must not lose sight of the importance of explaining our mission in Afghanistan. We cannot make the mistake of assuming that all future conflicts that we will be involved in will be like the conflict in Afghanistan, but in deciding what our armed forces should look like, we must consider what the most likely operations that they will be asked to undertake are. In that sense, the review will be policy led.
There has to be a balance between supporting the needs of today and being prepared for whatever tomorrow might bring. There are many potential tasks that we may wish our military to undertake-each will have its own requirements and could be very different indeed from what is going on in Afghanistan-but we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we can do everything. In that sense, the strategic defence and security review must necessarily be financially aware.
A number of hon. Members have asked questions about how the review will be conducted. Among others, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) specifically asked about the timing of the review, and suggested that it was being conducted very swiftly. I acknowledge that it is being conducted swiftly, but the reason for that is quite simply the financial predicament that the nation faces, and the fact that a comprehensive spending review will take place this October. If we were to wait until after that to start the strategic defence and security review, we would inevitably end up doing so within a financial envelope given to us by the Treasury.
By conducting the strategic defence and security review first, we can make a case to the Treasury on the basis of the foreign policy that has been set out, the security assessment that has been arrived at, and a number of detailed programmes of work on what the armed forces' structure and configuration will need to be to meet those foreign policy and security requirements. There is clearly an absolute necessity to do that first, so that we can battle our corner within the comprehensive spending review from a position of strength, with a thought-through, strategic position for defence, not by chasing along afterwards to an agenda that has already been set for us. For that reason, it is absolutely right that we have to get on and do it as quickly as we can.
Bob Russell: Can the Minister say whether he and his team, as they battle on behalf of the men and women who serve in Her Majesty's armed forces, will ensure that there will be no cuts in the modernisation programme for housing single soldiers and families?
Nick Harvey: I hope very much that all Members who have taken part in the defence debate today and think of themselves as part of the defence community in Parliament will fight shoulder to shoulder to ensure that defence gets the best possible outcome, as we all compete for very limited resources in the coming months. To that extent, I very much hope that this issue will not be too divisive between parties, and that we can help each other towards that goal.
Mr Watson: I am delighted to see the Minister in his post. Will he clarify the position on the mental health screening of personnel? His junior, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan)-a demoted former shadow Deputy Chief Whip-made a Horlicks of it on Radio 4, and we do not know whether the Government are in favour of mental health screening or not. What is the position? Can the Minister put his junior right, please?
Nick Harvey: The simple answer is that the Government have promised a new approach to mental health services to support the armed forces. The Prime Minister has asked the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) to establish the most effective way of improving the care that we provide. On mental health screening, clinical experts have advised that further research is necessary before any new plans are put in place, so we are looking into the matter, but we will come back to the hon. Gentleman and the House on that subject in due course.
A number of hon. Members have, understandably, raised various points of local interest in their constituency, or matters of particular interest to themselves, and that is entirely right. That, after all, is the point of devoting an entire day's debate to the strategic defence review. I was completely baffled to hear an Opposition Member ask when Parliament would get the opportunity to debate the strategic defence review; he was saying that in the middle of a full day's debate on it.
Let me say to the hon. Members for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) and for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), who made points on behalf of the Navy; to the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), who referred to Typhoon; to the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), who talked about the situation of Scottish industry; to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), who raised the issue of the carriers; to the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who talked about the important aerospace industries in his constituency; to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), who talked about the Territorial Army in his constituency; and to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle), who talked about the ship industry, that we quite understand why they made the points that they did. I cannot offer any promises or any comfort to anybody at this stage. We are just embarking on a genuinely comprehensive review. Nothing is completely
safeguarded from it, but equally, no decisions have yet been taken that should give any of those Members specific cause for alarm. We are embarking on a comprehensive piece of work. It is right that they should articulate their concerns, but we cannot arrive at the conclusions at this stage, when we have not embarked on the piece of work.
On the time scale, which Opposition Members are asking about, the work streams are now in place. Hon. Members-and everybody else-have the opportunity to contribute and make whatever representations they wish to make. If there are hon. Members who feel that they are under-informed, and want more information to inform representations that they might make during the review, they need only let us know. Ministers have an open-door policy, and Members are welcome to any further information that they feel they need.
Angus Robertson: During the previous Parliament, the Labour Government provided statistics on employment and expenditure throughout the nations and regions of the UK. Will the new coalition Government give a commitment to continue producing those statistics?
A variety of Members, including the shadow Defence Secretary, raised the issue of Trident. I think that I should clarify as best I can, because there seems to be some confusion-or perhaps I should say that some people seem moderately determined to be a little confused-about the value-for-money review of the existing plan for the Trident successor. It is a value-for-money study of the existing plan. If the study were to conclude that a particular aspect of the existing plan did not represent good value for money, it might start looking at different ways of doing things, but I have to stress that it is not a review in which we look at all the possible alternative ways in which we might provide a successor, and see which works out the cheapest. It is a progress report on the work taking place on the Trident successor project. The Ministry of Defence work on that should be completed by roughly the end of next month. The report will then go to the Cabinet Office, and ultimately these things will be decided by the National Security Council.
This afternoon we heard eight or nine maiden speeches, to which it is my happy duty to respond. If I have missed any, I can only say, with great apologies to those who made them, that they spoke with such aplomb and assurance that I did not recognise them as maiden speeches. The hon. Member for Fylde told us, among other things about his constituency, that Blackpool players tend to live in his patch. I congratulate them on reaching the premier league, and I wish them every success next season, as I wish him success in his seat. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood discussed the neglect of rural areas and the decimated fishing industry. I certainly recognise those problems, and I am sure that we will hear a lot more from him about them.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) gave us an account of Plymouth's naval history, and discussed the work of Combat Stress and others in dealing with the human fallout. He asked whether Ministers would come to Plymouth, and I can reassure him that I am going there this weekend as part of the Armed Forces day celebrations, so it is not being ignored.
The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke told us about the importance of defence industries in his constituency. He told us that he had served in Helmand, and he promises to be a strong advocate for troop welfare. The hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) stressed her naval heritage by pointing out that she had been named after a naval cruiser-that will take some beating. She urged us not to be sea-blind, and I can assure her that we will not be. Her point about the exportability of new naval craft was extremely well made, and it is something to which the Government are committed.
The hon. Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley), as was said, made the place sound quite idyllic. I acknowledge her tribute to her predecessor. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) gave a charming account of her constituency, and made a generous tribute to her predecessor Colin Breed-I thank her for doing so-and to Bob Hicks, the Member before that, whom we all remember fondly. The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr Brine) gave us a geographical tour of his constituency, with which I am familiar. He told us how Chandler's Ford and Hiltingbury had moved from one constituency to another. As a native of Chandler's Ford, and indeed Hiltingbury, I am aware of that change, and I wish him well in his representation of the seat. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) gave us a worthwhile reminder of where Constable country is.
I should like to respond to the points made by the shadow Defence Secretary, which I did not think were justified, about the departure of Sir Jock Stirrup as Chief of the Defence Staff. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that Sir Jock Stirrup himself said that it had
always been his wish to retire at the end of the strategic defence and security review, which was
"an obvious point at which to make the transition."
I quite understand that, while it was thought that that review would last until the middle of next year, it might have been assumed that that was the point at which he was going to resign. However, given that, in fact, it will be concluded at the end of October, that is the natural point for him to go. He has no hard feelings about that; it is a perfectly civilised departure, and we thank him for his very fine service. [ Interruption. ] Any suggestion that he has been picked out as a result of sympathies for the previous Government must come from people who have not met him. Sir Jock Stirrup is about the least likely closet socialist anyone would ever come across- [ Interruption. ]
Mr Speaker: Order. I apologise for interrupting the Minister of State, but if Members wish to intervene they should seek to do so in the conventional way, and they have to put up with the results. We cannot have incessant wittering from sedentary positions .
There were many other thoughtful contributions, and I particularly agreed with the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) that future battles will not all be like Afghanistan. When the Secretary of State says that there are legacies of the cold war that have to be laid to rest, that does not mean that we will focus entirely on Afghanistan and what Afghanistan entails. We must be prepared, as the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, for whatever the future might hold for us and whatever the case might be in three decades' time. That will be the watchword of the defence review. As we look at all our capabilities across the board, we will try to be ready for any eventuality-
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): This is a great opportunity to address the House this evening on a subject that at first blush may seem of only local importance, but which is of wider importance not only regionally but nationally. I am grateful to hon. Members for staying to listen to my remarks. In particular, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), who made her maiden speech this evening. She has been a redoubtable campaigner on this important issue-the quality and scale of housing development in her area and nationally. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) faces the same challenges as we face in Swindon.
To the west, Swindon is bordered by the constituency of North Wiltshire. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) shares a deep concern about what is happening to his rural hinterland. To the east, the Wantage constituency is represented by the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). He, too, has become increasingly concerned about the potential effects of uncontrolled and unsustainable development.
The issue is not only for academics and planners. For the ordinary residents of my town, it is becoming the most important issue in their lives. Swindon has doubtless benefited greatly from expansion and growth in recent decades. Many would agree that its economic success was underpinned by that growth. However, it has now reached the stage where it is difficult to discern which comes first, rather like the chicken and the egg-is it housing development that engineers growth, or is it the wider economy? I am clearly of the view that it is economics and the country's economic situation that fuels the growth of towns such as Swindon, and that housing development, important though it is, is not the engine of economic growth.
We in Swindon are increasingly in danger of moving from a system of predicting growth and then providing houses, to one of providing houses and hoping, like Mr. Micawber, for something to turn up. Until the election and the welcome change brought about by the new coalition Government, we in Swindon were facing an extra allocation of 37,000 new homes in only 16 years, 2026 being the target date. We already have thousands of new homes being developed both to the north and to the south of the town, and many of those who live there do not work in Swindon.
The question that many local people are rightly asking me and others is, "Who is going to live in all these new homes?" Another question they rightly ask is, "Where is the infrastructure going to come from? Who is going to pay for that?" The pressure on road infrastructure, drainage and existing services could become so unbearable that Swindon risks being strangled by inappropriate expansion. Even allowing for the recent recession, housing development locally has proceeded at a breathtaking pace. Although we are nowhere near the heady heights of the middle of the past decade, when more than 2,000 homes a year were being completed, average house completions locally have reached 1,100 to 1,200 a year for the past 15 years or so.