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I would not have given way to the hon. Gentleman if I had known that his intervention was going to be a boring repetition of things that are said repeatedly. I will come to the substantive point that the Chair of the Defence Committee raises in a while. I do not underestimate the difficulties that the Government face and the hard choices that need to be made, but they are not going about this in the way that will capture the support of the country, of the armed forces and of Parliament as a whole, and that will enable them to do
as good a job as they can in the circumstances. If Government Members were to stop and reflect on that, they would know that what I am saying is true.
The Government will need to address the failure to consult the public and the broader defence community, as identified by the Defence Committee's report. The failure to consult industry properly will have a serious impact on the ability to supply equipment to our armed forces. The Government appear to have stopped their work on acquisition reform, and will publish their industry and technology policy only next year. They cannot treat procurement and industrial capability as an afterthought; it must be an integral part of the strategic defence and security review.
The Defence Secretary has undergone a remarkable transformation since being in government. He has gone from being Oliver asking for more to being the Artful Dodger, ducking responsibility for his decisions. As entertaining as that spectacle has been, I would prefer to have a Government who acted like a Government. Before the election, the Conservatives called for an extra three battalions for the Army and more helicopters-how many times did they demand more helicopters? They also called for more vehicles and more ships. They now claim that they did not know what the financial position was, but that simply does not stand up.
I say to the Chair of the Defence Committee that we all knew that there were pressures on the defence budget. That is why we commissioned the Gray report and why I took the tough decisions I did last December. I decided not only to prioritise equipment for Afghanistan, but to reduce, ahead of the strategic defence review and to the degree that could be done outside an SDR, the pressures on the defence budget. What was the response of Conservative Members? They howled their disapproval at the cuts that were being made. They knew the situation, they knew the general financial framework of the world markets and what that had done to the British economy, and they knew that there was overheating within the defence budget, yet they continued to howl for more. As a result of what they said and did in the run-up to the election, there is not a member of the armed forces-not one-who would have believed that a Tory Government would not have brought extra funding. The Conservatives told people that efficiency savings would be all that was needed to deal with the budget.
Now the tune has changed but the methods are really quite worrying. Every week in the Sunday papers-rapidly, it is becoming each day-we are treated to more and more briefings dripping out of Whitehall. Will the carriers go? Will the Royal Marines be brought under Army command? What is the future of the joint strike fighter? What about the Tornado? It is government by leak and spin despite all the noble talk.
Nobody is laying out the options. Nobody is explaining the dilemmas to the country, to industry or to the armed forces. Nobody is pulling together and presenting a coherent plan. That is not the way to conduct a strategic defence and security review.
The shadow Secretary of State is right to compliment the Defence Committee Chairman's outlining of the fears that cutting too quickly will hurt even more. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that
one effect of the leaks and stories before the announcement is that they are damaging morale, particularly among those people who are training for the long-term future and who will be posted overseas into combat? Morale has been affected hugely, and any hasty cut could also end up costing the country more money in the long run.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Before Mr Ainsworth replies, may I say to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn that we must try to have short interventions? A lot of people want to speak and there is a lot of interest in the debate, so I appeal to all Members to make sure that interventions are short.
Mr Ainsworth: I would say to my hon. Friend that the people in our armed forces are pretty robust and they can put up with an awful lot. I do not overly worry, having got to know them over a three-year period, about their morale. However, they are worried and they do not believe that they are consulted, and that goes for every rank and for every level of the armed forces. They do not believe that this process is being carried out in anything like a reasonable way. They do not believe that they are having an input, and that goes for industry too. Anyone who talks to the defence industry will know that it is worried about the sequential way in which the Government are going about this, instead of the holistic way that is necessary if they are going to take the right decisions and to capture all the complexity of the process.
On our nuclear deterrent and the latest piece of spin, I do not believe that the BBC is wrong. I do not believe, either, that some special adviser is responsible. I believe that somebody high up in the Government is casting the bread on the water and is thinking about delaying the replacement in the way that is being reported.
Let us be clear about the consequences, which were so well laid out by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) on the radio this morning: short-term savings, massive long-term costs-one might ask what the Conservatives have been complaining about, yet here they are talking and thinking about such things-industrial interruption, safety risks and a very real risk to our ability to maintain a continuous at-sea deterrent. In short, it makes no sense operationally, industrially or financially. As the hon. Gentleman said, one can decide to have a deterrent and one can decide not to, but delay makes absolutely no sense at all.
Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): I very much support the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex on the radio this morning, but I feel that the shadow Secretary of State's comments would have far more gravity if he had pushed forward with the review of Trident rather than waiting until after the election.
The hon. Gentleman was not here in the last Parliament. He will know if he looks at the record that we took decisions on Trident in a timely way in 2006 and that we put work strands in place. Those work strands cannot be significantly disrupted without massive industrial consequences. We have a skill base that is pretty unique and capable of building those submarines. We lost it before and we had to rebuild it. If we lose it again, we will have to rebuild it again, but
perhaps the Government do not want to do that. Perhaps they are seriously trying to get rid of our nuclear deterrent without a debate. I do not know, but all I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that the person who cast the bread on the water this morning is either a total fool for proposing the delay in the way that they are, or there is some other agenda. The other agenda must be either to get rid of or to reduce massively our deterrent. Perhaps that is a debate that we should have, but I do not understand the common sense-neither does anybody else who knows anything about it-behind the trailing, spinning and leaking that has gone on.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): May I seek to reassure hon. Members on both sides of the House who are firmly committed to the continuation of the nuclear deterrent, given that I was my party's spokesman on this issue for many years, that both I and the Secretary of State for Defence came into politics primarily to ensure that this country would always have nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them? I cannot answer directly for the Secretary of State for Defence, but I would be amazed if he remained Secretary of State for Defence if a decision of the sort that was aired on the BBC were to be taken in defiance of all the pledges given to the electorate and given to Conservative MPs by our leadership when we were asked to join the coalition.
Mr Ainsworth: Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that I do not believe that the current Secretary of State is the person who is responsible for casting the bread on the water and doing the spinning this morning. The problem that we have is the same problem that we have in dealing with the strategic defence review-not only are the Government not talking to industry, the armed forces and the country, but their members are not talking to each other. I asked the Secretary of State on Monday if he would repeat his unequivocal support for the Trident replacement. Not only did he do that, he absolutely leapt at the chance. However, within the hour, the Government's position was being clarified and now we have the situation that we are in today.
To coin a phrase, we can't go on like this. We need the Minister to have a Government position-not a Liberal Democrat position-and to give that position to the House so that we know exactly where the Government stand. Let us stop hearing all this nonsense through the BBC and from leaks, spins and so on.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): The shadow Secretary of State mentioned that he would be happy for there to be a debate on either side of the argument. Will he confirm that his party's Front-Bench position is to keep Trident and to maintain our nuclear deterrent?
Mr Ainsworth: We had a manifesto that I helped to write. The Conservatives had a manifesto and the Liberal Democrats had a manifesto, which was the only one that caused confusion. I think that that confusion was deliberate-they were trailing their coats to those who use the unilateralist argument on the one hand while trying to reassure other people that they were doing no such thing on the other. Their proposed alternative does not appear to me to make any sense whatsoever. What I am saying to the Government is that if they are changing their position because of the financial circumstances, they ought to have the decency to share it with us.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is obviously right to raise what could be a very serious issue. The suggestions in the press, none of which have been confirmed, are that the decision to place the major contracts on Trident could be delayed until the next Parliament, which is presumably due to begin in 2015. As the major contracts at the moment are only expected to be signed in 2014, I hope he would agree that a 12-month delay would not be that serious and might allow the decision to be taken in a more favourable economic climate. If, on the other hand, the Government were contemplating a five-year delay beyond 2014, we would be in a very different situation.
Mr Ainsworth: Or even in a more favourable political climate. One of the difficulties is that people accept the reasonableness of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said and do not think it is a very significant decision. He needs to research this matter because, when it comes to building submarines, we have slowed the drum beat down so much that our ability to slow it down further simply does not exist. There is already a gap and we will lose the capability, which we will have to recreate-if we want to do so-at considerable expense to the taxpayer. That will not be for years to come-it will not be in the next two or three years-but down the line the expense will be massive and the kind of overheating in the defence budget that the Chairman of the Defence Committee complains about will have been hugely exacerbated.
John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree not only that we must seek to learn the lessons of history, after the Vanguard was not replaced quickly enough with the Astute programme order, but that if the same mistake were repeated, the dangers would be even greater given the civil nuclear programme that we hope will be carried out in parts of Cumbria and across the UK, and given the greater danger of drawing skills away from the Trident successor programme?
I know there is a lobby within the armed forces for such a decision. The Treasury's decision to transfer the cost of the deterrent to the MOD budget has been described by some as game-changing. If that decision is being taken, it cannot be taken in a hole in the corner; there has to be proper debate. The Government cannot do their business in that way. If they are seriously thinking about changing our posture, that is a profound decision for Great Britain to take and they will not get away with doing it in secret. We created our nuclear capability in secrecy, but we are not going to abandon it in secrecy because that is not the way of the world nowadays. Nobody is going to be allowed to do that. It will need to be done openly and properly, if it is to be done at all. I am worried that there is quite a lobby for it, which I can understand because people are worried about their ability to maintain other capabilities in the circumstances in which the armed forces find themselves, but we come back to the process and what the Chairman of the Defence Committee said: the Government need to do things in an open, embracing and proper manner, and not in the way in which they are doing things now.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman knows that my views are rather different from his, but I applaud his call for an open debate. On whether the funding should come from the defence budget as presently constituted or from some other source in Government, which does he believe to be the correct course?
Mr Ainsworth: I have said to members of the armed forces that to some degree that is academic because it all comes from the same pot at the end of the day. The understanding has always been, and the structure of the defence budget is, that the defence budget pays for the running costs of the deterrent and the Treasury pays for the capital costs of replacing the deterrent. If the budget were transferred without a dowry of some description to offset the costs, the issues would be pretty profound for the rest of defence capability. Which pot the money comes from is a matter of Government accounting. What I am saying is that if these pretty profound decisions are being seriously considered-if they are just about delay they do not make sense, but if they are about something else they are core to Government policy-then they ought to be discussed openly and not attempted through any sleight of hand.
I have gone on for too long and many hon. Members wish to speak. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] With the discomfort that there is on the Government Benches, I see that people want me to move on, so let me address one final issue-the welfare of our armed forces. As well as it being the duty of any Government to repay and honour the sacrifices of our armed forces, it is also essential to retain world-class forces. No matter how many fast jets, tanks or other equipment we have, they are nothing without the incredible people who operate them. We introduced many reforms when we were in government, including a sustained investment in accommodation, the doubling of compensation for the most serious injuries and the provision of greater access to education, housing and health care. As a Government, we were determined to honour our duty to those fighting on the front line and as a party we will support the Government in building on those achievements. That is why I am glad that they have adopted our election proposal of enshrining the rights of our service personnel in law, but so far we have seen no detail. When will the Minister present his Bill and what will it include?
I know that many Conservatives are concerned about what the coalition's cuts will do to those in the most need of support. Does the Minister have the same concerns about the impact of those cuts on our armed forces? His party, and he personally, promised to increase the pay of the lowest paid in the armed forces so that nobody would be paid less than £23,000 a year-I am sure he will remember that-but the Government's pay freeze will hit all those who earn above £21,000. It seems that not only the Defence Secretary is undergoing a transformation.
The review will be pivotal for the future of our nation and for our armed forces. It must be carried out in the right way, for the right reasons, as determined by our long-term strategic needs. No matter what the Defence Committee Chairman says, I know that he agrees that it must not become simply a cost-cutting exercise in which the Treasury calls all the shots. Sadly, the signs are not promising.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Nick Harvey): I commend the Backbench Business Committee for choosing this topic for debate today. After Afghanistan, which we debated last week, there is no more pressing business for the Ministry of Defence than preparing our armed forces for the future as part of the cross-departmental strategic defence and security review. As we debate today, we should keep foremost in our minds the 9,500 men and women of our armed forces currently operating at the sharp end in Afghanistan. Our armed forces are professionals who are fully aware of the risks of their job and they accept those risks to protect our country and its citizens. They do not choose where they are sent or what they are asked to do on our behalf. That is what makes their dedication and commitment awesome in the true sense of the word.
We should also keep in our minds those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, including those who have recently died as a result of serving in Afghanistan, as set out by the Prime Minister in the House. Neither should we forget those who have been injured both in mind and body. I pay tribute to all those who are currently serving and those veterans who have served in the past; they do and have done so much to keep us safe and ask so little in return. That is why we in the House have a responsibility to ensure that when we take decisions on the future shape of our armed forces, we do so not only to ensure the safety of the country but to honour the commitment of our armed forces.
I want to ensure that hon. and right hon. Members have as much opportunity as possible to contribute to the debate, so I shall take Mr Speaker's injunction to keep my remarks necessarily brief. We are at a crucial stage of the SDSR and although no final decisions have been taken, the tough choices that are required are now imminent. The Government will publish their findings from the SDSR later this autumn, in co-ordination with the outcome of the cross-governmental spending review. I am sure that Members will understand that I shall not be able to answer specific questions on equipment or force levels today, but this is an opportunity for those Members with concerns, whether they relate to a constituency or other interest, to articulate them in time for them still to be considered.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He drew attention to Afghanistan. This debate takes place as soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade from Colchester garrison are being deployed to Afghanistan for the fourth time. The second recommendation in paragraph 11 of the Defence Committee's report goes thus:
"The capacity of the country even to sustain current in-use capabilities and therefore current operations could well be put at risk by the proposed cuts of between 10% and 20%."
I understand the concern that the Select Committee flags up and the reasons why my hon. Friend raises that point here today, but whatever else happens in the SDSR, the Government are absolutely committed to the priority for Afghanistan, and nothing will be done to undermine the efforts of our front-line troops there, nor the way in which they are equipped or
supported. That is our paramount, top priority; it remains defence's main effort and, whatever decisions are taken for the long term, none will be taken that will undermine in the short term the work that we are performing on the front line.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): In a recent interview with The Press and Journal, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that the social and economic consequences of any base closures or rundowns would be taken into account. Will the Government publish those assessments?
Nick Harvey: The Government-the Treasury in particular, but all Departments-will take seriously the economic consequences of all the decisions that are taken in the comprehensive spending review. If there are consequences that need to be addressed, every possible effort will be made to put in place remedial measures. How precisely the Government Departments that are responsible for such measures will approach the matter will be explained in due course. It is not predominantly an issue for the Ministry of Defence. All the decisions that are made across all Departments will have consequences, and the Government as a whole will do their utmost to address those consequences.
Mr Gray: The Minister will know that I am very concerned about Lyneham. While I, of course, accept what he says and understand that Departments are answerable for their decisions, does he accept that the communities that live around bases have given their wholehearted support to their base, so it is only reasonable that the Ministry of Defence-not other Departments-should be ready to say what it believes the economic consequences of a base closure will be and what it will do to support the communities thereafter?
Nick Harvey: My hon. Friend is allowing himself to go into the realms of speculation. We will have to await the decisions. He has known what is in the pipeline for RAF Lyneham for some time and of course any decisions that are taken will have economic consequences. My hon. Friend must keep his powder dry and see what exactly is decided about Lyneham, as other hon. Members will have to do about those bases or industrial issues that they hold most dear. Hon. Members have an opportunity to make these points today. We will listen; we will take them into account. However, despite the speculation in newspapers or elsewhere, it would be absurd for a Minister part way through a process to enter into some sort of running commentary on every twist or turn.
Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): My hon. Friend said a few moments ago that we were all entitled to have our input into this process. On behalf of my constituents who are likely to be affected by the review I should like to know whether there is a cut-off date for our input into the process.
Nick Harvey: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Let me say that a vast number of representations-almost 7,000-have been made by members of the public and the armed forces, industry, academics, Members of Parliament and others. There is a cut-off point, and it is the end of next week, so if he or his constituents have any further points that they wish to make, I urge them to do so in that time frame.
I recognise that many in the House have strong views about our armed forces, deep attachments and a pressing need to represent the best interests of their constituents, from reserves to regiments, from equipment to the industrial base. This is the strength of our parliamentary system-every citizen has someone here to fight for them. So we will take into account everything that hon. Members have to say. There will be a broad range of views, and they will be considered as decisions are made on how to deliver the future strategy for national security as effectively and efficiently as possible. Even at this late stage, we are still listening, and all the issues that are raised in the debate today will be given the consideration that they require.
The Foreign Secretary has set out in this House and in a speech yesterday the distinctive British foreign policy that the coalition Government will pursue. He set out our assessment of the nature of the world in which we now live. It is a networked world in which power balances are shifting, with new rising economies and new forms of diplomacy that are eroding the traditional influence that Britain has enjoyed in world affairs. This is happening at a time when the potential threats to our security are grave. So in particular we need to recognise that multilateral operation with allies and partners, underpinned by the rule of law and the pursuit of human rights, is the best way to achieve British interests. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said:
"our interests depend on a world system based on law. We need states not to proliferate nuclear weapons, to respect the sovereignty of others, to abide by international treaties and to support legal sanctions by the international community."
So we will look to enhance relations as well as develop new partnerships with others across all aspects of national security and areas that are of strategic importance to the UK. This is also at a time of serious constraints on our national resources. We have to work even harder as a nation to maintain the position of the UK economy. It is our economy that provides the prosperity of our citizens and in turn provides the resources for the pursuit of our national security.
Robert Halfon: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He mentioned the role of reservists. Will he confirm that the review will look at strengthening the Territorial Army, especially after the budget cuts under the previous Government and the closure of the TA base in Harlow?
Nick Harvey: I have made it clear that I do not intend to be drawn into speculation about the outcome of the review, but let me state for the record that the Government attach the greatest significance to the contribution made by our reserves. They are an absolutely vital part of our capability and will continue to be so for decades to come. We are determined that they should be able to do that from a position of maximum effectiveness.
Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and for those rousing words. In deciding what future there is and how much defence capability should be put into reserves, two things are crucial. The first is that we recognise how much cheaper they are and the second, equally important, thing is that it depends on the offer to the officers and NCOs. It has to be an attractive, interesting job if we want to get the right quality of leaders.
The economic context of this security review is one that we cannot ignore. Next year the interest bill alone for the debt that Labour has left the nation will be more than £46 billion-more than the entire defence budget for the UK. Unfortunately, defence cannot be immune from the fiscal challenge that we face, especially when other Departments face strict cost management. As the shadow team knows, the specific challenges in defence are immense, and that is in no small part due to the fact that it bequeathed a forward defence programme with a £38 billion black hole between its commitments and the budget put in place to pay for them. They sat there making future commitments in a manner that resembled a child writing a Christmas wish list to Santa, and they had absolutely no idea how they were going to pay for it all. So on top of the deplorable economic legacy that the previous Government have left, specifically in defence they left a £38 billion black hole-a gap between their forward programme and the forward budget, and that is the size of the challenge facing the new Government.
Mr Jones: No, I am not, and I am also not going to allow the hon. Gentleman to con the British public into thinking that that £38 billion is a debt that is there to be paid today. I find this a bit rich coming from the Conservatives, who in opposition, right up until the general election, were calling for a larger Army, a larger Navy, and extra expenditure. Will he be truthful with the British public and say that the figure he is quoting is actually spread over the next 10 years?
Nick Harvey: The figure is certainly spread over the 10-year period of this review. The gap between the commitments that the Labour Government made and the budget that was in place to pay for it is £38 billion. Before the election, both Opposition parties charged the Government with doing just this. We did not know the scale of it, and it turns out to be even worse than we had charged. We therefore have no choice but to face the gravity of that legacy and set about the task of trying to build future defences that are coherent and effective, but doing so against that budget background. We hear that different Government Departments are being asked to indicate what it would entail to make reductions in their budgets of a different size. Let me explain to the House that if the defence budget were to be cut by 10% in real terms, the defence programme would have to be cut by 19% in real terms in order to achieve that. That is the meaning of the black hole that we were left by the previous Government, and that is the scale of the task that the current Government are facing.
The Chairman of the Defence Committee summed up the situation very well at the beginning of his speech when he talked about speed and the issues that have to be determined about how the process is taking place. Let me make this perfectly clear. As I have said in interviews this week, the time scale of the review is a great deal brisker than we would have chosen in an ideal world, but this is not an ideal world-it is a world in which we have been bequeathed the financial situation that I have described, and that needs tackling as a matter of urgency. We have to ensure that the decisions that we take in the next few weeks in the SDSR are sustainable not only over the short and medium term but over the long term, and they have to proceed in parallel with the Government's spending review. The alternative would have been just to sit back and allow the Treasury to dictate a spending envelope in which a strategic defence review that we might have conducted at a more leisurely pace would be obliged to fit itself, whereas by doing the work at the same time as the comprehensive spending review, we are able to fight our corner within the spending round having done the work involved.
The right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) said that everybody involved in defence in the political community-he quoted my words from before the election-should kick up rough. My sense is that that is exactly what everybody is doing, and I am sure that he is happy to play his part in that process.
The hon. Gentleman is aware that my predecessor as Secretary of State ordered the Gray report, that I published it, and that National Audit Office reports were published before that. He knew what the situation was. When did he or his Conservative now-friends call for cuts in defence to deal with it? When, prior to the election, did he ever do that? Did he ever do anything other than ask for more?
Nick Harvey: Every time there was a defence debate in this House in the two or three years before the election, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members repeatedly quizzed Ministers about the apparent gap between the promises they were making, the plans they were laying down and the funds that they appeared to have at their disposal in order to fulfil them. Time and again, they stood there pretending that it all added up, and the fact of the matter is that it did not.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to the Gray report. That very telling report specifically identified the true situation on the procurement side. However, that was only half the story, because the black hole existed not only in the procurement budget but across the whole defence budget, and that is the scale of the challenge that now faces us.
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con):
Although I have great respect for the shadow Secretary of State and the work that he did in the Department, I think that my hon. Friend is equally entitled to ask him when he ever admitted to the scale of the crisis that his Department was facing-although he did have the honesty to come to the House and admit that he had started the process of raiding future capability in order to sustain
current operations, which showed that our commitments had got wildly ahead of the resources that the Government had made available.
Nick Harvey: My hon. Friend is quite right. That was precisely the significance of the measures that the right hon. Gentleman had to take hastily-last December, I think-in order to make this year's budget wash its face. That is a graphic illustration of the problem that had been allowed to grow up and which we are now having to tackle.
Of course, we could tackle this simply by cutting a bit off everything-the equal-pain option across the services-but that would not distinguish capabilities or assess real risk, and it would not reform our forces for the strategic challenges ahead. We cannot just fossilise what we currently do, and again fail the strategic test. Instead, we must look ahead to the end of this 10-year period and decide what we want our armed forces to look like at that time based on the foreign policy goals we have set, our assessment of the future character of conflict, and our anticipation of the changes in technology that we will need to incorporate.
The National Security Council has agreed that the overarching strategic posture should be to address the most immediate threats to our national security while maintaining the ability to identify and deal with emerging ones before they become bigger threats to the UK. This flexible, adaptable posture will maintain the ability to safeguard international peace and security, to deter and contain those who threaten the UK and its interests, and, where necessary, to conduct a number of different operations concurrently. It will also, crucially, keep our options open for a future in which we can expect our highest priorities to change over a period of time.
Mr Arbuthnot: In order to set the record straight, does my hon. Friend remember that although the shadow Secretary of State takes credit for publishing the Gray report, that happened only after four months of the then Prime Minister trying to prevent it from being published, and only after I had put in a freedom of information request to demand that it should be published?
Nick Harvey: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having winkled that out of Labour Members; I am very glad that I gave way to him. I knew that the report had sat on their desks for a long time, but I was not aware that that was precisely how it came out, so I take my hat off to him for doing that.
For all the financial constraints, this means that we have to take strategic decisions for the long term and invest in programmes that we will require to put defence on a sound footing for the years ahead.
The right hon. Member for Coventry North East raised the matter of Trident. He rightly pointed out that it had been subject to speculation and tittle-tattle, and then devoted about 10 minutes of his speech to responding to it as though it were all absolute gospel truth deserving of the most serious attention. Let me make it clear to the House. A decision on Trident has been taken. The position was set out in the coalition agreement, which makes it clear that we will maintain Britain's nuclear deterrent and, in due course, replace it. The coalition agreement also makes it clear, however, that the successor
programme should be scrutinised for value for money, and that is what is happening. However, I am not aware of any suggestion to delay either any decisions or, indeed, the procurement. The value-for-money study has yet to be undertaken at the National Security Council, and I cannot pre-empt any decision that it might make. It is perfectly possible that, in pursuing value for money, the council might look at the expenditure profile, but the key decisions and the timetable have already been decided, and nothing has changed that in any sense.
The right hon. Gentleman, the shadow Defence Secretary, will be aware that the initial gate decision was due last autumn, and that essentially technical phase has been delayed for largely technical reasons. We will reach it as planned, probably at the tail end of this year but, if not, in the very early part of next, and the timetable that pans out is as understood and as has been set out. I cannot pre-empt or speculate on what the value-for-money study will conclude, but there is no intention fundamentally to alter the programme that has been laid out.
Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Next month we will know exactly what the cuts are going to be. Surely the British public have a right to debate whether we have Trident or not, because that should be part of our debate.
Nick Harvey: The in-principle debate about whether to embark on the programme was held in 2007, and the final opportunity for the public, Parliament or anybody else to debate whether we pass the point of no return, as it were, on the successor programme is at main gate, and of course there will be debate about that. In terms of what is going on this autumn, the value-for-money study will feed into the SDR and the comprehensive spending review, and, if it is possible to get better value for money out of the programme, it is only right and proper that we do so.
Nick Harvey: I see the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness rising, and, in terms of the impact that the process might have, I must say that the points that have already been made about the impact on the industrial base, if there were to be an interruption, are well understood. They would be not only of industrial significance, but of military significance, so Members should not give way to the temptation to speculate on the basis of tittle-tattle in the press.
John Woodcock: The Minister has just said that the decisions on the timetable have been taken and will not change, and that is very significant. If that statement is true, it will be very welcome in Barrow and Furness. However, is he aware that, as I understand it, the Prime Minister's official spokesman, at his Lobby briefing this morning, gave a very different impression?
"We will maintain Britain's nuclear deterrent"
and, in due course, replace it. The value-for-money study, which is currently taking place but has yet to arrive at any decisions, may well consider the expenditure profile,
and the order in which we programme different parts of the work, but I cannot speculate on that. However, the initial gate decision is on course to be made later this year or, at the latest, in the early part of next. We know that under the timetable, main gate will be at the tail end of 2014 or, possibly, in the early part of 2015; that is already known and understood. But, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) pertinently pointed out in his intervention, if main gate happened to shift a few months, it would not make any difference in terms of either finance or, frankly, the impact on the industrial base. So, the issue involves complete speculation and does not have the significance that one or two people have suggested it might.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I welcome the Minister's extremely reassuring remarks. In that context, I note the intensive press reports stating that the Treasury has pressed for the capital costs of Trident to be met from-presumably-the existing core budget of the Ministry of Defence. Is that the case, and, if we are to have both a conventional military and the independent nuclear deterrent, is it possible?
Nick Harvey: I rather agreed with the right hon. Member for Coventry North East, who said that that point is largely academic: the cost all comes out of the Treasury as a whole, and the particular line on which it is accounted is neither here nor there. We would want to be clear that the funds for Trident were on a separate line from that of the core defence budget. That is what the White Paper said, and as I understand it, that is still the position. However, where precisely it is accounted is neither here nor there; it is a completely semantic and academic point.
Dr Lewis: And the Minister has done so very graciously. He is doing his best at damage limitation. What would reassure me even more would be to know from him that no one employed by the Government was responsible for the extremely damaging story that was leaked to the BBC last night.
Nick Harvey: I have absolutely no grounds whatever to think or believe that it was, and to the extent that I am able, I am happy to offer that reassurance. Obviously, I cannot account for every employee anywhere in government, which is rather a large thing, but I do not believe that that is what happened or think that there is any point in the House dwelling on any speculation about what happened.
If that is the case and we are meant to discount the story, will the Minister just confirm one thing? When he talks about possible decisions about
main gate in the context of value for money, does he accept that no interpretation of a value-for-money assessment could result in a decision that the Trident replacement should not go ahead at all?
Nick Harvey: I do not think that that is within the scope of the study under consideration; the study is about how we might improve the existing programme's value for money and delivery. Again, I cannot pre-empt the decisions that the National Security Council will arrive at shortly, when it addresses the value-for-money report, but my hon. Friend's point is considerably wide of its scope.
"Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives,"
and the Liberal Democrats will. I shall continue to argue that in government; my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) will continue to argue the case for alternatives outwith government. But, the Government are proceeding with the programme, and that is the point that I wish to make clear today. The arrangements that the right hon. Member for Coventry North East left in place are those which the value-for-money report is studying, and to the extent that any better value for money can be squeezed out of the programme, that is the objective of the exercise.
So, by way of conclusion, I simply say that the point has been made that we have not liaised adequately with industry. Industry has a regular dialogue with the Government, and we understand the industrial challenges and issues. We want and need a resilient defence-industrial base, and having a strong defence industry is a formidable strategic asset. It is a key part of our international security relationships, it obviously provides jobs, tax revenues and an improved balance of payments and its long-term prosperity rests also on offering good value for money to the British taxpayer.
We have difficult choices ahead of us, and the SDSR is a highly complex undertaking with many issues interwoven. As we pull the threads together and try to weave a better whole, we have to ensure that we get the balance right not only in defence but in other security services, foreign policy and international development. We must balance those matters with domestic concerns and investment in public services. I cannot say that the final decisions on defence will be pain-free, but that is the same across all Departments. I can say that we will strive to take those decisions based on what is right for the country and for defence as a whole, in the strategic and financial conditions in which we find ourselves.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab):
I, too, congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on selecting this subject for debate. May I observe that I am beginning to get used to a particular quality in the speeches delivered by Liberal Democrat Ministers? There
is an almost monastic high moral tone attached to their annunciations. That probably comes from not having had to take any responsibility for the past 100 years, so I do not think it will last very long. They will develop a sense of the reality that whether one is in government or in opposition, things are occasionally more complicated than they appear at first sight.
I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), whose speech was excellent. As a member of that Committee I know that the report he mentioned is excellent, and I have to say that his speech left little for other members of the Committee to add. I shall simply deepen some of his points.
I wish to focus particularly on public involvement in reaching a consensus on security and defence. In a few weeks' time, the funding for the Department of Health and the Department for International Development will be ring-fenced but pretty big decisions will have to be made on how much money is spent on defence in the light of other public sector cuts. I am not convinced that either the previous Government or the current one have sufficiently explained in recent years why this country needs the armed forces, what they do and what they are engaged in. Are they there to keep the peace, or to go to war occasionally?
A generational gap is opening up. Knowing that my 25-year-old daughter-in-law was going to start work yesterday, I said to her, "Oh, that is Battle of Britain day". She looked at me and asked, "What's that?" Not only did she not know, I had the distinct impression that she was not particularly concerned. There is a generation that is unable to relate not only to world war two, which in many ways still determines our sense of what is needed for defence and the armed forces, but to the cold war. The generation born after the fall of the Berlin wall has a very different sense of nuclear deterrence, which for the pre-1989 generation was an obvious need. We need to do a little more to explain that need.
That change is happening all over Europe. One reason why I cannot stay for the whole debate is that I am going off to the 60th Königswinter conference, which is an annual meeting of German and British politicians. Tomorrow evening, the German Defence Minister, zu Guttenberg, will be speaking. If the press reports today and yesterday are to be believed, he has virtually reached political agreement for Germany to move to a professional army, with a moratorium on conscription. That is a huge shift in the country's attitude to defence, and such shifts are happening all over Europe.
That, quite apart from the economic circumstances, is why the current defence review is hugely important. It is about how Britain defines its role in the world and its relationship with the rest of Europe, but it is also about how the intergenerational covenant between the armed forces and the Government will be conducted. I believe that there is a change not just because of changing generations but because of our ethnically diverse nation. Increasingly, we like to have an Army not to go to war but to keep the peace, which may occasionally involve going to war.
We need a much more open relationship with people in explaining why we deploy our troops and why we spend money on them. That requires a debate not about the type of aircraft carriers, tanks and equipment we have, but about our national security and defence. That
might involve attacks from the air, which is why we need a Royal Air Force, but in the historical context that is probably no longer a key element and is less of a priority. We are a trading nation that needs to keep its trade routes open, so we probably need to explain a little more to the population at large why the Navy is so incredibly important not just for military purposes but for the security of food and energy supplies.
In the case of the Army, we often talk about those who have given their lives in the interests of the country, but we now have an increasing number of young men who, while they have not given their life, have given their limbs. They are severely injured, and we have a huge responsibility to look after them not just today or tomorrow but for decades to come. We cannot flinch from that.
We must also engage the public on a different type of security, which could conveniently be called cyber-security. A NATO unit in Estonia is working on it, and the Estonian people know exactly what it is, because the Russians brought their country to a standstill for three days. Commercial operations also know about it. Much more work needs to be done on cyber-security in the defence review, but may I caution that that work should not be kept within the MOD too much? After world war two a lot of our computer and decoding equipment was kept secure by the MOD at Bletchley, whereas America was much more open in making such equipment available to the industrial sector. The industrial trade-off was not used so early in the UK. Similarly, in cyber-security we have to work much more with industry, in a way that will allow the military to use the technology without confining its commercial exploitation.
My final observation is about the National Security Council. I happen to think that it is a good thing to have set up, but when the Defence Committee took evidence from our witnesses yesterday they made the interesting point that if the word "security" is in a name, other Departments such as DFID and the Foreign Office can sometimes feel that they do not have much buy-in. A strategic defence and security review should involve not just the MOD but those other Departments. If the Treasury is still carrying out bilateral negotiations on where the money will come from, as it appears to be doing, there can be one-on-one combat between Departments instead of their collectively standing up for what they need. I hope that the NSC, by bringing the Departments together at ministerial level under the Prime Minister, will not allow the Treasury to take a divide-and-rule approach.
I look forward to what we will hear at the end of October, and I hope I am correct in the impression that I have gained from the Minister that all the BBC's reports about Trident today were complete and utter nonsense. Nobody seems to know quite where they came from or to want to take any responsibility for them. [Interruption] Well, those of us who have been around know that whenever Front Benchers become excited about telling us what complete and utter nonsense something is, and that they have no idea where on earth the story came from, it usually means that in a few weeks' time they will say, "Funny that, you know-the BBC was right after all." I hope that on this occasion my cynicism is completely unwarranted. I wish the
review well and hope that the Defence Committee will be able to return to the House and say that the Government have done the right thing.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): I apologise to the House and to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence for not being present when the debate began. I was taken aback by the speed with which the previous business was completed.
I hope that I do not sound too censorious when I say that any member of the armed forces on active service watching our debate so far might feel compelled to say, "How we got here is less important than what we're going to do now we are here." To use the old cliché, we are where we are. People in the armed services want to know how we will provide a review that produces a coherent and cohesive outcome and allows them to have total confidence that they will always be fully equipped, well led and subject to mature and sensible political direction.
My views on Trident are well known, and, in the time available, I will not burden the House with them again, other than to the limited extent of saying that the attitude of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, publicly expressed by him and confirmed by the Chief Secretary, implies that Trident has de facto become part of the defence review.
I listened to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, who, with characteristic elegance, endeavoured to say that it was simply a matter of accounting. It is not a matter of accounting for the budget holder of a Department, out of whose budget the money must come, who knows that a request of the Chief Secretary for more is likely to be refused. When there are difficult decisions to make, such as the closure of bases, whether a particular capability should be maintained or whether infantry battalions should be disbanded, and one is aware of an obligation to find some £20 billion in the next period, it seems inevitable that the decisions about the conventional elements of defence are bound to be affected. To put it colloquially, four Trident submarines would be four elephants in the room.
In this country, we lack a proper review of nuclear policy. I cannot recall in the 23 years that I have been a Member a review conducted other than on the basis that we have always had four submarines since Harold Macmillan went to the Bahamas and persuaded Jack Kennedy that we should have access to Poseidon. It is argued that, therefore, we should have four submarines and the maximum number of warheads-at least potentially. I remember the days when the argument in the House was not about having a deterrent, but about whether a Labour Government in 1992 under Neil Kinnock would build the fourth submarine. That was of great significance to the constituents of the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), to whom I shall briefly give way.
John Woodcock: I am grateful. I am also grateful that the Labour party's position has changed, for which my predecessor, now Lord Hutton, deserves some credit. I will not often agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about Trident, but is he aware that the report, published this week, of the Defence Committee, of which I am a member, suggests that Trident has de facto been included in the review in an unhelpful way through the budgeting arrangements that have been changed in recent weeks?
That takes me to the points that the Chairman of the Defence Committee made with great directness. I think that I am the last member of the 1997 Defence Committee still to be in the House. As the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) explained, the consultation that was carried out for that particular defence review was peerless. He outlined the number of meetings that the Committee held and the amount of detail into which it went. Indeed, I remember several occasions on which I could argue across the table, face to face, with John Reid, now Lord Reid, about issues that directly concerned the defence review and its outcome. There was one defect, which is now acknowledged. The Government of the day never published the foreign policy baseline. That is one of my criticisms of the current review.
My hon. Friend the Minister referred to a speech by the Foreign Secretary, but the national security strategy and a foreign policy baseline have not been published. I say with respect that if the review is to have a benevolent outcome, the House should be debating the foreign policy baseline and the national security strategy now so that we could, if I may put it a little ambitiously, offer some advice and exercise some influence over members of the National Security Committee.
My concern is mirrored by the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister. He said that if the Ministry of Defence had not proceeded at the same pace as the overall efforts to restore economic stability, we would have found ourselves given a sum of money and told to find a defence policy to fit it. My fear is that that is exactly what is happening. It is implied that the defence budget must be brought under control, to put it pejoratively, in the next five years, yet from what we hear from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, we will still be in Afghanistan in that period. Is it in the interests of morale and effectiveness to conduct such a wholesale programme during that period? Cutting programmes that are under review will incur penalties. Substantial sums of money will have to be paid out if we do not proceed with certain contracts. What account has been taken of that?
My anxiety can be summed up in my fear that we are at risk of being engaged not in a defence review, but in an expenditure review. To what should a defence review amount? Usually, it means a clear statement of foreign policy objectives, an analysis of the military requirements for achieving those objectives and a value-for-money analysis of the necessary resources. It seems to me that a series of decisions may emerge from the review that are not related to each other and that fail to provide the necessary coherence and cohesion not only for members of the armed services or politicians who have their
responsibilities, but for the profile that we present to any potential adversary and-perhaps equally important -to our allies.
I have a constituency interest; I imagine that I am not alone in presenting such an interest to the House, and I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to respond to it today. On Saturday, I went to Royal Air Force Leuchars in my constituency. It was a battle of Britain airshow day and some 50,000 people attended. In the past, the base has had two squadrons of Typhoon with a third training squadron for Typhoon. It now has 71 Engineer Regiment (Volunteers). Many members of the regiment have been to Afghanistan and Iraq. The 58 Squadron RAF Regiment is training there to be deployed to Afghanistan next spring. The 50,000 people who visited the base on Saturday were compelled to do so because, last week, 6 Squadron was reformed as the first of three Typhoon squadrons, which, under current plans, is scheduled to be deployed to the base. The station is located in Scotland's central belt, albeit the most attractive part-I would say that, wouldn't I? It can provide the air defence for the whole of northern Britain.
Those of us with an interest in defence deplore the fact that its prominence in the minds of the British public is much reduced. I thoroughly supported the notion, which was effected under the previous Administration, that members of the armed forces could more regularly wear uniforms in public so that people had a clear and obvious identification with them. The argument for the continuation of RAF Leuchars is overwhelming. The command of the base is combined with the responsibilities of the Air Officer Scotland, who has important representational functions that are easily fulfilled from a base in the central area of Scotland. Were that base to be closed, there would be a substantial economic impact, as there is when any base is closed. The impact is felt on the communities that have grown up alongside the bases. However, in the case of Leuchars, I am confident that the defence case for its maintenance as a front-line air station is overwhelming. I therefore have every confidence that that view will prevail in the corridors of the Ministry of Defence.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who echoes many of the points that I have made before in representing what has been described as the most defence-dependent constituency in the UK, as it is home to both RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss.
I commend the Backbench Business Committee for securing this timely debate. As we all know, the National Security Council and the defence strategy group within the MOD will make key decisions within the next few weeks, so it is very timely for us to discuss this subject this week. I also commend the Defence Committee and its members for their timely report which I hope will be taken on board not only by the MOD, but-and perhaps more importantly-by the Treasury.
The strategic defence and security review is very important because it will determine whether there will be a continuing relationship between the armed forces and many of the regions and nations of the UK. That relationship includes the footprint of service personnel
and key contracts such as those for building aircraft carriers on the Clyde and at Rosyth. During a Westminster Hall debate I secured on 20 July 2010, I said:
"I fear that the SDSR will lead to large parts of the UK having no defence infrastructure, with fewer bases, reduced units and manpower, and severely imbalanced defence spending.
There are reasons to believe that Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and some English regions will come off worst. That worrying prospect is supported by past regional and defence statistics issued by the Ministry of Defence. In recent years, the MOD has confirmed that more than 10,000 defence jobs have been lost in Scotland and that there has been a defence underspend in excess of £5.6 billion. The defence underspend statistics for Wales and Northern Ireland in the same period are £6.7 billion and £1.8 billion respectively. No doubt, if the MOD provided regional breakdowns for the English regions those would show that other areas have also been badly disadvantaged."-[ Official Report, 20 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 65WH.]
I note with interest that the MOD published last week, for the first time, an answer that included English regions. I am surprised that that has not been picked up in the media or in this House. That answer bears out the case that I and the SNP have been making about the massive centralisation of defence spending in recent years.
The parliamentary answer given on 6 September 2010 shows that if one compares what each region receives as a percentage of their population some shocking trends emerge. For instance, in 2007-8 the south-east of England received 172% of its population share of spending, and the south-west received even more, with 247% of its population share. All other nations and regions got less than their fair share. If one excludes London, the two regions of the south-east and south-west of England took up a mammoth 45% of all expenditure, but account for only 22.1% of the population. Most shockingly, the north-east of England accounts for only 1.2% of spending, but has 4.2% of the population. That is a shocking indictment of 13 years of a Labour Government, with the north-east of England largely represented by Labour MPs. I will leave it up to Members from that part of the world to make that case.
More was spent on defence in London-a city-in 2007-08 than was spent in Scotland. MOD spending as a percentage from financial years 2003-04 to 2007-08 increased by 25% in the east midlands, by 21 % in the south-east, and by 15.2% in the south-west. But in the same period, it was down 40% in Wales, down 7.5% in the north-east of England and down 9% in Scotland.
All the statistics I have given were provided by the MOD and are available from Hansard. In Scotland, the defence underspend increased from £749 million in 2002-03 to £1.2 billion in 2007-08. That represents an increase of 68% over six years. Between 2002 and 2008, the underspend in Scotland totalled a mammoth £5.6 billion. So between 2005 and 2008, there has been a drastic real terms decline year on year in defence spending in Scotland. In total, the last Labour Government slashed defence spending by £150 million in those years. There was actually a 3% cut in defence spending between 2006-07 and 2007-08.
Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): Can the hon. Gentleman advise me whether his party's recent U-turn on an independence referendum is in recognition of the fact that 40,000 defence jobs in Scotland would be lost if it became independent?
Angus Robertson: The hon. Lady has obviously not been listening to the facts, because under the Government she supported, defence spending was cut in Scotland. Unfortunately, we have had no apology for that. We are going to the country in next year's election and the people will have their say. Perhaps the Labour party will live up to the invitation from their former leader to "bring it on", but they may not be so confident about that now. The lack of confidence is not with the SNP, but with the Labour party.
I look forward to an apology from anyone on the Labour Benches for the cuts in spending that Scotland endured and the cuts in jobs that the defence sector in particular suffered. Since Labour's strategic defence review-according to the MOD's answers to parliamentary questions-10,480 fewer people are employed in defence jobs in Scotland, including more than 1,800 fewer service personnel, 4,600 civilian jobs and another 4,000 jobs that were supported by defence expenditure. We have had no apology from the Labour party for all those cuts.
Shockingly, there are now only 11,000 service personnel in Scotland. Pro rata, that is fewer per head than in the armed forces of the Irish Republic. If we spent our population's share of the contribution to the MOD on defence in Scotland, significantly more would be spent and the jobs total would increase.
When Labour was in government, it amalgamated regiments, destroying the golden thread, which was so important to Scottish infantry regiments. In the first tranche of cuts at RAF Lossiemouth, 340 service jobs were lost. In the second tranche in 2005, 700 service jobs were lost. At RAF Leuchars, 160 service jobs were cut and at RAF Kinloss it was 180 service jobs. RAF Buchan and RAF Stornoway were closed and RAF Machrihanish was mothballed. The Royal Navy mooring and support depot at Fairlie was closed. The Royal Naval storage depot at Rosyth was closed and HMS Gannet lost 245 service jobs. That all happened on Labour's watch and we have yet to have an apology. Since the last SDSR, it has been established as a fact that there have been cuts to defence jobs in Scotland, while MOD statistics show that the numbers have risen elsewhere in the UK. A mammoth, multi-billion pound defence underspend has opened up, and we hear from the SDSR that serious cuts are pending.
Despite the fact that there are fewer air bases and aircraft in Scotland than in our Scandinavian neighbours of comparable size, the SDSR is considering base closures; despite the fact that there are only four Army battalions based in Scotland, there are fears that Scottish-recruited units could be further cut and barracks closed; despite the reduction of conventional naval craft to a handful of minesweepers, there is an option to cut them yet further; and despite military command functions having been recently downgraded in Scotland, a further downgrading is being considered.
There is a real danger in this defence review of a further geographical concentration of the UK defence footprint, away from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the north of England: look where the current service headquarters are, look where the main operating bases and garrisons are, look where the main training facilities are, look where the defence budget is being spent, and ask whether this trend is going to continue. As I said in that earlier debate:
"UK Governments have been content to recruit young men and women from across these islands and often to send them into harm's way. At some point soon, the MOD must ask itself whether it is acting in the interests of the whole UK. Defence policy is not just about strategic and foreign policy considerations, which must of course drive any review; it is also about the defence footprint, about where our personnel are stationed and about where defence resources are spent"-[ Official Report, 20 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 68WH.]
There is a challenge here to Defence Ministers, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats: will they intervene in the SDSR to ensure a balanced defence footprint across the nations and regions of the UK? We will not have to wait long to find out, but I hae ma doots.
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): In congratulating the Backbench Business Committee on choosing this extremely important topic for debate, I would say very gently to the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) that I do not view it as an important occasion for party political knockabout, or as an occasion to talk up one of the regions or nations of Great Britain in the way he did. The nature of the debate was much better typified by the excellent speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, who approached criticism of how the SDSR is being handled in the most sensible, intelligent and balanced way. That is what we ought to be doing.
As chairman of the all-party group on the armed services, it would be wrong if I did anything other than start by paying the most wholehearted tribute to the men and women of our services who are doing such fantastic jobs in Afghanistan. There are two types of occasion, both very important in my life, on which I would not be able to look people in the eye, if I felt that the SDSR was doing anything other than its best for our armed services. The first are the regular occasions on the high street of Wootton Bassett, where the families of the fallen servicemen stand in silent tribute alongside the townsfolk. If I thought I could not look them in the eye and say, "The House of Commons and the Government are doing their best for our people in Afghanistan," I would not be doing my job.
Equally, when, as chairman of the all-party group, I welcome back each brigade returning from Afghanistan-the next is 4th Mechanised Brigade, which is coming to the House of Commons on 23 November-it is important that we are able to say to those people, "We here have done our best to enable you to do your job." And I hope that is the underlying principle behind the entire SDSR.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will forgive me if I leave behind the more broad and clever discussions about the SDSR, how the foreign policy baseline is being considered, and how the whole strategic consideration is taken forward. Cleverer people than I will be advancing those arguments today, so in the short time available to me, I intend to leave those to them and instead focus on one extremely important aspect of the SDSR-the strategic air transport fleet and where it is based. Hon. Members know that I have a personal interest in these matters, although I do not intend to make this an entirely constituency-based contribution. I will seek to advance
the argument that proper consideration of our strategic transport fleet is a vital, underlying principle behind the entire SDSR.
We have a fairly major crisis on our hands. The C-130K fleet, which has done such a fantastic job over many years-50 years altogether, I think-is nearing the end of its life. But so too, as I understand it, is the C-130J fleet. Those new Hercules were brought in very recently, but the tremendous battering they have had in Afghanistan means that many of them are nearing the end of their economic lives-in other words, their maintenance may well cost more than renewing them.
Equally, we are faced with the dreadful procurement shambles surrounding the A400M. We do not know when that plane will finally come into service, and we do not even know whether it is the right plane. It probably is-we are probably moving towards accepting the A400M as the right way forward-although many in the RAF would have preferred further C-130Ks and C-17s. However, the procurement and bringing into service of the A400Ms have been beyond words a shambles, and we do not quite know when they will be in service.
Just this morning, we saw a report from the Public Accounts Committee saying that the procurement process for the fleet of 14 new AirTankers that we are buying is equally shambolic. We do not know what the cost will be and we do not know how the planes will operate, and if we do not do something about it pretty quickly, we will have a real problem on our hands. And of course the VC10s and the Tridents are nearing the end of their useful lives too. We also have a fairly major crisis on our hands with regards to the air bridge to Afghanistan and all our air transport requirements, so I hope that the SDSR will pay real attention to that. I am sure that it will. It seems to me that a combined fleet of C17s and new Hercules C-130Js has an awful lot to recommend itself, but it might well be that we are too far down the track we are on.
Without boring the House, I will focus briefly on how the previous Government concluded that we should close RAF Lyneham. We have two air transport bases: one is RAF Lyneham and the second is RAF Brize Norton, but the previous Government proposed that we close RAF Lyneham and put all our air transport assets-both cargo and personnel-into RAF Brize Norton, reducing from three to one the number of runways we have, over-cramming RAF Brize Norton and leading to all kinds of complications and a vast capital investment in that base.
A large amount of money has already been spent on RAF Brize Norton, and I am not a good enough accountant to say whether so much capital has been spent already that it is impossible to reverse that decision, but I hope that it is not. Some of the accounting I have seen with regard to the move is questionable to say the least, and pouring good money after bad is not necessarily the right thing to do. I hope, therefore, that the SDSR will re-examine the bringing together of all our transport assets at Brize Norton, from a strategic and tactical standpoint, from my own constituency standpoint and from a financial standpoint. I presented to the last Government a dossier of thoughts on these matters, which I will ensure that the MOD has before the end of the consultation period next Friday. I hope it will make it a central part of the considerations on the SDSR.
With regard to my own constituency, if I am not successful in persuading the SDSR to reconsider the closure of RAF Lyneham for the RAF, I would like it to consider the base as a suitable place to bring back some of our 25,000 soldiers who we hear will be returning from Germany. It is close to Salisbury Plain and to all sorts of other military assets across Wiltshire. It is a secure base, has plenty of space, accommodation and buildings, and its runways will always be there, so it would be an ideal place for quick deployment of the Army. And the local community across Wiltshire, which would be so badly affected if the base is closed entirely, would welcome the Army there.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I understand why the hon. Gentleman is making the case he is making, but is he aware that there would be a considerable cost to the Government in bringing the troops back from Germany in that we would have to pay the German Government considerable sums in order for them to take back some of those capital assets?
Mr Gray: The hon. Lady makes a good point. There would be a large cost in bringing our troops back from Germany, not least in providing accommodation for them when they got back here. Lyneham probably does not have big enough barracks, so there would have to be some capital investment. None the less, looked at over a longer period, I would hope that our presence in Germany would no longer be required. I know that the coalition has expressed its desire to bring our troops home from Germany, but the hon. Lady is right to say that there would be an economic consequence of doing so.
The base at Lyneham would be ideal for many Army requirements-one thinks in particular of the Royal Logistic Corps, which has two bases, one of which is in my constituency, at Hullavington, with the other at South Cerney. Bringing some of the Royal Logistic Corps people together in one place at Lyneham would be sensible, although there are a variety of other Army requirements for which Lyneham would seem to be ideally suited.
I would like to make one final plea to the Minister. If the RAF indeed leaves Lyneham, which we hope will not be the case, and if a satisfactory Army use for the base cannot be found, there are plenty of other things it could be used for. I have seen military bases vacated before-RAF Wroughton, under the previous Conservative Government, is one example that springs immediately to mind, as is Corsham in my constituency. What tends to happen is that Defence Estates sits on the vacated base and nothing happens for many years. People cannot make up their minds what will happen next, the economy of the area spirals downwards, vandals move into the base, nothing happens, and there are terrible consequences for the local area.
If my pleas to keep the RAF at Lyneham or to bring the Army in are not successful, will the Minister please guarantee to do one thing-something that I am glad to say my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister undertook to do in responding to me at Prime Minister's questions some time ago? Will the Minister pull out all the stops to ensure that the appalling consequences for my constituency that would result will be minimised by the MOD and other Departments, and that Defence Estates
will take steps to move out of the base as swiftly as possible, hand it over to local industry-or perhaps to low-cost local housing or other useful local purposes-and engage with the county council, myself and others to ensure that we create something in Lyneham that is economically and environmentally better for the area? We need something that we can look at and say, "We're sorry that the RAF had to leave Lyneham after so many years of such distinguished service to the nation; none the less, that had to happen under the SDSR. What we now have at the vacated based at Lyneham is better than what we had before."
Finally in the context of my constituency, let me say two things. First, I have seen the airmen and women from RAF Lyneham serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a variety of other places around the world. I know them and their planes well, and there is no finer group of people than the C-130J and C-130K pilots, engineers and others. The second group of people to whom I should like to pay tribute are the good people of Wootton Bassett. Tribute has been paid to them in the House before, but they make a vast contribution to the defence of this realm and to raising appreciation of our armed services. Week by week and in all weathers, they turn out and stand in the High street. They seek no thanks and no honour, but my goodness me, what a fantastic job they do, as they stand in proxy for all of us, in paying tribute to our fallen heroes.
John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): May I associate myself absolutely with the remarks that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) made about Wootton Bassett? Let me also add my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for securing such an important debate at such an important time. I also commend the Defence Committee Chair, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), on his speech, on the Committee report that he led and, if I may say so, on making me welcome and part of the process, as a new member of the Committee and a new Member of the House.
I want to build on some of the things that have been said. It is important to make the point that Members on both sides of the House should learn from our recent history in this area under Governments of both colours. I should also like to press those in the new Government on how important it is that they should live up to the standards that they set for themselves in opposition. It is the case that successive Governments allowed the equipment programme to grow. That was not the preserve simply of the previous Government, although we have to recognise that it did grow, in part as a response to conflicts that no one seriously predicted at the time, but also because of our commitment to the Gray report, notwithstanding the important point made about that earlier. There is a need to correct that in the strategic defence and security review, but we, too, recognised that the correction needed to happen. It is important that the new Government go into the process with the right approach, which is why it is alarming that this does not necessarily seem to be happening and why the report that the Committee published this week is so critical, as was reflected in the right hon. Gentleman's speech.
The point about not making commitments in opposition that no Government can afford has been amply set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the shadow Secretary of State, in relation to helicopters and the size of the Army. I do not think that the point needs to be added to further, but I hope that we get a commitment from the Minister in winding up that the Department has secured from the Treasury what it needs to be able to take a long-term view. It is no secret that the Secretary of State has been pressing to be given a 10-year spending envelope in which to make decisions, in recognition of the fact that if cuts are made too gravely in the early years, enormous capability will be lost, when the same size of budget reductions spread over 10 years could deliver a massively different profile.
It is fair to say that the Secretary of State has privately indicated that he thought that he had assurances on that commitment. However, given this debate and the obvious uncertainty over the Trident successor programme, which has been touched on and on which I shall comment shortly, it is important that the Department should set out whether it has indeed secured that commitment from the Treasury. Reference has been made to this in different ways, but whatever the outcome of the review, it is also critical that our prized defence industry maintains its capacity to deliver for our armed forces, as well as supporting our manufacturing industry and the many important high-skilled jobs across the country.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): One does not think of my constituency as being a big arms-producing centre, yet there are four Rotherham firms that are suppliers to the Astute submarine programme, along with about two dozen altogether in South Yorkshire, including Sheffield Forgemasters. We need to make it clear that if the cuts happen and the submarines are no longer to be built in Barrow, it is not just Barrow that will be affected, but the entire northern manufacturing and engineering base, which already faces serious cuts with the Sheffield Forgemasters scandal. I therefore wish my hon. Friend well as he defends submarine-building, which also contributes to my constituency's economy.
John Woodcock: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am grateful to him for that point. He mentioned the firms in his patch in Rotherham. It is indeed striking that in the supply chain for the Astute submarine programme alone, which is a significant but relatively small part of the overall defence industry in the United Kingdom, there are, by my reckoning, more than 1,400 firms, spread over 1,500 areas of the country, that contribute in some way-either directly, because they are defence contractors or small or medium-sized enterprises, or indirectly, in that although they are not part of the defence industry, they none the less get important business from the Astute programme.
Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Indeed, there are many companies across the country, including nine in Middlesbrough, in the neighbouring constituency to mine, that are affected by the strategic defence review. I worked at one of them, Lionweld Kennedy, some years ago. The SDSR will also assess the aircraft carrier programme, and the Corus Skinningrove site in my constituency provides components as part of those important aircraft carrier contracts.
John Woodcock: Absolutely; my hon. Friend speaks well. He highlights the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) that we too often look at the defence industry in silos. It sometimes seems that I, as the MP for Barrow, should be the one who supports the submarines, while my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) should support the aircraft carriers. However, there is a huge interconnectedness in the industry that we forget at our peril. We in this House should be united in insisting that the Government maintain this capacity, not simply because of the jobs that are directly dependent on it-although they are critical-but because of the industry's export capacity, which the new Government, to their credit, have said that they want to boost.
However, the alarming shortcomings that have been found in the current SDSR process pose a grave risk to this country's ability to punch significantly above its weight in regard to its export capacity. We are currently punching about three times above our weight, and I want to see that increase. I will support the new Government in any practical measures that they can take to secure that kind of improvement, but the last thing we should be doing is rushing the process and taking too short-term a view of our deficit, because that could damage our export capacity and have grave knock-on economic consequences for decades to come.
The most important aspect of the need to maintain a viable and vibrant defence industry is the way in which it supports the front line. This applies not only to the unparalleled kit that we can make available to our armed forces in combat on a planned basis, but to the occasions on which they come to us with urgent operational requirements, as they have done several times during the conflict in Afghanistan. The UK Government are able to process orders that enable kit to get to the front line far more quickly by using our vibrant UK industry than they ever could by knocking on the door of foreign contractors and asking to be bumped up the queue, only to be told, "No, sorry, we have more pressing things to attend to." We must retain that capacity.
An example of companies in my constituency responding to urgent operational requirements involves the solid state lighting industry. Companies such as Marl in Ulverston are doing incredibly innovative work to create new infrared lighting solutions that will give our troops the cutting edge in combat. We must keep such examples in mind as we go.
My final point is on the central importance of not putting off difficult decisions. The Secretary of State was absolutely right to say in his speech on Government procurement and investment to the Royal United Services Institute on 8 February this year:
"The default position should be 'spend to save' not 'Delay to spend'. Speedy procurement saves money."
We must hold up our hands and acknowledge that we might sometimes have fallen short of that ideal, and that we need to find ways of improving on that in future. However, it would be the gravest folly-particularly in regard to the Trident decision, which is close to my constituents' hearts-if the new Government were to rip up the principle that they had in opposition and imposed a delay that would cost more and put the supply chain at risk. That could leave us without vital capacity.
I hope that the Minister will respond to those points. Will he also tell us whether he still agrees with what the Secretary of State said, and whether he will guarantee a round-the-clock submarine-based nuclear deterrent for the future? It is essential that we have an answer to that question.
"When it comes to our nuclear deterrent, there are some straightforward questions to answer. Should it be replaced? Do we need a submarine-based system? Does the decision need to be taken now? Our approach to all those questions is to answer yes."
Those are not my words, but the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), now the Prime Minister, on 4 December 2006, when he gave an excellent response to the statement by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on why the Trident programme should be renewed. My right hon. Friend went on to say:
"Conservative Members have always believed that Britain should have an independent nuclear deterrent"-
"Those who argue that the world has changed so that no deterrent is required miss the point. Yes, the world has changed, and it continues to change rapidly, but that is the very case for keeping up our guard. Just as today's threat is so different from that predicted 20 years ago, today we cannot predict the threat that we will face in 20 years' time. Still less can we predict the threat in 40 to 50 years' time, when the next generation of submarines will still be in service."
Finally, my right hon. Friend pointed out that we need a credible deterrent, both against rogue states and against serious, modern, well-equipped states that pose a more traditional threat to our security. He said:
"We should have a credible deterrent to both."
"the key to a credible system is that it is not vulnerable to pre-emptive attack...Do not all the experts agree that, of the three options of land, air or submarine-based systems, the submarine-based system is the least vulnerable by far?"-[ Official Report, 4 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 24.]
That was why, when the vote was held on replacing the nuclear deterrent with a successor to Trident on 14 March 2007, the Conservative Opposition voted very strongly with the Government. The motion was carried by 413 votes to 167, with the Liberal Democrats and some Labour rebels voting against.
Following that, the Conservatives gave a manifesto commitment at the last election, committing our party to replacing the Trident nuclear system with a successor system that would be submarine-based. We went into the election on that basis, but did not win enough seats-sadly, it must be said-to form a Government by ourselves. Conservative MPs were summoned, got together and addressed by our party leader. We were told about the various offers made to form a coalition with the nuclear deterrent- [Laughter.] Sorry, I mean with the Liberal Democrats. Because the nuclear deterrent was such a major issue of difference between us and the Liberal Democrats, a special mention was made of it, and it was stated that the successor to Trident would be carried forward and that the Liberal Democrats would have to accept it. I particularly remember a senior colleague looking at me, catching my eye at that moment, and giving me a reassuring nod because he knew of my concern about this issue. That was my right hon. Friend, as he now is, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I must say that when I came to the Chamber this morning, I was very agitated because it appeared that someone-a Government source-had spoken to the BBC suggesting that this commitment was in doubt. As I said in an intervention, if so, this was particularly alarming because it would be a betrayal of the commitment the Conservative party gave to the electorate and a betrayal of the commitment the Conservative party leader gave to Conservative MPs when seeking their support, which we gave, to the formation of the coalition. I cannot imagine that such a betrayal would take place. I must say that I am considerably reassured by the answers I have had from the Minister for the Armed Forces to questions put to him earlier in the debate.
John Woodcock: I associate myself with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, although I cannot comment on the internal workings of the Conservative party. Does he agree that although the earlier assurance from the Minister for the Armed Forces was welcome, there has been so much confusion on this issue that it requires the Prime Minister to clarify once and for all precisely what the policy is, without ambiguity?
Dr Lewis: I think it would do no harm at all for the Prime Minister to make a further statement. He has always been unambiguous about this in the past and he was unambiguous about it when he was seeking the leadership of the party. It was a specific issue about which I asked him personally when I was reflecting on who to support and he was very firm in his commitment to the continuation of the nuclear deterrent.
I am not quite sure what actually happened with the generation of this story. We have heard from the Armed Forces Minister that, as far as he knows, it had nothing to do with anyone employed by the Government. On the other hand, the BBC says it got its story from "Government sources". Those two statements are hard to reconcile. It is possible that someone somewhere on the press side in government thought they would take a punt at it, or perhaps someone thought they would fly a kite. The idea of flying a kite would be to say, "Well, let us see if we can shift this decision a little and see what sort of a reaction it gets."
I hope that the reaction this has got so far-notably from my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) in his excellent interview on the "Today" programme this morning and to some extent, I hope, from the contributions I have made in the Chamber today-has been sufficient to send a message to anyone anywhere in government that if they think that Conservative Members who have devoted their political lives to the protection, the maintenance, the justification and the support for a strategic nuclear deterrent would be prepared to play back-somersaults on an issue of this sort, they have got another think coming. This is not going to happen.
One of the advantages of my having been able to campaign for 28 or 29 years on the same subject both outside and inside Parliament is that I have seen these things happen over and over again. It may be that some bright spark in the coalition thought that it would be a good idea if we could just shift the particular decision from one side of the next general election to the other, it
would postpone some potential fissure between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats within that coalition. Let me assure anyone who holds that view that, on the contrary, any such move to delay will fuel the very divisions and uncertainty that people wish to avoid.
I have been here before, on an international scale. I remember when the decision was made in 1979 to deploy the cruise and Pershing II missiles in five NATO countries to counter the SS-20 deployments by the Soviet Union from 1977. However, there was a fatal flaw in what was done. It was announced in December 1979 that the deployment would take place, but it was not actually due to take place until November 1983, which was when the cruise missiles came in. That reopened the whole controversy, and gave new life to those who always oppose a nuclear deterrent or deployment. It was a fatal mistake. Anyone who makes a decision on a matter of this sort must make it in principle. We made it in principle, and we made it in principle in 2007.
Our attention has been drawn to some small print. We have been told that if we look at the coalition agreement, we will see that the deterrent will be replaced, and that it will be replaced on the basis of value-for-money assessments. Hon. Members will have heard me ask the Armed Forces Minister whether that could possibly be interpreted as meaning that the deterrent should not go ahead at all. He seemed to say that that could not be the case, but there is a problem. If we put off the decision about the main gate, we will reach a point at which, if it were decided not to proceed through the main gate with a replacement of Trident, the only conceivable alternative would be the one that we hear time and again from the Liberal Democrats: cruise missiles on Astute class submarines. That whole programme would have to be designed right from the beginning, and there would be no way of preventing a fatal gap which would ensure that by the time the programme had been designed, there would be no submarine-building capacity left at Barrow-in-Furness. I see the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) nodding in agreement.
I have seen these tricks played over and over again. People are unwilling to say that they want to get rid of the deterrent because they know that, politically speaking, that would be suicide, so they try to find indirect means of scuppering it. We will not fall for that sort of trickery.
Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Let me begin by paying tribute to the soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards who are currently being deployed to Afghanistan: our thoughts and prayers go with them, and they take our best wishes in support of what they are seeking to do in that country.
The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) mentioned the defence underspend in the regions of the United Kingdom. It is clear that the commitment of the regions to deliver men and women to serve in the armed forces is undiminished, and it is therefore a matter of regret that we do not receive our fair share of defence spend. In Northern Ireland the underspend amounts to £1.8 billion over five years, representing 74.2% of the total spend as a percentage of our population share. We
want that to be addressed in the context of the SDSR. Moreover, following the recent closure of RAF Aldergrove, Northern Ireland has no RAF or Royal Navy presence. Although we still have the welcome presence of the Army, that is another indication of the diminishing role and presence of the armed forces in the region of the UK that I represent.
I want to touch on two issues. The first is the future role of the reserve forces. At present, the strength of the Territorial Army in the UK is just over 27,000 on an establishment of 38,500. That reflects the underfunding of recruiting activities for the Territorial Army, the cap that has been placed on numbers, and the fact that there is inadequate funding of TA training activities. The SDSR must address that.
The reserve forces of the UK, and particularly those in the United States, have proved to be very effective both as formed units and as individuals when serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. That proves not only their military value in enduring operations, but their cost-effectiveness as a source of military potential and mass when the threat or commitment requires it. It is worth noting that 24,000 reserve members of our armed forces have served on operational duty since 2003. The MOD must not undervalue the reserve forces or see them only as a source of cost savings, as opposed to a cost-effective, efficient vehicle for maintaining capability in UK territory.
The Secretary of State emphasised in his recent speech to the Royal United Services Institute that the SDSR must be about not salami slicing, but real change. Enhancing the role of the reserves in different defence roles, including helicopters, would represent real and sensible change. The United States and other allies, including Canada, have transformed their armed forces and lowered manpower costs by adopting a "whole force" approach, thereby achieving a significantly different balance between the regulars and the reserve component. While doing that, they have continued to commit substantial forces to meet enduring commitments over a 10-year period, with considerable success. That proves that deploying reserve forces does not diminish the military capacity of countries such as the United States and Canada, and there is no reason why that would be the case in the UK.
Therefore, in the context of the SDSR it may be necessary to direct a new work stream, integral to the ongoing work, to ensure that there is a major rebalancing of the regular and reserve mix. Reservists should be involved in the development of the SDSR, including making provision for a different model: an organisation that generates relevant capabilities and force structures at lower costs to deliver the proposed defence planning assumptions. It is worth noting that at full cost annual capitation rates, a TA soldier deployed on operations is generated at 55% of the cost of his or her regular counterpart. Instead of diminishing the TA estate and reducing the number of units, I hope that as a result of the SDSR, the Government will enhance its capacity and role in our armed forces.
Maintaining effective armed forces is not only about manpower and resources; it is also about the welfare of those who are serving, or have served, in them. To maintain both morale and decent rates of retention, we must look after the needs of service personnel and their families as well as those of veterans. Whatever cost cutting there is to be as a result of the SDSR, these men and women must not be short-changed by having their
welfare diminished. Whether in the standard of living accommodation, the health and mental well-being of service personnel or, crucially, supporting those bereaved through the loss of a loved one, the Government must do the right thing in providing for the welfare of our armed forces.
Like many other Members, these days I frequently encounter veterans who are fighting to gain proper recognition for their medical condition or needs, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or hearing loss. Pensions are being reduced, benefits denied and accommodation is not available for them-I have encountered veterans who are homeless and destitute, which is disgraceful. This must not be permitted to continue. We must look after our veterans and our service personnel properly. Between 7% and 10% of all service personnel are medically downgraded or are awaiting a decision on medical downgrading. Again, these people need and deserve proper care and support.
I support the Royal British Legion in calling on the Government to introduce health screening and monitoring for service personnel and vulnerable dependants, and to ensure that priority is given to those deployed for extended periods, their partners and those who have been medically downgraded. I also endorse the Legion's call for the establishment of an independent legal advice service to provide support for bereaved armed forces families and to guide them through the inquest process. Ministers will be aware of the reforms that were introduced for military inquests by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. I hope that they will implement them as quickly as possible, which will help families following the death of a loved one.
I am horrified by the difficulties that Mrs Brenda Hale, a constituent of mine whose husband, the late Captain Mark Hale, was killed on active service in Afghanistan, has encountered from time to time in gaining the support that she is entitled to receive as a widow. That is unacceptable. If we cannot treat properly the families of soldiers who are lost in active service and meet their needs, we are failing all our armed forces.
Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): Allow me to take you back to the evening of 31 March 1982, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Prime Minister has just delivered a statement to the House of Commons, and is working in her office behind the Chair in which you now sit. She is occupied by thoughts of the uncertainty of Argentine intentions towards the Falkland Islands. The Defence Secretary telephones in a state of some agitation to report that the Argentine fleet is in full sail and likely to invade the Falklands in the morning of Friday 2 April. His advice is that should the islands fall, they cannot be retaken.
A meeting is convened with Foreign Office and MOD officials. Turning to the Chief of the Naval Staff, Sir Henry Leach, the Prime Minister asks for his assessment. Sir Henry replies: "I can put together a taskforce of destroyers, frigates, landing craft and support vessels, which will be led by the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. It can be ready to leave in 48 hours." The Prime Minister gives the order to assemble.
Developments such as the Falklands war, the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11 were largely unforeseen; others, such as the ongoing dangers of international terrorism, are more readily perceived. The dangers of unpreparedness are real and the consequences extreme.
These are difficult times for every Department, but especially for the Ministry of Defence. The MOD cannot conduct its spending review with a blank sheet of paper because we are at war. The equivalent might be the Department of Health trying to balance its books in the midst of the cholera epidemics of the 1800s. In those circumstances, the question we must ask is this: can we knowingly fail to equip ourselves with a defence capability that will be relevant in all possible military scenarios, one that can be deployed with speed, and one that in many cases will be the lead point of action? Emphatically, the answer is that we cannot.
We cannot with conscience be without the security of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, which would greatly enhance Britain's defence and security position. They would permit the UK to deploy essential offensive air power with our entire range of fast jets or helicopters that we have or may have without regard to establishing a land base or a supply chain, and without receiving overflight permissions. British forces could act at the discretion of our political and military command without the staying hand of uncooperative third states, and, once in position, with more penetration and versatility than our current carrier fleet.
Our country may be small, but we are a large nation. We have responsibilities to ourselves and our international partners. The Queen Elizabeth carriers will ensure that we can act unilaterally, as in the Falklands, and guarantee a leading role in bilateral and multilateral operations. The carriers will support larger and more frequent sorties than our current ones, and their amphibious assault capability means that they can cover when HMS Ocean is unavailable. They could support unmanned aircraft, and the flexibility provided by their large deck space will increase our potential to support humanitarian and evacuation missions.
The very nature of a carrier strike means that we can intervene militarily without needing to commit troops on the ground or, where soldiers are required in theatre, that the way can be prepared with air strikes and those troops landed from the same ship. Yet such is the military capability of these carriers that their deployment would serve as a significant deterrent to action within Britain's sphere of influence, filling the deterrence gap that exists underneath the level of action which is obviated by the nuclear deterrent.
Ours is an island nation, defined by ocean-bound borders. The defence of the realm, the security of our fuel and food supply, and our international presence depend on naval strength. What I have described is the challenges that we face and the capabilities that we need to meet them. These challenges do not rest; global terrorism does not operate on a part-time basis and conventional military threats are not confined to traditional campaigning seasons. We must be ready to meet whatever faces us, at all times and at a moment's notice. To do that we must commission both the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales carriers. Arguments to build just one or to sell the second off fail to understand the
practicalities of maintaining the operational readiness of a carrier strike force or their export market, which lies solely in design, and not in finished ships.
I have long argued that the key to securing our shipbuilding industrial base is to ensure that our Royal Navy ships are exportable and to build on those markets. We can then have a slower drum beat for British ships, because we will be less reliant on Royal Navy work. A more sensible drum beat would mean that we could make savings and, I hope, be able to afford the number in the surface fleet that we should have. Unlike the Type 26, which has strong whole-ship export potential, if we are sensible about the amount of gadgets and gizmos it has, the carrier's export market is limited to its design and, of course, its excellent engines and other components. Let us not forget that these, too, will provide British jobs and receipts to the Exchequer.
Although I have sympathy with the arguments of the off-the-shelf exponents- we should, of course, be using our defence budget to get the best kit at the best price, to best equip our forces-they fail to grasp the merit of retaining the capability to develop and maintain our assets. The unique collaboration between the Royal Navy and the private sector at Portsmouth navy base delivers on the MOD's challenging targets for operational readiness of the surface fleet. Yet even with this excellence in repair, refit, development and-let us not forget-training, no ship can be at sea, or ready to go to sea, for 365 days a year. Therefore, if we want to have this carrier capability, we need two ships; one carrier is not an option-it is all or nothing, and nothing is not an option.
In recent years, carrier strike has been employed in the Falklands, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan, extending Britain's reach into landlocked countries and across the globe. When the carrier fleet has not been pressed into action, its constant presence has served as a deterrent to those who harm us and our interests. If anyone needs further persuasion, they should consider who is equipping themselves with carrier strike capabilities. It is not only our old colleagues on the Security Council, but emerging nations such as Brazil and India. To sustain our position in the vanguard of world diplomacy and our seat on the permanent Security Council, we must not be left behind.
With two carriers we will have continual and immediate protection. In an unpredictable world, it is hard to evaluate the return on investment, and in a defence context the ultimate return on investment can be achieved only in the most dread of circumstances. The Queen Elizabeth carriers are well able to meet the challenges of this unpredictability: they are multi-use; they can perform amphibious operations as well as carrier strike; they are value for money; they will last for 50 years; we will use them; they will prevent conflict; and they will lead our response when those dread circumstances do arise.
There is often a lack of appreciation and understanding of what the Royal Navy does and of our complete reliance on carrier strike. That ignorance is testament to the Royal Navy's effectiveness. We have taken it for granted.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): In June, when the SDSR was announced, I welcomed the fact that that was going to happen, following through on the work begun by the last Labour Government and by Bernard Gray, who delivered a report with entirely sensible and incredibly well thought through proposals that needed to be acted on to improve the efficiency and delivery of goods and services to and by the MOD. However, the CSR-SDSR time pressure being placed on industry, the MOD and other defence-related organisations is causing increasing uncertainty and real concern. That concern has been evidenced both here at Westminster and across the UK in areas that either depend on the viability of the defence industrial base or have service personnel stationed at them.
The Defence Committee, on which I sit, is forthright in its comments in its first report about the way and the speed in which the SDSR process is being undertaken-the case that was so well made by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I think that everybody in this House appreciated the frankness with which he delivered his comments.
Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con): Does the hon. Lady not concede that there were some strong suggestions when the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) became Prime Minister that there would be a new defence review and a defence White Paper, neither of which was delivered even up until the point of the election, and that that is why we are having to undertake this review so quickly?
Alison Seabeck: The hon. Gentleman needs perhaps to get some of his facts in order. The last Labour Government's position and how we took forward the need for a review were set out very clearly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) earlier today. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not in the House to hear his comments.
The Committee acknowledges that there is a need for this review and for regular reviews in the future. We have been touching on the future needs of the UK and considering the future potential threats, as well as how they fit in with foreign policy, and I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) described some of the issues from a pan-European perspective in an interesting and thoughtful way. The Committee came to the view, which I share, that there is huge potential for mistakes to be made and that those mistakes could be irreversible.
In their recent evidence to the Committee, businesses added their voice to the debate. They felt that the process was moving too fast and that there had been little and in some cases no contact between senior defence industrialists and some Government Departments, including the Treasury, which I find astonishing. However, that tallies with the comments made by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire about a cacophony of anxieties. That was clearly evident from the comments that were made to us.
Indeed, when my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) asked whether there was a risk that the cuts could affect the industries' capacity to continue to deliver and therefore put the defence of the
realm at risk, the answer came back as a clear yes from Ian King, chief executive of BAE Systems. He went on to say that for
"some of the capabilities in the programmes, you are at that critical point where if you cut back on them you will not be able to reconstitute the capability, and it will be lost to the UK. That will have an impact on the economy, because of the high-end skills that we have in the sector. Also, if you think of defence exports, an area in which the UK, I think, punches way above its weight, you will not be able to sustain that going forward."
From my constituency's perspective, those words cast a long shadow, and I make no excuse for being incredibly parochial. We have in our dockyard one of the most highly skilled and efficient work forces in the country-a company that is growing and adding value to the UK economy through its exports and to the local economy through the well-paid jobs it provides and the way in which they bring spending power into Plymouth and the sub-region. Babcock signed up to the terms of business agreement that the last Government set in place, which gives real value for money and provides significant efficiencies. It would be extremely difficult for the Government to get out of that agreement without significant cost.
The terms of business agreement reinforced the announcement in the maritime change programme that was made under Labour and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) that Plymouth would continue to be a centre of excellence, particularly for deep maintenance work, and I trust that there is no intention to change that position. Our dockyard and naval base, to which I shall return, support about 7,000 jobs directly and about the same number again externally, including small and medium-sized businesses in the supply chain. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) flagged up the supply chain in relation to the Astute submarine. I have here a map that shows clearly at least 100 main contractors for the carriers, 13 of which are in the south-west. Each of those 13 contractors has a multitude of smaller companies feeding into it, supporting UK defence.
We need those jobs. A recent BBC-Experian survey flagged up just how vulnerable Plymouth would be without them. We are 309th out of 324 local authority areas in terms of our dependence on public sector-including MOD-investment and jobs. If we were the subject of significant job losses, we would be disproportionately hard hit. Because of our peripherality, we are not in a position, without significant Government investment in transport and digital links, to attract large private sector companies of the type that the Business Secretary and the Chancellor seem to think will fill the gaps left by the removal of any public sector involvement. We know that that investment is not going to happen.
The city of Plymouth has an exciting growth agenda, but that could be scuppered if the wrong decisions are made in the defence review. The cost to the Treasury of the loss of fiscal income and increased benefit payments for unemployment and housing, as well as the loss of spending power and therefore of income because of the VAT increase, would be significant. If Plymouth does not thrive, the whole sub-region will suffer. The planned local economic partnership proposed by the Conservatives could struggle without a hub such as Plymouth that is really thriving. What has the Business Secretary got to say about this in relation to the SDSR? He really should have a view, as should the Secretaries of State for Work
and Pensions and for Communities and Local Government, not least because Plymouth city council will be left to pick up the pieces as it had to when cuts were made to the defence industry under the previous Conservative Government. We know from bitter experience that it takes decades to recover from such a position and that that places a huge burden on the local authority. Perhaps that is why the Conservative leader of Plymouth council has added her voice to the campaign that is being taken to her party's Ministers to ensure that the SDSR does not damage Plymouth's economy.
Plymouth has the largest naval base in western Europe and has the capacity cost-effectively to take more work and more vessels. There is a very strong economic argument for making better use of our flexible facilities. We need to support the skills base by bringing more ships alongside, perhaps moving them from Portsmouth. The hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) gave an extremely robust defence of the two carriers, and I utterly support that position. We could align the regular day-to-day maintenance with the deep maintenance.
Let me draw hon. Members' attention to an incredibly robust article in Warships International Fleet Review by Francis Beaufort, entitled, "Will 'coalition of idiots' shut Devonport, give the marines to the army and send ASW"-anti-submarine warfare-"'on holiday'?" In the article, he comments
"None of Portsmouth's fleet support facilities compare with Devonport's. The latter can refit nuclear-powered submarines, handle deep work on surface warships...as well as offering a world class Operational Sea Training centre for the Royal Navy,"
and so it goes on. The article also touches on flag officer sea training from Plymouth, which brings in a healthy income and can operate only in Plymouth because we have fast access to deep water. That is not the case anywhere else in the UK and certainly not in Portsmouth, where ships would have to negotiate busy shipping lanes. The Thursday wars that are operated so easily in and out of Plymouth simply could not be done anywhere else. So, I hope that that is not being considered as something to be moved.
The Navy needs to retain its amphibious strength. Significant investment has gone into, and is going into, Plymouth to support the Royal Marines, who are due to move there from Poole shortly. That capability is crucial to the shape of the future fleet and links to the need for the two carriers. I strongly counsel against any move to mothball the three vessels and landing craft that are currently based in Plymouth.
If the Treasury and MOD can sort out their turf war, they should look at whether, given the statements of the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Defence Secretaries in the run-up to the election that we must retain three naval bases, there is scope for minimising Portsmouth in a way that enables it to capitalise, as Plymouth cannot, on the commercial interest in the site and the higher land value of the MOD asset there, while retaining a Navy presence in Portsmouth, including its headquarters.
Devonport has a long naval history, with its infrastructure, skilled personnel and natural providence. The MOD could do a lot by protecting and, indeed, expanding Plymouth, but at the very least the new Government should stick to the findings and proposals of the maritime
change programme and the naval base review which underlay the Government's guarantee of a bigger and better future for Devonport, because it simply makes sound economic sense.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I am grateful to be called to speak in this debate on the issue of defence, which is so important to the Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency. May I say what a delight it is to follow my neighbour and colleague the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck). I associate myself strongly with much of what she has said.
In both my maiden speech and the Afghan debate last week I paid tribute to 3 Commando Brigade, 29 Commando, the Royal Marines and of course the Royal Navy, which have played an enormous part in ensuring a strong defence for us in Afghanistan. I will do that again today.
Obviously, the biggest issue that the coalition Government face is bringing our public finances back under control and delivering a defence and security strategy to protect our country for the years to come. This is not just a parochial matter for Plymouth; it is a much broader issue relating to the security of our whole country. This summer I submitted my own paper to the defence review. I argued that Devonport had a significant part to play in defending our country. It has done in the past and I very much hope that it will in the future. We are one of the oldest dockyards in the country, with 24,000 or 25,000 people dependent on the defence industry within the travel-to-work area. We have a highly skilled work force in a place with a reputation for low skills. It must not be ignored, and I very much hope that it will not be in the review.
I want to use this opportunity to ask the Minister to ensure that we retain flag officer sea training and the deep maintenance and submarine work on which the city is very dependent, and that we become a centre of excellence for amphibious ships and the home of the Royal Marines. We need to put Devonport's role in the context of the financial climate and challenges that our Government face and concentrate on the British international role. The review must assess Britain's role in a changing world, where there is a significant acceleration in the shift in income and global power is shifting from the west to the east.
In recent years a succession of natural disasters have taken place, and we have been expected-rightly so, in my opinion-to provide armed services to play a significant role in helping people who have been badly afflicted, whether in Pakistan in the recent floods or in response to the Tsunami five years ago. With Iran and North Korea developing nuclear capabilities, we must retain an operationally independent strategic nuclear deterrent that is effective and credible. The cheapest and most practical way of doing so is by modernising our Trident system. I therefore fully support the comments made earlier. I hope that this morning's speculation is exactly that-speculation without an enormous amount of foundation.
To my mind, NATO should be the cornerstone of our defence policy. Our contribution should reflect our maritime history and worldwide international interests.
We need an effective Navy, an effective Air Force, and effective amphibious forces. We need the two aircraft carriers desperately, and the logistical capacity in terms of naval and air cargo capability to support the international operations that we are involved in. I fully support the building of those two aircraft carriers, and the need for effective air power as well. We must retain a Navy and Air Force that are capable of engaging in state-on-state warfare, together with the capability to contribute to amphibious and wider operations.
While the UK and France should work closely together where we can, I am realistic about what that can achieve. If we are to have joint arrangements, I think that they should be with the United States of America; after all, we have much closer links with the United States than we have necessarily with France. It is no coincidence that some of the most enthusiastic proponents and advocates of Franco-British and joint European procurement are the defence contractors-I wonder why.
Government must reorder their priorities within public expenditure. The weighting of defence expenditure within public expenditure has fallen from 15% to 11%. In February, the Labour Government produced a Green Paper that assumed that defence should be planned at the current spending levels. That must be challenged. I understand that these views will not be very popular with my hon. Friends in the Treasury, but I believe that the principal issue in the level of defence spending should be deciding our political priorities. It is not that we cannot afford this; it is a question of the priorities that we choose within the public expenditure envelope. Defending our country must be the Government's top priority. At the end of the cold war, the defence budget stood at about 5% of gross domestic product. In the mid-2000s it was squeezed to 2.5%, despite our troops being committed to extensive overseas operations.
I want to leave the House with this one thought: we are spending less money on defence than we did in the 1930s. Let me repeat what one of my namesakes, Oliver Twist, asked of Mr Bumble: "Please sir, may I have some more?"
Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): One of the interesting things about speaking this late on in the debate is that most of the things one was going to say have already been said. I must congratulate the Chairman of the Defence Committee-I am the Vice-Chairman, so I would say this-on a very good contribution that covered all the relevant issues from A to Z.
I should like to put on record the fact that our hopes and wishes go with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who are based in Glencorse barracks in my constituency and who, earlier this week, went out to Afghanistan to train up some 4,000 police officers. The solution that we are looking for requires the Afghan police force and army to be able to take over when we finally leave. I wish our troops well. Indeed, I will be visiting Glencorse barracks tomorrow.
Yesterday, someone asked me why I was involved with the Defence Committee when I had no background in the armed forces. When I left school, many years ago now-hon. Members may not believe that-people went into the pits, the textile industry or the Army. We have heard about the footprint that the armed forces have
within the United Kingdom and how society has changed in this respect. If some of the cuts that are being talked about go ahead in bases throughout Scotland, and indeed the UK, some of them will go and there will be another generation with no connection whatsoever to the armed forces. That is what has been happening over the years. When I talk to young people, I find it more and more difficult to tell them about the relevance of our armed forces and why it is important to support them.
This has come about because of personal experience; we all do things because of our own personal experiences. I came into this House in 2001. I was on Capitol hill when the plane hit the Pentagon in 2001, so I have first-hand experience of what terrorism at a new level means. We have to deal with our situation in the 21st century and take on a new weapon: terrorism. That point has to be identified.
When I returned, I realised for the first time what it meant to represent people as an MP, rather than as a councillor or trade unionist. An MP is the only person who may have to put their hand up in this Chamber and decide to send young men and women to a conflict from which they might not return. That is a sobering thought for any politician, and it grounds them in what they are doing.
On that point, I must tell new Members that they can join the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which comprises the Navy, the Air Force, the Army and the Marines. I honestly think that any new Member should consider doing so. I have been on it since 2001, I am now on the second part and I have been all over the world. I have visited Iraq and Afghanistan not only with the Defence Committee but with the armed forces, and the scheme is absolutely brilliant for seeing and understanding exactly what life is like on the front line. In an earlier contribution, we heard about the other work of the armed forces. They do not just fight; they perform rescue work and a multitude of other tasks. When people get involved with the armed forces, they begin to understand the scale of their work.
As the only Scottish Member on the Defence Committee, my constituency is Scotland, and it would be remiss of me not to argue the Scottish case in terms of the review. In Scotland, we have more than 12,000 armed forces regulars, out of 178,000; 1,640 officers; 10,540 officers in the national armed forces; more than 4,000 people in the Navy; more than 3,000 in the Army; more than 4,000 in the RAF; and the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces employ more than 20,000 people throughout Scotland. They are massive employers.
The armed forces continue to have a significant presence in Scotland, with 381 sites. That was the footprint to which I referred earlier, and if we start to withdraw it we will begin to lose contact with the population. That is a very important point. There are 18 armed forces career and information offices throughout Scotland; 5,000 armed forces volunteer reservists; 10,000 cadets, in spite of that disappearing footprint; 10 university squadron corps; 58 Territorial Army centres; 17 combined cadet force units; four university officer training corps; and 220 cadet detachments, supported by 1,000 adult volunteers. The MOD spends an average of £600 million in Scotland each year, it awards more than 500 direct contracts and substantial additional jobs in defence and manufacturing go through it, too.
I listened to the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) discussing how much is spent in each region, and he painted a picture that should concern everyone, but if it were left to his party, we would be flying kites as an air force in Scotland and have Captain Pugwash going up the Clyde-probably in the name of Alex Salmond.
Another important point for the review is that the UK defence industry employs some 300,000 people-a phenomenal number. In my constituency, a small factory unit employs 350 people including apprentices, and they need the aircraft carrier project to go ahead. They cannot have it delayed, because that would mean people being laid off; and once an employer loses people, as I know as an ex-miner, they will never get them back, because those people will find a future somewhere else. It is really important that we understand that point.
BAE Systems trains more than 1,200 people at any given time-it is a massive employer. In addition, UK defence exports amount to £7.2 billion-not million, but billion-so any effect on the defence industry will directly affect employment and Britain's exports, thus producing another problem. The great concern about the review is that it is Treasury-led, and it must be prevented from becoming an argument about jobs, important though that is. It is far more about the defence of the realm, which is the most important thing. Jobs are key, but this is about deciding where we are as a country. That decision has to be taken by every Member of the House, not by an alliance. We should decide what role we want to play in the world, and then we can decide what type of armed forces we should have to support that decision. Every single Member should want to play a role in that.
The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is obviously going to be on the Back Benches for life given his comments today-just like me. I am one of the 126 rebels on Trident, and proud to be so. I understand Members' concerns and views-I think it is an immoral weapon and one step too far, but I also respect the views of colleagues and comrades who decide otherwise. However, the Treasury has now forced a debate by putting Trident into the MOD budget, and people will expect that debate to take place. They will not understand if we cut back on soldiers, the Air Force, the Navy and our orders without Trident being talked about. The matter will have to be debated on the Floor of the House, and it might be defeated-one never knows. At the end of the day, people outside understand the bigger issues and will expect their politicians to work on their behalf.
"I hope the defence review isn't simply a budget-cutting exercise, but stems from an objective and careful look at where Britain wants to be on the world stage"-
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