The cost and specification of the new carriers has been much derided. One estimate is that they could be as much as £3.1 billion more expensive than planned.

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I have heard many an “amusing” conversation in this place about the decks being too short for aircraft to take-off and the possibility of sailors being burnt to a crisp by aircraft engines, along with other such Bird and Fortune material. We laugh, while blindly heading for a greater folly: spending such a sum, only to deny ourselves the capability that it should have brought. If we end up with just one operational carrier, we will have wasted £5 billion over the initial estimates, yet for months of every year we will be without cover. If our enemies strike during an off-period, the British people will ask what that hefty final bill has actually achieved. Thanks to the last Government, £3 billion has been needlessly spent on carrier strike force. Under this Government, let us not have £7 billion pointlessly spent.

5.20 pm

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): I am grateful to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker. Like others, I declare my interest as a member of the Territorial Army. There seem to be enough of us here to form a small platoon, which would perhaps be interesting, although such a platoon would come only from this side of the Chamber. Indeed, there is a noticeable absence of support for today’s debate from the Opposition Benches—[ Interruption ]—other than from the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), who has just walked into the Chamber.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who, with his eloquent speech, raised the standard of this debate—we were getting into the weeds a little bit, talking about the tactics of the SDSR rather than the strategy. We were starting to talk about the individual bits of kit that we enjoy, like or are in love with—we are always quick to quote a retired general or admiral saying, “This is exactly what we need”—rather than stepping back and asking what the strategy is and where we fit in the bigger picture. Fundamentally, the SDSR is about how we protect our people, our allies, our economy and our infrastructure—indeed, our way of life—from the potential risks that we face. It is about how, on occasions working with our allies, we apply the instruments of power to influence and shape the global environment, and how potential tactical threats affect us.

The shadow Secretary of State did not want to get partisan when I intervened on him, but it is important to reflect on what happened over the last decade. Not only did the previous Government not have an SDSR, which was bad time management, but not having one affected our military’s ability to perform. During that decade we saw the September 11 attacks, we were involved in enormous campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we had the July 2005 bombings. The type of threat changed, compared with the cold war stance that we were used to. There were huge changes in operational tactics too, with the introduction of drone warfare, advances in missile systems and stealth technology—ways to introduce force multipliers that did not exist before. The conduct of war also changed, with an emphasis on stabilisation operations as much as war fighting, as illustrated in Iraq and Afghanistan. The kinetic phases

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of those campaigns were over very quickly, but the lack of an unconditional surrender meant that we then got into protracted stabilisation and peacekeeping operations.

I was saddened to visit Sandhurst not long ago and find that it had only just introduced courses in CIMIC—civil-military co-operation—which are required to enable the military to liaise and work with civilian counterparts, NGOs and the Department for International Development in those other operations, which start in the aftermath of the war fighting. That is what we now need to get good at; that is what was missing in Afghanistan and Iraq. Had the Labour Government held a defence review, those issues would have been identified. However, they did not, and we failed to take the opportunity to fundamentally modernise our armed forces. I think the Chilcot inquiry will reflect that. It will show that our armed forces found themselves in two campaigns with the wrong numbers and the wrong equipment, and without a clear strategy.

I firmly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border about our ability to work more cohesively with other Departments. We need to be able to work with DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that our strategy—the purpose of sending our military into danger—is absolutely crystal clear. It is clear from General Petraeus’s book on counter-insurgency that it is not enough simply to defeat the enemy; we now have to win over the hearts and minds of the locals—the friends that we are trying to support.

The triangle consisting of security at the top, then governance, followed by development and reconstruction has still not been developed. In Afghanistan, the security aspects took far too long to get right. Huge questions still arise as to why we ended up in Helmand province anyway. Those of us who know the history of that country will be aware of the treaty of Gandamak and the battle of Kandahar. Events such as those tell us that we are not particularly welcome in that patch of Afghanistan, given the history there. There might have been other places in which we could have been more strategically helpful. Lessons have been learned from those engagements and put into practice in Libya, where there has been a far more coherent effort, not only within our own Departments but in regard to whom we work with, including our NATO allies.

Labour missed a massive opportunity to understand what exactly our military are expected to do. Our armed forces were placed in danger and given kit that was out of date. I mentioned Snatch Land Rovers in an intervention. Too often at that time, other bits of kit were thrown at the military for testing, to see whether they would work. They included vehicles such as the Jackal, the Cougar, the Vector and the Ridgback. Eventually, the Mastiff came along and proved to be the most suitable for use in those operations. Things should not have had to work in that way, however. A security strategy could have helped in that context.

Procurement errors have been made. The Nimrod has been mentioned many times in the debate. The contract for its development was signed in 1996, and it was due for delivery in 2003, yet not one aircraft ever received a certificate of airworthiness. The Sea Harriers have been cut, which means that there is now no chance of us ever putting a carrier in. The existing Harriers do not have guns; they do not have the Mauser weapon systems.

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They cannot carry the Brimstone or the Storm Shadow, yet those missiles were critical to the success of the action in Libya.

We get stuck with certain favourite bits of kit. The Apache is now in a new dimension. It travels at two thirds the speed of the Harrier and fires the Hellfire missile, which is just as potent as any of our other weapons. We hear that the Falklands are under threat. We have an aircraft carrier there, so the base already exists, and it has the Typhoon and the Tornado. The Argentines spend only £3 billion on their defence budget, compared with our £30 billion. I believe that we should place the question of Argentina in a separate context in relation to the SDSR. It is a distraction from where we are going.

Finally, I should like to congratulate the Defence team on what it is doing. I think that we are finally progressing—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order.

5.27 pm

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). I, too, would like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) and to the Backbench Business Committee.

I am speaking on behalf of my constituents, but I am also speaking on behalf of the many who are serving in our armed forces who cannot speak for themselves. As has already been mentioned today, George Washington once said:

“In time of peace, prepare for war.”

I feel that that quote is rather pertinent, as we scrutinise the progress of the strategic defence and security review. There is no doubt that a review was needed, but the decisions that flowed from it have left our country exposed and weakened, militarily and politically—the two go hand in hand. How can we possibly advance our peaceful cause, and protect our interests around the world, if we do not have sufficient muscle to flex, and ultimately to use, when things go wrong, as history shows they do. Yes, Labour left us with a £38 billion black hole. Yes, the Ministry of Defence was bloated. Yes, the armed forces are top heavy and need rebalancing, and yes, procurement was out of control. Regrettably, however, the Treasury’s will has prevailed over that of the military.

There is to be a loss of personnel. The Army is to lose 7,000, and the Royal Air Force and the Navy 5,000 each, with a further 4,000 soldiers to go. That is a tragedy. In regard to our front-line troops being protected from the cuts, we have been told that no one who is in receipt of the operational allowance, preparing for deployment, on post-deployment leave or recovering from injury will face compulsory redundancy. Although that has been followed to the letter, we know that, in some cases, compulsory redundancies have followed the end of post-deployment leave almost immediately. I should also like to comment on the fact that some troops who are currently preparing for deployment know that they are on the list for voluntary redundancy. How odd that must be for them, fighting for their redundancy money. I wonder what that does for morale on the battlefield.

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I would also like to touch on plans to change the ratio of regulars to reserves from 80:20 to about 70:30. The reserves, who include many esteemed colleagues in the House, do a wonderful job, and I pay due respect to them, but I believe, as do others, that the thinking behind the proposal is seriously flawed. When budgets are tight, the integrity of the armed services must be maintained by the regulars. We simply do not have the money to spend on the reserves, as they do in America. Reserves are harder to recruit and retain, and expensive to train. If thousands of troops return from Germany, where will we train our armed services? Even now the reserves in my constituency of South Dorset have a nightmare trying to find places to train because the regulars get there first. Senior officers have told me that they would rather have more regulars for the same amount of money.

I turn to the ongoing redundancies. With nearly 3 million people out of work, is it wise to throw experienced and highly valued servicemen and women out into the cold and potentially on to the welfare state? It simply cannot be. I genuinely believe that those who have not served in the uniformed branch of our country, and that applies to most people in the House and, dare I say, all the Cabinet—that is not a personal assault on them—simply do not understand its value. Quite apart from the wonderful job all those in uniform do, they are standard bearers for our local communities and contributors in many walks of life, especially when they return to civilian life. Having served, they give back so much.

Much mention has been made of the gaping hole, up to 2020 or thereabouts, that will exist in our defence strategy. Not until then, we are told, will we have two new aircraft carriers, supposedly, the planes to fly off them—as we have heard, we are not sure which planes they will be, whether they will be able to land or take off, or whether they can deliver the necessary armaments—the new fleet of Astute class submarines and six state-of-the-art Type 45 destroyers. I will believe it all when I see it.

In the meantime, the storm clouds are gathering—this is not some dramatic statement; they are. The following is not an exhaustive list. There is Iran. There is the Arab spring, which I and many others believe is turning wintry. Even our recent triumph in Libya looks shaky. There is Nigeria and Yemen. There is the Falklands. There is Russia—unpredictable. There is China—empire building. North Korea remains a sinister enigma. In Europe—our allies—the German chancellor warns that “half a century of peace in Europe” could end if the euro collapses. Here at home—let us not forget good old Britain—Irish terrorism still erupts sporadically. On the mainland, we considered deploying troops on our streets to counter riots.

What do we do? We disarm. The truth is defence spending must rise, not fall. It was 5% when I served, and it is now about 2.5%, as we have heard, and the NATO minimum is 2%. It is our solemn duty in the House to protect our island, safeguard our dependent territories, and meet our NATO commitments. The money must be found, and it can be. We squander millions on overseas aid—I accept that charity must go abroad, but not to the extent it does. There is our massive contribution to the EU, and when we renegotiate—and we will—we will get back billions, which we can then spend on things that this nation

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needs. There are the many quangos that were going to be burned on the bonfire. Then there is the vast welfare state. The list goes on.

Defence is a matter of priorities. I accept that, economically, Departments must make cuts, but will our enemies look at this country and refrain from aggressive action because we face austere times and cut our defence capability? History shows that that is when our enemies will strike.

5.34 pm

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): As the newest member of the Defence Committee, I congratulate the Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), on setting the scene for this excellent debate. I also endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray).

In opposition, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats criticised the Government because our armed forces were under strength and overstretched. I regret to say that the coalition Government are making a bad situation even worse. The morale of Her Majesty’s armed forces is not as good as it should be and among the reasons for that low morale are poor conditions.

I commend the previous Government, for example, for what they did with the new Merville barracks in the Colchester constituency, but I condemn them for their failure to upgrade the family accommodation sufficiently in 13 years. Even today, one can see it with single soldier’s accommodation. When the Defence Committee went to Catterick, we were shown level 4—perhaps it is called category 4—accommodation, which reminded me very much of what we used to see in “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” when the work force decided to decorate the place. The Army in Catterick got in paint and paint brushes and allowed the soldiers to determine their colour scheme in the various bits of the barrack block. The colour variations included interesting combinations and the quality of the workmanship was variable. I do not think that that is the right way to treat our brave soldiers, nor is it right that soldiers’ families should continue to live in accommodation that is not what we would expect in civilian life.

We know that the size of the Army will go down and we have been told today that the numbers will be the lowest since the Crimea. The statistic I had was that they were the lowest since the Boer war, Baden-Powell and Mafeking. Whatever that number is, it is too small for us to have a role on the world stage. We have commitments. The Falkland Islands have been mentioned and I should like to endorse those who have pointed out that it is fortress Falklands now and that things are completely different from 30 years ago. I do not think we should get over-anxious. We obviously need to be alert, but we should not think that the Falklands in 2012 are as they were in 1982.

I pay tribute, as others have, to the Territorials and reservists. Without them, we could not do what we do. Without the 10% of the British Army that is not British, it could not do what it does. We should pay tribute, in particular, to those people from the Commonwealth nations who serve in Her Majesty’s three armed forces.

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Let us also praise those who provide leadership for the air, sea and army cadets. I am delighted to say that we have all three units in the garrison town of Colchester.

I want to conclude, as others wish to speak, on the subject of the future of the Ministry of Defence police. There are some 3,600 MDP officers and their headquarters are in Essex, in Wethersfield. Despite their highly trained and specialised nature, the role of Ministry of Defence police is often not well understood by decision makers and the wider general public. Indeed, under the previous Government, I went to the MOD to make a special plea on behalf of the Ministry of Defence police in the garrison town of Colchester and I could not get people to understand the important role they played. As a result, the number of MDPs in my constituency has gone from 30 to three. With the best will in the world, the Essex constabulary cannot plug the gap left by the loss of 27 Ministry of Defence police officers. The MDP is facing major cuts to its budget and numbers as part of the strategic defence and security review, with a potentially disastrous impact on national security. The Ministry of Defence must reconsider and I hope that the Defence Committee will help the Ministry of Defence realise that cutting the MOD police is not the brightest of the ideas that it is considering.

5.39 pm

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): As a member of the Defence Committee, I welcome this opportunity to contribute to the debate. Defence reform is a complex matter and it is not easy, in a few minutes, to encapsulate coherently and completely in an incisive contribution how one would move things forward. I say that to mitigate the disappointment when I sit down and to reflect how difficult it is to reform a Department that has so much complexity hard-wired into its fabric. Much analysis and many reports on this issue have been undertaken over the years and I do not want to use my time now to revisit controversial decisions on whether, if or when we will have an aircraft carrier or aircraft carriers, or on the number of senior posts that will be rationalised, or on how those decisions were taken. Neither do I want to examine the different reasons armed forces personnel face a greater likelihood of compulsory redundancy than their civil service counterparts.

The three points I wish to raise today concern culture, accountability and the measurement of outcomes. Regardless of what decisions are made about programmes and the size and shape of the three services, it is in those three areas that lasting, effective and meaningful reform will be achieved. Many people will probably raise their eyebrows at the mention of culture and think it is a soft and peripheral concern. They might think that the culture of the armed forces is well defined and focused, so let me explain what I mean.

I have no doubt whatever that the sense of discipline, service and mutual dependency is fully developed within the culture of the armed services, as is that brave willingness to risk life and limb for country. However, I am increasingly of the view, through all my different interactions with the armed services in the two years I have been in the House, that although in operational terms there is no doubt about how well the different services work together, when it comes to taking decisions in the interests of UK defence at the strategic and policy level, individuals display an undue dependency

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on their own service, department or section and the affinities that go with them. Often, I feel that decisions on fundamental matters of reform are made on the basis of the relative political skills of the senior individuals involved. Until a culture exists that rewards and prizes fully at all levels the good of UK defence above other ingrained imperatives, lasting and successful reform will not happen. We cannot continue to pay lip service to jointery from a structural and organisational chart perspective but make no real investment in the mechanics of decision making within the MOD.

The second issue I want to address is accountability. The Defence Committee’s report of just this week says that

“the MoD could not provide adequate audit evidence for over £5.2 billion worth of certain inventory and capital spares.”

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) referred to the Secretary of State appearing like the chairman of an international company.

Mr Gray: A very good one.

John Glen: Indeed, but what would happen in a business if such inventory could not be accounted for so that for the fifth year the financial director had to qualify the accounts? My gallant Defence Committee colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), recently told me he had once been severely reprimanded for an unaccounted rifle. That was only a generation ago, yet today £125 million-worth of Bowman radios are still unaccounted for.

Many Members will raise their eyebrows, because the issue has been highlighted so many times in different reports, but poor accountability for decisions and outcomes and for the use of public money needs to be addressed. Accountability needs to be hard-wired in the MOD, not just at the highest level but at every level, otherwise reform will not be successful.

The final issue I want to examine is measuring outcomes. As a member of the Select Committee, I draw attention to our recent report, which notes that we were told that

“88 per cent progress had been made to a stable and secure Afghanistan.”

It is a promising statistic, but when we examined it further we were told that

“the performance was not 88 per cent against a full range of indicators of what is happening in Afghanistan, for example on the quality of governance, the economy and security.”

In that case, what is the point of such a statistic in the MOD’s annual report and accounts? We can debate at length the different aspects of decision making and allocation of resources, but until we have proper accountability and measurement of outcomes we cannot have real change in future outcomes and conduct in our MOD. We need to change the culture. We need real accountability, with consequences. We need to measure outcomes so that effective decision making can be built on well into the future.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I remind Members that the wind-up by James Arbuthnot will start no later than five to 6.

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5.46 pm

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, on which I sit. His leadership is outstanding.

I want to talk about what might be the most important thing: morale. As we all know, Napoleon called morale the sacred flame—the thing that matters more than anything else. He said that morale is to the physical as three is to one. When I was a captain, I used to teach leadership at Sandhurst and I could not quite understand what he meant. Ten years later, when I was a British military commander in Bosnia, people would ask me—Serbs, Croats or Muslims—how many men I had under my command. I would reply, “Lots. How many do you think?” They said, “Between 3,000 and 4,000.” I had 800. Morale made the difference.

High morale is definitely a force multiplier. It is not quantifiable statistically, but we can feel it. My experience is clear. When we go into a unit, we can feel what morale is like from the way people talk, stand and behave. Let us be clear: the British armed forces have the highest morale in the world on operations. Anyone who has visited our troops in Afghanistan can see that. Wherever British soldiers go in the world, their morale is high on operations. I am worried about what happens when they are not on operations.

In all the years I have been involved with the Army, and it goes back a long time—1967—I have never seen such low morale among personnel when they are not on operations. There is a difference. On operations they come up to the plate; they are fantastic. They are everything one would always expect. It is the British way of doing it. But off operations—boom! Down they go.

Obviously, the SDSR has an impact, because there is massive uncertainty on job security and life for the future. There is a pay freeze, and rising inflation has made life very difficult for the junior ranks. Some service personnel are involved in change programmes. They see an increase in work load and fewer resources being given to them. Obviously, barracks and the accommodation are not great. The Welsh Guards in Cavalry barracks are looking forward to having a hot shower when they go to Afghanistan—and they are in west London.

I hope last night’s Evening Standard is wrong that anyone above the rank of sergeant is going to lose his or her London weighting, because if that is the case a sergeant will get a 4.5% pay cut in London, when he or she has no choice over where they are deployed. Do we take a pay cut? Do we lose our London weighting? Do civil servants lose their London weighting? It is not fair.

Many people, of course, serve away from home for a long time, and the tour interval for some people is now down to about a year. Families do not like it, clearly, and they put pressure on soldiers. The biggest contributory factor to low morale is the fact that our armed forces are taking such a cut in personnel.

Leadership is essential. Leadership in the Ministry of Defence is about heart as much as statistics. Soldiers need to know they matter and are cared for by the people who look after them. Military commanders should look downwards first before they look upwards. I am slightly worried because I seem to think—I hope I

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am wrong, but perhaps I am not—that too many generals are trying to be political or be civil servants rather than looking down at their soldiers.

I will end, because I know we are short of time, by concluding on morale. If we want to be the best—to use the Army’s phrase, “Be the best”—we must get morale right. It is not right at the moment, particularly when our soldiers, sailors and airmen are not serving in the field. Addressing morale is the top priority of everyone in the Ministry of Defence, from the Secretary of State downwards. It is very important that everyone in a position of power and influence puts their heart and soul into getting that vital aspect as good as it can be. Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker.

5.52 pm

Mr Arbuthnot: With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will simply do a brief analysis of what has emerged from a really good and effective debate.

The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) talked about nuclear deterrence. Personally, I give his arguments rather more credence than most of his own party do, because he was thoughtful and highly intelligent, as one would expect from him, about the nuclear deterrent; but the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) later made some comments about the nuclear deterrent, echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), which I think carried the day in the persuasiveness of the arguments. Nevertheless, I thought that the way in which the right hon. Gentleman spoke was very sympathetic and most persuasive.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) showed what he brings to the House of Commons Defence Committee. He brings a passion, an understanding and a degree of detailed knowledge of figures that is sometimes quite intimidating, but is enormously valuable. He will hold the feet of the Defence Committee to the fire, and as a result we will do our best to hold the Ministry of Defence’s feet to the fire.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), as always, drew our attention to important matters, such as the maritime patrol aircraft—a key issue—and the various ways in which its absence will cause huge difficulties for this country. We on the Defence Committee know that it was perhaps the most difficult issue for the Government to confront in the strategic defence and security review, but when the hon. Lady told the House that we could be sharing Luxembourg’s maritime patrol capability, that brought home quite what a pass we have come to.

I want to defend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has been accused of partisanship. I am not entirely sure that he was attacking the Labour party; I think he was mostly attacking the previous Prime Minister, and in that many might join him. In fact, many Labour Members might join him, judging by the many conversations I have had with former Secretaries of State for Defence bemoaning the way Ministry of Defence budgets were treated.

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I hope that at some stage my right hon. Friend will be able to provide me or the Committee with a written answer on why the stabilisation unit, which is not part of the combat forces in Afghanistan, is expected to be withdrawn by the end of 2014. It seems to me that it has a role to play after that.

Having defended my right hon. Friend, I shall attack the shadow Secretary of State for Defence in a way that I have attacked him before by suggesting that he runs the real risk of becoming leader of the Labour party. I know that that does him no good, but I have always thought it. He was described today as temperate, and rightly so in my view.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) made a powerful case on the bases and barracks in and around his constituency, which will go down extremely well in Scotland, I am sure. The hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) offered a world view of defence and of the strengths and weaknesses of Europe. I entirely agree with his comments, apart from one with which I have a little difficulty. I agree with him that Europe has to step up to the plate a great deal more than it has done recently, but in response to his suggestion that the cuts we make in this country should be contingent on other countries improving their defences, I have to say that he might have to wait a very long time before that happens, although I hope I am wrong about that.

It was wonderful to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh). At last I have found someone who is even more gloomy than I —[ Laughter. ] I will long remember his final quotation and try to use it myself. On the point he made in his speech, Argentina should be in no doubt that we will not let the Falkland Islands go, and if the Falkland Islands were by any chance to be retaken by Argentina, we would take them back.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) demonstrated in his speech why he is the chairman of the all-party group on the armed forces. He made an excellent defence of defence budgets and the armed forces in general. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) made a powerful contribution, as he always does, to today’s debate and raised the question of whether we should have one carrier or two. I think it essential that we have two carriers, properly configured.

I am not at all surprised that I agreed with everything that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) said. I think the whole House values his experience as a reservist. I am not all surprised either that I disagreed with a lot of what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) said, but he said it with such strength, clarity and passion that, as has been noted, he kept the whole House gripped. He also made us think, and what a valuable thing that is for a debate such as this.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) talked about very important issues, echoing many that have been made about maintaining the cohesion of the armed forces—

6 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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AFC Wimbledon

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.)

6 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): I am pleased to raise this issue in the House today. AFC Wimbledon has an important place in the hearts of many of my constituents. As we approach another big FA cup weekend we will, I am sure, look back at many of the cup’s greatest moments. Perhaps none are so fondly remembered as one from nearly 24 years ago, when a team that had been in the Football League for only 11 years beat probably the best team in Europe, when the Dons of Wimbledon beat the Reds of Liverpool and John Motson coined his wonderful phrase, “The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club!” My dad and my sister were very lucky to get tickets for the cup final, and a picture of me with my dad, who passed away five years ago, hangs proudly in my hall back in Colliers Wood, with him wearing his yellow and blue rosette. It was a happy day for our community, and it was also one of the happiest days for me, my sister and my dad. Winning the FA cup was a thrilling achievement.

Nearly a quarter century on, the achievement of one club in going from non-league to FA cup winners in barely a decade has been mirrored by the achievement of another. That club is AFC Wimbledon, which despite being formed only in 2002, has now made its way in less than a decade from jumpers for goalposts to the Football League. Less than 10 years ago a community came together in a time of struggle, and now they have achieved something even more amazing than the original Wimbledon. I am sure that all Members with an interest not just in football but in the power of community will want to join me in saying how proud we are of AFC Wimbledon. Therefore, I take this opportunity to congratulate the manager Terry Brown and his predecessors, and all the current and past players and staff.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate, and for allowing me to intervene. She is absolutely right. The key word she has hit on with AFC is that it is a club of the community of Merton and Wimbledon. The work that it does in the community, beyond its work on the football field, is to be commended. That is why the nickname “The Dons” needs to come back to that club, where it belongs.

Siobhain McDonagh: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman.

The people we most want to congratulate are the supporters. AFC Wimbledon is owned by the fans through a small supporters group, the Dons Trust, and is deeply rooted in our community. When it was promoted to the Football League at the City of Manchester stadium last May, after Danny Kedwell’s penalty kick and Seb Brown’s heroic penalty saves, it was not just the club that was celebrating, it was the whole community.

But I have not called this debate today just to praise my local football club—although that would be reason enough. Yes, I want to use this debate to inspire, and to sing the praises of community football, but the main

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reason I requested the debate is that, strange as it may sound, everyone involved wants to prevent what happened to us from happening again. No true football lover could possibly want what happened to us to happen to anyone else.

Yes, it is true that the fans of AFC Wimbledon are enjoying their success, and yes, they are the same people who enjoyed success as supporters of Wimbledon, but the highs that we have experienced are nothing compared with the lows, and we do not want another club to suffer those. First, in 1991, the club left its home at Plough Lane. This was an ignominious time, especially for those of us who, like me, were connected to Merton council. We were persuaded by the owner, Sam Hammam, that Plough Lane was unsuitable for top-flight football, which required all-seater stadiums, and that he should be allowed to leave while a new stadium was found.

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate this evening. The point that she is making is pertinent to many football clubs. Does not that show just why, when the Government are considering the future licensing regime for football, there should be a presumption against clubs being able to move out of grounds, unless it is in the interests of the club and they have somewhere permanent to go?

Siobhain McDonagh: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. AFC Wimbledon is a case in point that justifies such registration.

AFC began to ground-share with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park in Croydon. They never returned. Even worse, new owners took over and, in 2001, announced that they wanted to move to Milton Keynes. There was of course opposition from fans—not just fans of Wimbledon, but those of virtually every football team in the country. The move was opposed by the Football Association and even the Football League, which blocked the move twice. Many MPs became involved in the campaign against the move, and I wrote numerous times to the football authorities. With such opposition, few of us believed that the move could happen, but in May 2002 an independent commission gave it the green light.

The decision was as devastating as it was incomprehensible. It was the end of the road for our Dons. For most fans enough was enough, and they stopped supporting Wimbledon FC, which suffered so much that it went into administration the following year, shortly before finally moving into Milton Keynes in September 2003. Not only had the club failed to return, as Sam Hammam had promised it would, but thanks to the independent commission, what was still left was stolen and taken to another part of the country.

That was the point at which most people would have walked away, but a remarkable group of people decided not to. According to legend, a group of fans including Erik Samuelson, Ivor Heller and Kris Stewart met in a pub and decided to set up their own team, which would be owned by the fans and rooted in the local community—a club they could be proud of. In June 2002 they held open trials on Wimbledon common and cobbled together a team in just a few weeks. Their first game was a friendly against neighbouring Sutton United, another

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famous FA cup giant-killer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sutton won the match 4-0, but the result was less important than the fact that the dream was now real.

Rather like what happens in Kevin Costner’s “Field of Dreams”, those people built their club thinking, “If we build it, they will come.” In a race against time, they found a ground at Kingsmeadow, just over the Merton border in Kingston, and persuaded the Combined Counties Football League to let them enter their competition. And once they had built it, come they did. Around 3,000 fans went to those early games, more than the old Wimbledon had attracted in the championship. What followed has been astonishing: five promotions in nine years.

However, that is not the whole story. AFC Wimbledon achieved their success in the right way. On the field, year after year they have won the Fair Play award, and off it they have been a model of good management and community involvement. The club is owned by the Dons Trust, a supporters group pledged to retain at least 75% control of the ownership. In 2003 it made the difficult decision to have a share issue in order to buy Kingsmeadow, the ground they share with Kingstonian, a club that is itself in terrible financial trouble and threatened with new asset-stripping owners.

AFC have been looking to return to Merton ever since, and the council has been very co-operative and supportive throughout. The leader of the council, Stephen Alambritis, a qualified football referee, is personally very involved in working with the club to identify a new home in the borough if that is at all possible. AFC have a real commitment to community sport and are well known in the area for their commitment to women’s football and youth football. I have only good things to say about the chief executive, Erik Samuelson. He is a fan first and foremost, and infamously agreed to carry out his full-time duties in return for the nominal sum of one guinea a year, because

“it sounded posher than a pound”.

He would be the first to say that the club would be nothing without every supporter helping to make it a success and the fans who give up their summers to paint the ground, or spend match days selling programmes or running the car park.

AFC have always been very supportive of the activities that I get involved with in Mitcham and Morden. In 2009 I held a reception for the club here in the House in recognition of its community work, and I remember those people being greeted warmly by many Members. Indeed, back in 2007 when the club was docked 18 points for not knowing that it had to fill out an international transfer form in order to sign a retired player, Jermaine Darlington, from Hackney, 88 MPs joined me in signing an early-day motion about it. Even the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, told the House:

“it sounds like a daft rule, and someone should change it.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 813.]

AFC have made a big impression, because they have been recognised for their work in our local community. So that brings us up to date.

AFC are an inspiring story of good people doing good things and getting good results, and this is now our opportunity to ensure that clubs such as Wimbledon

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never have to go through the same thing again. The review of football governance is very much to be welcomed, and the work of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, in particular, has been incredibly helpful.

I especially pay tribute to a former Member. Alan Keen was an exceptional chair of the all-party football group and, by all accounts, an excellent football player—even into his 70s. He played a leading role in getting football governance taken seriously.

Supporters Direct, the independent co-operative that champions fans’ concerns, has also been inspirational. Established in 2000, thanks largely to the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), and the exceptional Phil French, whom I was pleased to see at AFC’s first league game against Bristol Rovers last August, it has been a powerful voice of good sense. I especially thank Kevin Rye, who has been a great help to me today, but the entire organisation is fantastic.

I do not have time to go through the whole subject of football governance, because it deserves a far bigger debate and there are many more people qualified to speak on it than me. I am concerned about the narrow question of how the review of governance can stop clubs going the way of Wimbledon and ensure that they go the way of AFC. It should not be possible for clubs just to pick up sticks and leave the communities that support them. A proper, grown-up relationship between communities and their clubs is the way forward for all clubs, and I back Supporters Direct’s call for action.

We now have an opportunity to ensure that football clubs can never again have their identity stolen or be uprooted and moved away from the communities that support them. If Supporters Direct’s model of formal licensing had been in place prior to 2002, Sam Hammam and his successors might not have got away with what they did, so we need new rules on supporter and community engagement that give rights to supporters on behalf of the community. Those rights should include the right to have a “fit and proper supporters’ trust” to engage with its club, with basic rights to information, including financial information, and to hold meetings with club executives.

We should make it mandatory to secure the agreement of the fit and proper supporters’ trust before any fundamental changes to a club, such as the sale of its ground or a move to a different part of the country, take place. I support also the proposals to reduce clubs’ dependency on “benefactors”. Instead, clubs should have to rely on generating their own revenue, as AFC Wimbledon do, as a protection against overspending by speculators.

It is clear in my mind that Supporters Direct is right, and I should like to hear the Minister’s views on how licensing could help the supporters of clubs such as Wimbledon, but I should like also to raise the thorny issue of identity theft. It is not the first time that I have raised it in the House, and Members have usually agreed that identity should be protected.

When the FA commission agreed to let our club leave south London, its supporters felt that their identity had been stolen. Everything that they identified with suddenly belonged to someone else. Very kindly and sensibly, the new Milton Keynes club decided that, even though they were essentially the same club as Wimbledon FC,

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they no longer merited the honours won by Wimbledon, so they handed over the titles and cups to Merton council. They even changed their name from Wimbledon to MK Dons, but “the Dons” is the nickname of Wimble-don, and now that AFC Wimbledon have reached the football league it is time to reclaim our identity. We are the Dons, and it is time for the authorities to look at the running sore of our identity being stolen.

The Dons are from Wimbledon, and it is time for the new club in Milton Keynes to come out of the shadows and stake out its own identity. I understand that they are a good team with a good young manager, and, although what they did caused a lot of hurt, it is time to consign it to history. It is time for them to find a different way of representing their heritage, in their name, and then the team that are known throughout football as Franchise FC, which most fans think gained their position through identity theft, would be able to carve out their own identity and allow AFC Wimbledon to retain theirs. That would be good for Milton Keynes, removing much of the stigma associated with that club, and it would be good for the game.

I hope that the Minister will therefore commit to ensuring that the new licensing model also tackles identity theft, and I urge him to back the “Drop the Dons” campaign, launched earlier this month by my local newspaper, the Wimbledon Guardian, and to support my early-day motion on the subject.

It has been a real privilege to hold this debate today. I have always said that mine is a strong community, and that we are at our best when we act together. Nothing demonstrates that more than the Dons Trust and its creation of a brand-new football club to replace a much-loved old one.

In just nine years, the club has come a long way and made a big impression not just on me, but on many Members and on the wider football world. When we lost our football club 10 years ago, we lost some of our pride in our community. Well, we have got it back, but we do not want anything like that to happen to anyone else, and we believe that we now have an opportunity to ensure that it does not. So I say, on behalf of every supporter of every club rooted in every community, “Come on you Dons!”

6.14 pm

The Minister for Sport and the Olympics (Hugh Robertson): That is a difficult one to follow, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this debate and on the great interest, knowledge and enthusiasm with which she has promoted her local club. I genuinely thank her for that; one of the great things about my job is that it is not always a terribly party political post. I take great pleasure in the fact that Members from both sides of the House want to come together and praise the great work done by sports clubs in their local communities.

I associate myself entirely with the remarks that the hon. Lady made about Alan Keen. He was a great friend. I am not a good enough footballer to have played much football with him, but I played a great deal of cricket with him. He was a remarkable cricketer for a man in his 60s and a great sports enthusiast. Many people across the House miss him greatly.

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I congratulate AFC Wimbledon on their promotion to the Football League this season. That was well merited and, as the hon. Lady said, a fantastic example of what can be achieved. It was the culmination of a great many things, many of which she mentioned in her speech. However, as she correctly said, it is, just as importantly, an example of what can be achieved through the power and determination of supporters—I am thinking particularly of the three gentlemen whom she mentioned. It is the supporters of AFC Wimbledon who, through their financial acumen and leadership, have driven this success. That is a great model for what fans can achieve and a great example, dare I say it, of the big society in action. I am delighted that their achievements have been recognised by Downing street.

In the coalition agreement, the Government made a commitment to work with the football authorities—the Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League—in this country to encourage reform of football governance, including measures that would encourage co-operative ownership of football clubs by supporters. Like the hon. Lady, I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. The Government have supported its report and recommendation that football supporters should have much more of an active role in the running and decision making of their clubs. In our response to that report, we have suggested a number of ways in which we believe that may be achieved.

The first is through fans being better informed about a club’s activities—for example, its financial standing, particularly, and the identity of its owners. Secondly, supporters ought to be represented or consulted in the club’s decision making. That will help to prevent such unpopular decisions as a club’s moving miles from its traditional fan base, as was the case with Wimbledon FC. Thirdly, supporter and supporter-run groups ought to have a formal share or ownership in their club.

Following the Select Committee report, we have given the football authorities—the FA, the Premier League and the Football League—the time to determine the best way of achieving those goals. In their response to the Select Committee process, they have the opportunity to work together collaboratively—they have not always done so in the past—for the long-term benefit of the game.

We have asked those football authorities to bring forward their proposals in three key areas by the end of February this year. The first is the reform of the FA board—a long-running sore since the Burns review. Secondly, there is the relationship between the board, the various FA committees, the council and the shareholders. Thirdly, and most relevantly to this debate, there is the introduction of a licensing system for all professional clubs, where much more robust rules around financial sustainability, fit and proper persons and directors are laid out. We see that licensing model as the appropriate vehicle for greater supporter representation at football clubs. As I said, the football authorities are due to make public their proposals by the end of February. I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not pre-empt that tonight.

The hon. Lady was right to praise the work of Supporters Direct, which has been pivotal in the whole process. It provides fans with the focus and voice to ensure that

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they can secure influence and ownership of sports clubs and has contributed to the setting up of a network of supporters’ trusts in many sports beyond football.

I recognise that any change in the corporate governance landscape of football ownership will be something of a cultural change. Given that we are trying to modernise and professionalise the governance of football, there will have to be a similar step change in the skills of supporters’ representatives. That will ensure that the success of AFC Wimbledon is repeated across the country and across the leagues.

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I will finish where I started, by congratulating the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Crucially, I not only congratulate AFC Wimbledon once again on their promotion and their recent award, but thank them for the excellent work that they do in the community, which as the hon. Lady said was recognised here in a reception in 2009. To conclude, I reiterate the coalition Government’s commitment to encouraging greater supporter involvement in football clubs. With the hon. Lady and many Members across the House, we await with interest the response of the football authorities to the Select Committee’s report.

Question put and agreed to.

6.20 pm

House adjourned.