Delivering Security in a Changing World: Future Capabilities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:20 pm on 21st July 2004.

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Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Defence 1:20 pm, 21st July 2004

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for early sight of the statement and pay tribute to the members of our armed forces.

Under Labour, our armed forces have seen an unprecedented tempo of action not only in combat in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq, but in filling vital gaps in the public services at home during the fuel crisis, foot and mouth disease and the firemen's strike. However, today, members of the armed forces will feel little reward for their unparalleled commitment. There is more money but the Government are desperately trying to do more with less. I agree with the MOD that there is a need to look at the defence budget, but Labour seems to be looking in the wrong places.

The most unbalanced part of the defence budget is the procurement programme—it is not infantry regiments, warships or RAF units. When it comes to cutting costs—or cutting corners—it is easier to cut current capabilities than future ones.Future capabilities take a long time to come on stream. Cuts are made instantly.

We welcome the decision on carriers that was announced today. It is right to take time to look at that, but why cut the number of surface ships and why order Type 45s without land attack capability? We welcome the decision on the C-17 announced by the Government today. We should have bought the four in the first place but which RAF bases are the Government considering cutting and why proceed with so many Typhoons that may never have an enemy to fight against?

On the Army, why invest so much in network-centric capabilities and effects-based operations, when the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that winning the peace is more difficult than winning wars? That depends on low-tech soldiering, not high-tech weapons. We agree with getting rid of the arms plot but why cut the troop numbers? Which battalions are now under review?

The UK has a deserved reputation in conflict prevention and in peacekeeping. Spending on prevention should increase, so that we do not need to spend so much on cleaning up when it is too late.

The Secretary of State talks about redundancies. Can he give a cast-iron commitment today that no individual currently or recently serving in Iraq or Afghanistan will receive compulsory redundancy as a result of the announcements today? Does that mean that manning control is back? If 10,000 civil service jobs are to go, does that mean more work for uniformed members of the armed forces? Our armed forces are ridiculously overstretched, so why not use spare capacity to reduce overstretch? We do not know what the future holds. A little spare capacity would be a good thing. We do not need to issue redundancy notices.

The Secretary of State, however long he is in his current job, will be judged on whether he has the balance right—high tech on one side, troops on the other. The Liberal Democrats believe that today he has got that balance wrong.