Defence in the UK

Point of Order – in the House of Commons at 12:18 pm on 26th April 2007.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Tony Cunningham.]

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence 12:19 pm, 26th April 2007

I welcome this opportunity to debate defence in the United Kingdom. I know that the House will echo the sentiments that the Prime Minister expressed at yesterday's Prime Minister's questions, marking the recent loss of service personnel in Iraq. The three personnel were brought home earlier today, and our thoughts are with their families at this difficult time.

The House often—and rightly—discusses military operations abroad. I again pay tribute to the tremendous work that personnel from all three services are doing in the most difficult of environments in Iraq and Afghanistan and to their achievements there and elsewhere serving on our behalf. We should not forget that they could not achieve so much overseas without the right training and support at home. Nor should we overlook the huge contribution our forces make to this country, its success and its prosperity.

First, second and last, defence in the UK is defined by the people of the armed forces and the civilians who support them: almost 390,000 in all, nearly 200,000 of whom are regular military personnel. If we include their families, the community is very substantial indeed—probably about 1 million. When the wider community of veterans and their families is included, defence in its wider sense represents a very significant proportion of our society.

I want to focus on issues related to people: how we look after them, train them and respect them. Above all, defence in the UK is about people and their communities. Military bases the length and breadth of the country, from Lossiemouth to Portsmouth, Brize Norton, Catterick, Harrogate and Winchester—north, south, east and west—make a major contribution to local communities and local economies.

The backdrop to all that is that all three services are in a state of major change, as is the Ministry of Defence itself. Each of the three services is reviewing its structures and basing. The naval base review is currently ongoing to establish the most effective way—in terms of capability and cost—for the Royal Navy to meet its future requirements. It is a complicated and wide-reaching review, and when it is completed later this year the House will be duly informed of our findings and conclusions.

The restructuring of the Army, through the future Army structure and the future infantry structure, will enhance the operational effectiveness of the Army as a whole, ensuring that it is properly configured in this era of joint and expeditionary operations. It will also improve stability for our soldiers and their families in the long term. When the process is completed, Army personnel will no longer be subject to constant relocation. We are planning the establishment of super garrisons, with comprehensive modern facilities. That will help to make life more stable for personnel and their families, improving continuity in schooling and access to dental and medical care, and helping our people to put down roots.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

When does the Minister envisage bringing back the British Army on the Rhine, given the extra costs of those personnel serving there rather than here? If he is thinking of super garrisons, will he please consider Bicester in the list? It was a super garrison for the Romans, and it would be an ideal super garrison location for the UK Army in the 21st century. [Interruption.]

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

As the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend Derek Twigg says, "What have the Romans ever done for us?" The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, however, and we are considering relocating a sizeable number of personnel back from Germany. We benefit greatly from our presence in Germany, not just because of the quality of our basing there, but because of the extent of the training estate. Clearly, having people close to good training environments is essential. All 22,000 personnel in Germany will not be returning, but we are considering relocating a sizeable component, and the German authorities at both federal and local level have been notified of that. We have employed many people there over the years, and we must also consider the impact on their communities.

As for Bicester, nothing is ever ruled in or out. If a defence estate is available, we always consider whether it is where the best fit can be achieved. Off the top of my head, I cannot say whether anything has been specifically planned for Bicester along the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman, but I will always consider any good ideas.

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"All 22,000 personnel in Germany will not be returning. . . we must also consider the impact on [the communities of the German authorities]" The first thought was that this is extremely generous of the UK government, at the expense of the British taxpayer. But later in the debate Labour's Bruce George introduced another dimension - the risk to Britain's commercial interests from Russia, a close neighbour of Germany: "What happens in Georgia is of importance to us. First, so much of our energy comes through that country and BP is the largest investor there. . . My great concern is Russia. I am not being paranoid and saying that Russia is a threat. It is not, but the speech that President Putin gave a couple of months ago in Germany criticised the...

Submitted by I J Continue reading

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

The Minister is right that the super garrisons must be based near the best possible training facilities. I can think of no better place, however, than RAF Lyneham, which he has announced will close in 2012. Has he given any thought to what will happen to Lyneham after the RAF pull out in 2012?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that we are considering Lyneham, and a number of options, and one main one, have been examined. All of this is in the early stages, however, and I will deal later with the extent of the process, the way in which assets are released and how best to allocate them. As ever, we will keep all those who have a shopping list on what we should do in defence up to date as best we can. I have initiated a proactive process, because sometimes in the past we have tended to be behind the curve in notifying local communities and in planning. Clearly, that is not desirable, and if there is an early indication of a possibility of relocation, we should talk about that as early as possible, as it may save the closure of a school or something else. We are conscious of that issue, and the response of communities is helpful.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

I feel obliged to get involved in this debate about new training facilities, as it is an important one. Recruitment in the north-east is probably the strongest in the country, so should not any new training establishment be in the north-east, and particularly in Stockton, which had an RAF base that was second-to-none during the second world war?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I may not get beyond page three of my speech if I accept every intervention on the quality of existing or past bases. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue, however, and, as I said, we consider what assets we have and where the best fit is. We try to consider the quality of life of the families involved, as well as value for money. Sometimes, we might be prepared to make a move at a later stage than when a particular asset is available, and an asset cannot have a planning blight on it. Defence Estates and its broader reach involves a complicated picture, and that is why a committee of senior personnel in the MOD considers all those matters. It is a complex grid, but intense effort is put into trying to get the best solution. But, as ever, the request made by my hon. Friend has been absorbed.

In addition to the Royal Navy and the Army, the Royal Air Force has been conducting a review of its airbases to ensure that service units are combined for maximum efficiency and operability. The aim is to reduce running costs by seeking to rationalise around fewer sites, while continuing to deliver operational outputs and meet future challenges. Twelve airfields have been, or are being, disposed of, two more have been closed, and we are planning to dispose of a further 10 by 2010.

The House will be aware of some of the decisions that have been taken on long-term basing of our RAF aircraft: Lossiemouth will be the base for the joint combat aircraft; Kinloss for the Nimrod fleet; Brize Norton for the air transport fleet; Leuchars and Coningsby will host Typhoon; and Waddington will be the base for our intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance assets. The underlying drive is to maximise the resources available to the front line, to deliver operational effect rather than administrative overhead. All three services have made great progress in that. The Navy and RAF have combined their operational and personnel commands and the Army is following suit.

In the interim, that has meant significant upheaval for a large number of our personnel, military and civilian. The long-term gain, however, is to achieve the best military fit and the best solutions for our service families. All those decisions and others that will follow will define the long-term lay-down of our defence estate. We generally welcome the good and harmonious relations that we have with the communities neighbouring our bases. In a number of cases, the defence presence is a major part of the local economy, sustaining communities and improving the quality of life in the area.

For the vast majority of our personnel and their families, the United Kingdom is home. I am aware that despite the huge sums that we are investing in accommodation—£700 million in this year alone, and £5 billion over the next decade—there is much more to be done. In the past six years 20,000 new single living bed spaces have been provided, and a further 20,000 will be delivered in the next five years. In the same period, we have upgraded 12,000 family quarters across the United Kingdom. In the past six months we have opened new single living accommodation at Colchester, Honington and Woodbridge, to name just three locations. This is all part of our commitment to deliver better homes to our people and their families.

Getting the whole estate up to the required standard will not be achieved overnight; a long history of underfunding means that it will take years to put things right. However, after a difficult start the new maintenance regimes for service family accommodation in England and Wales have made real progress, and we will continue to refine and improve them.

We also recognise the need to improve the support that we give personnel who wish to buy their properties. We have worked with the Department for Communities and Local Government to gain access to the key worker living programme, which has given service personnel a new way of gaining access to affordable housing in all English regions and, to an even greater extent, in London and the south-east and east of England.

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The biggest sell off tax payers assets should be questioned before another scandal ensues.
Management of the MoD estate as a corporate asset includes rationalisation and consolidation, working towards focusing the Ministry's activities onto fewer, larger sites. Since 1998/1999 DE has disposed of land and facilities surplus to requirements to the value of £1.46 billion!!! Part of this includes privatising military training in the biggest sell off ever! Stop it now before it is too late.
http://www.cynefinywerin.org.uk/

Submitted by Anne Greagsby

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

Can we learn from the mistakes of past Governments as well as the present Government? We should think very carefully when we sell off married quarters because bases are closing. The Minister mentioned the new accommodation that we have built at what was RAF Woodbridge, but we have just sold much accommodation—for instance, at RAF Bentwaters, just a few miles down the road. That seems completely illogical.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I think it has been recognised that it was a fundamental mistake to sell off all the housing.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

It was done under this Government.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I will not engage in a debate about the apportioning of blame. The hon. Gentleman asked whether we could learn lessons, and the answer to that is yes. There is an imbalance between the location of some accommodation and the location of our requirements, and we need to think about innovative solutions. I mentioned the key worker living programme, which allows personnel to buy properties with considerably less capital than they would otherwise need. They can buy between 25 and 75 per cent. of a property on which they will pay a mortgage, and pay subsidised rent on the remainder.

As the hon. Gentleman implied, no one has a monopoly on good ideas, and we are still looking for good and better ideas. We must be imaginative and innovative, and think not just about the here and now but about the profile of the next 10, 15 or 25 years. We must find better answers than we have so far, because this is undeniably an important issue.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Opposition Whip (Commons)

I accept what the Minister is saying, but may I ask for a degree of flexibility in budgets? I accept that some RAF stations will close over the next 15 or years. There is little point in investing in SLAM—single living accommodation modernisation—for those stations, but if budgets were flexible enough, existing accommodation could be upgraded slightly to meet the purposes of the next 15 or 20 years.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to take a hard look at this, because I do not think we have got it right yet. We know the extent of the problem, as do service personnel. I know the hon. Gentleman served in Afghanistan, although I assume that he does not live in service accommodation.

There is a great deal of catching up to be done, and we do need to be flexible. We cannot deny that money is an issue—some of the improvements involve considerable cost, and if we did spend money and the improvements proved nugatory people would say we had misspent—but I take the view that it is better to look after people now as best we can, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should think of better ways of doing that.

We have a duty to provide our personnel, both at home and on operations, with the very best medical treatment, and I believe that that is exactly what they get. The Royal Centre of Defence Medicine, which is fully integrated with the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, gives our personnel access to a world-class pool of expert consultants. The priority for our wounded personnel is the best possible treatment, and nowhere is better equipped and able to provide it than the centre at Selly Oak. As people begin to recover, a military environment becomes increasingly important. As and when patients' clinical needs allow, they are brought together in a military-managed ward.

The use of military doctors and more military nurses, and the bringing together of military patients, enables personnel to benefit from a military environment while still having access to the resources and facilities that are available in a leading NHS hospital. There has been much comment, often well-intentioned but ill-informed, on whether that is the right approach. The service medical community believes that it is, and having seen the excellent facilities myself and spoken to staff and patients, I agree. As the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said in March:

"There is nowhere better in the country, nowhere more expert at polytrauma medicine, than that hospital in Selly Oak, that's why our people are there."

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

The Minister is absolutely right to say that a military environment is far the best environment for the recovery of those who have been injured fighting for our country. Does he acknowledge, however, that we are talking about not just a military-managed but an exclusively military unit where all the patients are military, rather than there being a mix of military personnel and civilians?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

Yes. We are thinking about how such a facility could best be delivered. It is definitely ruled in, not ruled out. Obviously there are staffing and other issues to be addressed, but any such facility, if it is established, is likely to form part of the Selly Oak centre. The train has left the station; we are simply trying to find the best solution.

The Ministry of Defence's Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court is the premier facility for the rehabilitation of injured service personnel. There is nothing quite like it in the national health service, and facilities and staff are second to none. Its main purpose is to provide rehabilitation for those with complex injuries, including amputees and brain-injured patients. It also houses a new complex rehabilitation and amputee unit, which provides high-quality appropriate prosthetics and adaptations, manufactured on site and tailored to individual patients, for service personnel who have suffered amputations.

At the heart of our responsibility to the armed forces is ensuring that they are trained to meet every situation that they may face. The training that our forces receive must be tough to prepare them for the demands of operations. We are always looking for opportunities for improvement, and ensuring that training adapts to reflect the increasingly joint nature of military operations.

The defence training review will transform the way in which we undertake specialist training for all three services. Earlier this year we announced the decision to centre the engineering and technical training currently carried out at various locations around the United Kingdom at St. Athan in south Wales. That will reduce the number of sites for specialist training by a third. St. Athan will become a centre of excellence, with modern facilities and modern living accommodation. The process will begin in 2008, and will last five years. Our ambition is that by 2013 the new training academy will be fully operational. The result of the changes will be continued world-class training for our personnel, but in world-class facilities.

I must emphasise the importance of training, tactics and procedures—TTPs—for the protection of our forces on operations. Too often, discussion of force protection becomes a debate about equipment. There is no doubt that that is important, but TTPs are as important, if not more so. The theatre-specific training that our people receive at UK facilities before they deploy—on Salisbury plain, or at Stanford or Hythe—is crucial to minimising the risks they face in Basra or Helmand. An important part of our commitment to our people is making sure that new recruits are properly looked after. They find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, and often they are having their first experience of living away from home. The scale of this issue is significant. Last year, we recruited more than 13,000 to the Army alone, and 19,000 people across all three services. We have had to learn the tragic lessons of Deepcut—but learn them we have. I recognise and accept that there were deficiencies in resources and funding, but now we are doing a huge amount to ensure that those deficiencies are avoided in the future.

The second report of the adult learning inspectorate—an independent body which we asked to look at what we did in training—was published on 6 March 2007. It identified areas of concern where further improvement was required, and I assure the House that we are focusing our efforts on finding answers to those concerns. However, the report also recognised the "extraordinary strides" forward taken in the past two years in the welfare of recruits. Against a backdrop of fiercely competing priorities, not least operations, we have invested some £73 million of additional funds in trainee welfare alone to date, with a further £50 million planned in the coming four years. One important recommendation was that there should be an independent service complaints commissioner. We are now in the process of recruiting for that post.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Like the right hon. Gentleman, I hope that the lessons from Deepcut and in respect of the duty of care have been learned, but one of the issues that was raised time and again was the way in which potential recruits were judged before they joined the forces. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that lessons about the early judgment of the suitability of potential recruits to the armed forces have been learned, and is he also satisfied that we now have in place the right sort of training for the recruiting officers who carry out that task? Do they now have the expertise to make better judgments than they might have done in the past?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman raises two important points. He is right in what he says about the pre-selection assessment. Gaining access to medical records is important, although that is not the only concern, and we now have in place the required process to be able to do that. We are much more conscious of how we assess young people who want to join—people who want to join are not always young, but the most vulnerable ones are likely to be young persons.

I have forgotten the hon. Gentleman's second point. If he reminds me what it was, I had an answer to it which I will then give him.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

It was on the training of the trainers.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

Yes, the quality of instructors was identified as an issue, and, in response, we put in place a more extensive and better selection process for those taking on the instructor role. We are now in the process of establishing a training school—it will be open soon—specifically to train the trainers. That is crucial. Such steps take time, however: we have to get the infrastructure in place, and then we have to find the trainers to train the trainers. A huge amount of effort has gone into addressing the issue, and I am grateful for the support that I have received from all parts of the House in trying to improve matters.

On recruitment and retention, as of 1 January 2007 the armed forces trained strength stood at 97.1 per cent. of the requirement. I would never deny that we face challenges in recruitment and retention. Competition is tough because we have a strong economy, because more people are going into further education and because our personnel are in high demand in the civilian world, but we are making progress. The number of those in training has risen by almost 2,000 since January 2006. Exit rates, which were increasing, have now steadied: 500 fewer soldiers left the Army this quarter than in the same period last year, and voluntary outflow dropped over the last quarter. On 1 January 2007, there was a deficit in respect of the armed forces full-time trained strength of 5,330; three months earlier the deficit was 6,330. There are therefore signs that retention initiatives are working; they are one of the tools that we are employing, and they appear to be having an effect.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

The Minister is referring to the regular Army, but the Territorial Army is also an important part of defence of the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend Mr. Gray wears the tie of the Honourable Artillery Company, and I am proud to be wearing today the tie of the Sussex Yeomanry. When I enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry, the TA would have deployed as complete units to reinforce the British Army of the Rhine. That is no longer the ORBAT, or order of battle—that is no longer the case. Many men in the TA find after doing six months of active service in Iraq or Afghanistan that it is difficult for them to do another tour, for family or work reasons. There is a continuous haemorrhaging of personnel from the TA. What do the Government intend to do about that?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I could ask, "What do we all intend to do about it?" There is an issue: clearly, we have a particular problem in terms of TA recruitment. It is one of the reasons why we have restructured the TA to make it more integrated into the one Army. That is beginning to pay off. Recruitment strength is currently standing at about 79 per cent., which is very low, but in 2006 we had the best recruiting period since 1999. Therefore, we must be doing something that is beginning to have a beneficial impact, but we face an uphill struggle. Interestingly, as Members will be aware, we are increasingly using reserves across all our theatres of operation—and reserves are queuing up to serve. I agree that we must address the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. I am unsure whether there are simple or off-the-shelf solutions. We must have intensive recruiting efforts, and we need to keep on articulating that the reserves are important and emphasising what people can get back from serving the country.

Let me now return to our commitment to our military personnel. We are seeking to support them, which is why we agreed a new tax-free operational allowance last year. That was well received. It is also why we have agreed an above-inflation pay increase for all service personnel—an increase of more than 9 per cent. for most of the junior ranks. That is the biggest military pay rise in four years, and the biggest in the public sector. It is well deserved.

We must consider how we support the families of servicemen and women who die in service because giving proper support to such families is part of our debt to those who have given their lives. We must provide support from the time when the tragic news must be conveyed to the next of kin, through to the potentially difficult experience of a coroner's inquest and beyond. We have well-established welfare systems in place to support family members, and we keep them under constant review to ensure that they are fit for purpose—and, again, if lessons need to be learned, we will do so. One aspect of our support mechanisms is military visiting officers, who provide a crucial liaison between the families and the services. If necessary, they will guide families through boards of inquiry and inquest procedures. They stay with the family for as long as the family wishes. That is a difficult task, but those who are asked to do it do so willingly and in a professional manner.

Let me now turn to operations in the UK.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I wish to ask a question before the Minister moves on from inquests. As he knows, a large amount of the work of the Oxford coroner will now be transferred to Wiltshire. Can he give the following simple commitment to the House today? Will that increase in work load be matched by an increase in resources?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I recently had a meeting with the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, who has departmental responsibility for the coroners. We are looking at a number of issues that we must address. We have not quite got the best solution, and we will make a statement, probably as a written statement, on the next developments.

In terms of resources, a process was put in place to try to ensure that the inquests were held nearer to where the families lived, so that the burden did not fall on one coroner and his staff. We have put in additional resources and those resources must match the demand, if the demand increases. We have shown that we learned that important lesson across Government. We need now constantly to monitor the situation. It is not just about speeding up the process; it is also about the quality of the support that we provide to families and the quality of the coroners themselves, who have to understand what are very complex issues. We give a lot of specialist help to coroners, so that they understand the environment in trying to comprehend whether an equipment failure, for example, has occurred. We have ramped up our efforts, and I have direct responsibility for much of the effort that is being made to deliver on these issues. As ever, if we find faults, they will be corrected. It is not that we do not understand the importance of these issues; sometimes, we have to learn a new lesson, and we will.

Let me now turn to operations within the United Kingdom—operations that protect us all in one way or another. Our armed forces support the police and security services in combating terrorism. Over recent years their capabilities, ranging from air defence to bomb disposal, have proved invaluable in preparing for, responding to and deterring violence specifically aimed against British citizens. I am extremely pleased that our longest running military operation—Operation Banner, in Northern Ireland—will, on current progress, draw to an end this year. Force levels, which numbered 28,000 at their peak in the 1970s, stand at around 7,000 and will reduce to 5,000 in the summer. We will maintain troops capable of being deployed in the event of large-scale public disorder, although they will not necessarily be based in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to the 763 members of the armed forces and the 303 members of the security forces who lost their lives as a result of the violence in Northern Ireland. Without their sacrifice, and the efforts of more than 300,000 military personnel who served in the Province over the years, the current peace would not exist.

Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, our forces provide an emergency search and rescue and mountain rescue service. In 2006, military search and rescue units were called out 1,900 times, assisting 1,500 people, mostly around the UK. Just three weeks ago, the Royal Navy and the RAF contributed to the rescue operation after the Norwegian ship Bourbon Dolphin capsized off the Shetland Islands with tragic loss of life. Royal Navy divers undertook repeated searches of the submerged vessel for signs of life. Our servicemen and women are acting with courage and professionalism daily here in the UK, often putting the lives of others before their own.

The Royal Navy continues to ensure the freedom and security of our territorial waters. The ships of the Portsmouth-based Fishery Protection Squadron enforce fisheries quotas and boundaries on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They make an important contribution to the conservation of our fishery stocks. This financial year, crews have boarded 1,332 vessels, detecting 221 infringements.

On bomb disposal, units from the three services assist the civil authorities by providing emergency explosive ordnance disposal teams. Some 2,700 such tasks were undertaken in the last financial year.

The Royal Air Force continues to defend the skies of the United Kingdom. While the threat of a wholesale assault has diminished, a wide variety of numerous incursions remain that, between them, the Civil Aviation Authority, the police forces and the RAF monitor, investigate and intercept if necessary. This remains a 24-hour task, for which the RAF maintains Tornado—and, soon, Typhoon—fighters at very high readiness.

A different type of operation, but one that contributes significantly to the UK's economy, is equipment procurement. Defence makes an important contribution to local economies throughout the country, and to our national industrial base. It supports more than 310,000 jobs in UK industry and commerce. We spend some £14.5 billion directly with UK firms each year, on everything from boots to nuclear submarines.

In many towns across the UK, the most visible defence presence is a volunteer reserve unit. Our volunteer reservists serve the community, their employers and the armed forces. The skills that they acquire as part of our forces—in leadership, for example—make them more effective employees and better citizens. Reservists are performing superbly alongside their regular comrades in Cyprus, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Their qualities are of the highest standard, as the recent awards for heroism of a military cross and a Queen's gallantry medal stand testament to.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He spoke briefly about procurement, and I am a bit concerned that he has already moved on to a more general subject. May I bring him back to procurement and ask him to take this opportunity to update us on what is happening with the F-35 and the elusive aircraft carriers?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I thought that that question, which contained a barb about aircraft carriers, was going to be helpful. We have made it consistently clear that we are committed to those aircraft carriers. A number of factors have to be taken into account, and we will announce the decision when we are ready to do so. The hon. Gentleman will just have to wait, like everyone else, for that announcement. I stated earlier that we have decided where the joint combat aircraft is going to be based, and a very clear commitment has been given in that regard. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks when that aircraft will be ready; on timing, I should point out that this is a complex piece of equipment. I do not have a specific answer on the question of the second engine, but I will write to him giving the best information that we have at the moment. I understand that he is going to Washington. As ever, we encourage people visiting the United States to promote British industry as best we can.

On volunteers, there are of course the 130,000 young volunteers of our cadet forces—the second biggest youth organisation in the country. The cadet forces are based in more than 3,000 towns and cities throughout the UK, and they provide valuable skills and experience for young people from all backgrounds. I would also like to pay tribute to the thousands of volunteers who give up their time to work with these young people.

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blah blah blah blah....does that fill up enough time to pass as an answer ?

Submitted by Richard Wintie

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

No, I want to make progress.

I cannot comment on the contribution of defence to this country without talking about our armed forces veterans. As a mark of how seriously we take this issue, the Under-Secretary has the specific role of veterans Minister. This post was first created in 2001, and it has proved its worth year after year. The reason is simple. Our veterans—young and old—are an asset to the country. Many of the young men and women who enter the forces emerge as skilled, responsible and highly qualified members of society. Of course, this year is a special year for many of our veterans, as we remember the Falklands conflict on its 25th anniversary. The sailor, soldier or airman of today is the veteran of tomorrow. We must make sure that we accord our veterans respect and care—at the level of involvement that they desire. In recognition of this, we have designated 27 June as Veterans day, which provides us as a nation with the opportunity to celebrate their contribution, to learn from their experiences and to respect their service. Last year, we held a very successful event in my constituency, and we intend to make it even more successful this year. We will probably be inundated with applications from people who want to participate. There are very good examples of such events, and we have also initiated a national campaign to encourage greater engagement. Members of this House have a major role to play in that regard.

As I said at the outset, defence is above all about people—people from communities throughout the country who join our forces to serve their country. They rightly expect the support of the British public and of this House. I know how important that is to them as they go about their difficult and dangerous duties on our behalf. Their reputation has been built on the sacrifices made and achievements accomplished over many years, but also on the immense contribution that they make to the United Kingdom. This Government recognise that operational success depends on the quality of our people. We acknowledge our responsibility to ensure that they and their families are properly looked after. We must and will meet that responsibility.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 12:58 pm, 26th April 2007

I begin by echoing the Minister's words about the sadness that is felt in all parts of the House concerning the service personnel who have been killed in recent days. All Members will have the families and friends of those personnel in our thoughts and prayers.

This is an opportunity to make a wider point about the dedication and courage of our armed forces. In an era in which fewer and fewer people in our society have direct contact with the armed forces, too few nowadays understand the pressure on personnel—both regulars and reserves—and their families. Too many people believe that security is a right, and that freedom can come without any cost. We therefore need to remind the British public at every opportunity that security is a contract that has to be renewed by every generation, and that in our armed forces we have those with the skill and courage to make the sacrifices necessary to maintain our freedom and security. I am sure that both sides of the House will want that message to go out loud and clear.

I agree with the Minister's final sentiments about the importance of veterans, the need for respect for veterans and the need to improve the services to them. In the years ahead, our society will have to come to terms with the changing pattern of veterans. Instead of being elderly citizens, such as those represented at the cenotaph, there will be many more younger veterans who will place different demands on the services we offer, and for a much longer time. The veterans of the Falklands, the Balkans and the first and second Gulf wars will put an increasing burden on many of the services that we have a duty to provide. The nature of the disabilities that they experience will also change. Indeed, it has been striking, for those of us who have visited the injured in theatre, Selly Oak or rehabilitation, that the equipment provided, such as body armour, has reduced the number and types of disability. I hope that society will understand that we will need to provide a range of new services and support to those who have made sacrifices on our behalf.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

As well as the equipment provided to personnel, the quality of the medical support in the field is important, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Indeed. I have witnessed that and I commend the professionalism of those involved—some of whom have left the NHS to work full-time in our medical services on the front line. For instance, our field hospital in Basra has the notable distinction of not having had a single case of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in the past four years, which is an example for the NHS to follow.

Today's debate is a useful opportunity to discuss a range of defence issues other than those of Afghanistan and Iraq, which we have debated at length in the House. I shall touch on issues relating to welfare, the overstretch of our forces, procurement and the defence aspects of energy security—all issues that we should spend more time discussing in the House. Welfare issues cannot be separated from those of recruitment and retention—on which the House constantly focuses—because it is common sense that the easiest way to have a problem with retention is to have unhappy service families. In turn, the easiest way to have unhappy service families is to have unhappy service personnel. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to ensure that we consider the continuum of the services that we provide to service families.

It would be churlish not to recognise the considerable amount of work that is being done in terms of service housing improvements. However, it would also be unfair to neglect to mention that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body said in its latest report that

"a significant number of Service personnel and their families are likely to be housed in poor quality accommodation for 20 years or more."

It also said that more than half of single living accommodation is bottom grade. I accept that much has been done in that area, notwithstanding the limitations on finance that the Minister mentions, but we need to give a higher priority to the quality of housing offered to our service personnel and their families. It will be a central element in our ability to retain numbers in our armed forces at a time when demography is against us in the years ahead.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact, as I do, that the MOD is exceeding its improvement targets by, for example, upgrading 1,705 service family houses instead of 600, which is a considerable achievement?

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

As I have just said, I welcome the efforts that the Government are making. Indeed, I have visited some excellent new service accommodation, but the programme is still moving too slowly. Although I welcome the Government's positive efforts, I am sure that the Minister would agree that they should be speeded up to ensure that the problem is dealt with as quickly as possible.

In my previous incarnation as a practising family doctor, I spent part of my time looking after the joint service Royal Army Educational Corps at the Defence School of Languages at Beaconsfield in south Buckinghamshire. In the morning I looked after the armed forces and in the afternoon I saw their families in my civilian practice. It seems to me that even now there is too much of a dislocation between the health care given to the personnel and that given to the families. I shall give just one example. All over the country, service families come to MPs' surgeries with the same problem. A family member is put on an NHS waiting list for treatment. The family is then moved to another part of the country and they go to the bottom of the waiting list there. They can be perpetually on a waiting list, penalised for being a member of a service family and never getting the health care they need. It cannot be beyond the wit of Government and the civil service to construct a scheme that means that service family members are not disadvantaged in that way. It is preposterous that every week constituents come and tell Members about the same problem, but nothing happens. I want to make a special plea to the Minister to make representations to the Department of Health to come up with some method to ensure that those people do not continue to be disadvantaged in that way.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's general sentiment and we are aware of the problem. Indeed, efforts have been made to find an answer. Given the hon. Gentleman's experience, perhaps he could suggest how we could overcome the issue of clinical judgment. How can we impose on doctors a decision different from the one that they want to make?

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I am not sure that that is what needs to be done. It would be easy, in the system of maximum waiting times that the Government have introduced, to transfer patients from one list to another on the basis of how long they have waited, not even taking into account the medical circumstances and prioritisation that should take place. It should not be beyond the wit of Government to devise such a scheme. My hon. Friend Mr. Harper, the shadow Minister for armed forces families' welfare, is considering that, and the Government might like to talk to him about some of our ideas on that issue. We would be willing to share them with the Government.

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee

My hon. Friend has just made an extremely interesting point that almost exactly parallels the experience that the Defence Committee found in the education service. Children with a statement would need another statement done when they moved to a different authority. The message for Ministers is that they need to make a special effort to talk to other Departments whose work has such a direct impact on the armed forces.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend is correct and has saved me from making that exact point. The issue cuts across several Departments, which is why the Leader of the Opposition has appointed my hon. Friend to his post. We require proper co-ordination across Government to deal with service families. Educational attainment and issues such as statementing are as important as NHS waiting lists. If we are serious about addressing the welfare issues that affect service families, top of our priority list must be proper co-ordination between Departments to ensure that they are not penalised in education, health or any other sphere because of their relationship to service personnel.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is right to make the link between support for families and retention. May I draw his attention to the way in which the Royal Air Force is dealing with the issue? The traditional welfare officer, who was probably a senior RSM type and not very approachable, has been done away with. Instead, the RAF is actively recruiting professional civilians to fulfil that role, with a much greater response from families.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

It would be a very good thing if relationships on the ground could be improved, but my point is that we need co-ordination at Government level. There has to be better integration between Departments in Whitehall, and they must have a better understanding of the problems that we are discussing today. This is not a party issue: rather, it is a structural problem inside Government that needs to be dealt with as a priority.

The Minister talked about health care for our armed forces, and the question of why we do not have independent military hospitals arises regularly. It is worth pointing out to those who ask that question that a district general hospital treats about 120,000 patients every year, whereas the Army has fewer than 100,000 members in total. We must accept that the reality is that that makes it impossible for defence medicine to be carried out as it used to be.

Having said that, however, I want to return to what the Minister said about military-managed units. The difference between those units and ones that are exclusively military is very important, as General Sir Richard Dannatt made very clear. On 13 March, he said:

"I have every confidence that in three years time we will not just have a military managed ward but effectively a dedicated military ward where our people will be exclusively attended to."

That is what the Opposition want, but on the very next day—14 March—the Prime Minister told the House that,

"if, for example, there are spare beds within such a ward and the staff are required to look after a civilian patient, it would be wrong to say that such a bed could not be used for a civilian patient."—[ Hansard, 14 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 281.]

The two assertions are not compatible: the Prime Minister's concept is fundamentally different from the one put forward by the Chief of the General Staff. The Government must decide whether or not they believe in exclusively military units. The Opposition strongly urge them to understand the importance of having units that are not just military managed but are exclusively military. I hope that the new Prime Minister—whoever that may be—will make that a priority.

Another specific point that I want to make is that our defence medicine runs the risk of falling behind best practice in other parts of the world. In particular, I bring to the Minister's attention the problem of traumatic brain injury as it affects our armed forces in theatre. He will know that improvements in the quality of body armour mean that more troops are likely to survive blast injuries, but also that they have increased the risk of concussion and other traumatic brain injury.

In the US, protocols have been brought in already to test those who have suffered blast injuries both when they are in theatre and when they leave it. I am advised that the MOD has said that it will wait to see the results of the US programme before introducing similar protocols here, but there is already a large body of medical evidence that the US approach is the clever thing to do. If we wait to get the US results, we risk repeating what happened with post-traumatic stress, when we waited a long time after the end of the Vietnam war before recognising it as a disorder. The quicker we can bring the protocols into play, the better, and the smaller the number of injuries likely to escape detection.

I hope that the Minister will reconsider his approach to this matter, and that he will return to the House and tell us that the US programme can be adopted by the UK in the near future. If we fail to do so, we run the risk that people will suffer long-term psychological or physical damage that could be prevented. It would be a failure of the Government's duty of care if American troops were able to avoid such damage yet British troops were not.

I turn now to the issue of overstretch.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Conservative, North Essex

Before my hon. Friend moves on from post-traumatic stress, does he share my concern that there is not enough support when they return from theatre for service personnel who may be suffering from that disorder? Is it not extraordinary that the Government do not take a more hands-on approach to the problem in respect of personnel who remain in the armed forces, and in respect of those who leave and who have suffered injury?

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend makes an extraordinarily important point that gives me an opportunity to praise the fine work of organisations such as Combat Stress. However, the treatment for mental illness available in this country is generally completely substandard, and I have campaigned for a long time for better health services here. They remain the Cinderella of the health care system, and the flaw is often that we ask mentally ill people to get in touch with the facilities that are available, even though, almost by definition, they lack the insight or ability to access those services. It is therefore incumbent on our welfare and medical services, whether in the military or outside, to make sure that they extend a helping hand to the people who may be suffering, instead of waiting for those people to make contact. Given that studies in the US show that up to 12 per cent. of Iraq veterans return with some sort of psychological disturbance, we must make dealing with those who suffer from post-traumatic stress or other psychological illnesses a priority right across our health services.

The problem of overstretch is one that we have discussed many times in this House. The Government produced the strategic defence review at the beginning of their period in office. Many people considered it to be a very good review, and in my view it is one of the two best reviews that have been compiled since the second world war. From the SDR emerged the defence planning assumptions, but the trouble is that the Government have exceeded those assumptions for the past five years and the Opposition maintain that the Government have not increased defence funding in line with that.

In a written answer of 16 April, the Secretary of State for Defence made an interesting statement. He said:

"The level of operational deployments is reducing and we judge that it will return to within the level assumed in our planning assumptions."—[ Hansard, 16 April 2007; Vol. 459, c. 124W.]

When will that happen? The Under-Secretary will respond to the debate, and I hope that he answers that question. If the Government believe that they are returning to levels of deployment that are within planning assumptions, the House has a right to see the evidence, and the time scale within which that might occur. The Opposition believe that the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have never been funded fully by the Treasury and that, as a consequence, there has been salami slicing in the rest of the armed forces.

When the Under-Secretary gets to his feet this evening, I hope that he will tell the House what is the Government's estimate of the cumulative cost of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to date. Perhaps he would even like to answer that question now, as I am sure that someone is scuttling away to get the answer at this very moment.

A number of practical problems have arisen as a result of overstretch, and we have discussed them many times in this House. For example, there is no excuse for the length of time that it took to get the requisite amount of body armour into theatre. There can be no excuse either for the slow progress that was made towards getting the correct number of armoured vehicles into theatre, or for the continuing lack of helicopters to which those of us who visit—and my colleagues have made many visits—constantly allude.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with planning operations is that the Ministers no longer listen to defence chiefs' advice as they used to? The planning for the Afghanistan operation left troop numbers woefully short. Does he agree that Ministers should have listened more carefully to the military advice?

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

It would be with some fear that I disagreed with my hon. Friend about anything, but I am sure that he is right about this matter. Many of us who have followed the Afghanistan operation from the beginning have felt that Government planning has tended towards the rosy end of expectations. When Ministers were advised that matters might turn out less optimistically, they ignored that advice, largely for political reasons. The fact that we have had to make two reinforcements in Afghanistan is testimony to exactly the point that my hon. Friend makes.I fear that in the months ahead we may see further deployment of British troops for precisely the reasons he gives.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

There is another point that the Government need to take into account. We have to make sure that our NATO allies play fair with us. In Afghanistan so many other NATO countries have so many caveats that it is always UK troops who have to step up to the plate, and as the costs of operations fall where they lie the UK Army has to meet the lion's share, which means that there is a double hit in terms of overstretch.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

As my hon. Friend knows, I have made that point in the House on a number of occasions, and I have recently discussed it with our colleagues in Washington, Canada and Germany, because there is no doubt that it goes to the core of NATO's continued existence. If NATO is to continue as an effective alliance, we need effective burden sharing. Communal security means communal burden sharing, so we need to look at a number of elements.

It is clear that public opinion in Britain, America, Canada and the Netherlands—the countries with the heaviest load in the south of Afghanistan—is offended by the fact that so many caveats are attached to so many of the other forces operating in the country, even though they are our allies and partners in the operation. For example, the idea that some troops should not operate after dark seems nonsense to a country such as the UK. Not only do we have courageous and professional forces operating in Afghanistan, but our costs in terms of fatalities and casualties are much greater than for other countries.

It is important that there is a wider debate in NATO, and I regret that the Riga summit in November missed a huge number of opportunities. It should have dealt with NATO's role, decision-making structure and funding. Proper burden sharing is needed, and there are questions about how NATO should undertake greater expeditionary activity and who should bear the costs, as well as who should be responsible for the defence of continental Europe. Those issues are parts of the burden that must be shared and we should be clear about all of them. An incoming Conservative Government would regard them as a priority, and we are actively discussing them with all our NATO partners to ascertain whether there is common ground for a wider look at how we carry out that burden sharing. All my colleagues on the Conservative Benches believe that if we cannot achieve better burden sharing it will be deeply damaging for NATO in the future.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

It is easy for the hon. Gentleman to perpetuate such myths for media attention and headlines, but what does he think the problem in Afghanistan actually is? General Richards appeared before the Defence Committee on Tuesday afternoon and when he was asked about caveats, said clearly that they were not an issue. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that?

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

That is one of the few occasions on which anyone in the military in Afghanistan has said such a thing. When I have spoken to the military, they have said that caveats are a major issue in Afghanistan. Indeed, not only are they are a major military issue but, more important, they are a major political problem in NATO, as has been said. They affect public willingness in countries making the biggest military contribution in terms of personnel and expenditure. Funding and fighting are linked in NATO, so because we do more of the fighting we have to do more of the funding. Until those political problems are sorted out, it will be increasingly likely that public opinion in the countries making the biggest financial contribution will be that those countries are in an alliance where not everyone is pulling their weight. Given NATO's geopolitical importance, it is vital that we stop that mindset taking hold.

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee

I asked General Richards the question on Tuesday. I think I asked, "Is there anything you'd like to say about caveats, or has it all been said?" and I think his answer was, "Well, actually it's all been said." [ Interruption. ] There is a major issue: the Germans are required to consult and to obtain the permission of the Bundestag for everything they do militarily, so if they have difficulties with further troop deployments, would not it be possible for them to be encouraged to increase dramatically the amount of work and resources they are putting into improving the police force in Afghanistan, which is now the second greatest threat the Afghan people face?

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

That there is such a clear difference between the Opposition and the Government in the interpretation of what was said merely reflects the realities of politics under new Labour. We need to be sensitive in this debate to the fact that attitudes towards the military in other countries can be very different from those in the UK. Countries with conscript armies, for example, find things more difficult politically, as do countries with coalition Governments. Although we sometimes have differences of view in the UK, in general there is broad consensus on military matters and foreign policy. We should not take a punitive approach to those countries, saying, "This is what will happen if you don't contribute more." We need to draw up a menu of ways in which they can contribute that takes into account the political realities and traditions of their country. Clearly, however, there must be burden sharing in one way or another. The current conditions cannot continue, because they cause much frustration and resentment among some of the most important NATO partners.

I am a great supporter of NATO; it is the one organisation that has truly worked in a multilateral way and I desperately want it to continue to succeed. Dealing with the some of issues that my right hon. Friend and others raised must be of the utmost priority.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

If my hon. Friend will permit me, I want to make some progress.

The Minister talked about January's surplus and deficit figures for trained strength and manpower requirements. I can help him by giving him some news. He mentioned a 5,000 deficit in January, but I can give him the figures for March, which show that the deficit has increased to 6,240. The Navy is 1,780 below strength, the Army is 2,500 below strength and the RAF is 1,900 below strength, so the position is somewhat worse than he said.

I am giving those figures for a specific reason, however, as I want to hear the Minister's view about the problems that may affect numbers in the future, especially in relation to South African and foreign and Commonwealth personnel. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that when the South African President signs a Bill into law, more than 900 service personnel—mostly in the Army, which is already 2,500 under strength—will be unable to serve. They make a huge contribution to our special forces, but the control the South African Government would assert will be incompatible with the soldiers' oath of allegiance to the Queen. The Government have been investigating the matter for some time. Will they tell us what they intend to do? We cannot simply stand by and watch the strength of the Army drop by another 900.

What impact will the decision about South African personnel have on other Commonwealth personnel? Will a precedent be set? What effect might it have on numbers? That is one of the most important points that the Minister needs to address. Things are happening quickly and they will have a major impact, so we need to know exactly what the Government's plans are.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We are in close touch with the South African Government and we propose to send out—when they are ready to accept it—a study team to look at the implications of the proposed legislation. We take the matter seriously and are working to reach the best conclusion with the South African Government, who are good friends of ours.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Notwithstanding the Minister's answer, we need to know what the Government intend to do if it is decided that it is no longer possible for South African personnel to serve in the UK Army. Will we offer them citizenship or simply accept a decline in Army numbers? What impact will there be on other Commonwealth serving personnel? It is a live issue and we need further details.

I want to say a few words about the UK defence industry, defence employment and procurement. Too often we forget just how important the defence industry is for the United Kingdom. The UK is the world's second largest defence exporter after the US. The 2004 Oxford Economic Forecasting report for the Defence Industries Council showed that, in 2002, defence exports totalled some £4.1 billion and contributed some £2.8 billion to the balance of trade against a deficit of £8.7 billion.

Regional employment and the impact of defence spending is particularly felt in the north-west, Scotland and my own region of the south-west. In 2004, the value of defence aerospace exports alone amounted to almost £6 billion, and of the top 100 companies defined globally by defence revenue, 10 are UK based: BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, QinetiQ, Smiths Group, VT Group, Cobham, GKN Group, Babcocks, Ultra Electronics Holdings and Meggitt. Those are businesses that the UK should be proud of.

In the south-west, not least in the Bristol area, and in the north-west, which I visited this week, there is, of course, a keen interest in defence procurement issues.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

In the north-east, as Mr. Jones is no doubt about tell me, there is also a keen interest in those issues and their likely effects on employment. I believe that nowadays not even the most unreconstructed trade union leader believes that the role of the MOD should be to create jobs in the defence industry. There is a keen awareness that the best way to maintain jobs is to develop quality products that fulfil the needs of our armed forces and that exportability is key to work force stability and preferable to public money being used for labour market reasons rather than defence capability alone.

The Government are to be commended for the defence industrial strategy and the work done by Lord Drayson, which has made an important contribution to the debate about future procurement— [Interruption.] No, there is no but. There will always be a tension between the need to maintain sovereign capability and the need to provide value for money for taxpayers. There is a balance to be struck between those who say that we must make everything in the UK to guarantee our total sovereignty and those who say that we should buy everything off the shelf in order to lower the cost to taxpayers.

The answer to the problem was to some extent laid out in the defence industrial strategy. Clearly, we need to maintain sovereign capability in areas that are vital to our long-term defence. I believe that areas such as submarines and avionics clearly fall into that territory, although, as was mentioned earlier, the joint strike fighter is a case where we are looking to a partnership with the US for the shared technology for what will probably be the last manned fighter that we build. That may provide a useful model for the UK's future procurement strategy. On the other hand, it would be nonsense to say that body armour or trucks fall into the category of sovereign capability. In those and other areas, it makes sense to buy equipment off the shelf and ensure that it is made speedily available to our forces, rather than to invest in programmes in what would effectively be reinventing the wheel.

Looking ahead to the necessary procurement processes and the strategic threats that we are likely to face, the priorities for a future Conservative Government would be capability, interoperability, adaptability and exportability. We actually wish to see an expansion of Britain's defence exports because that is the best guarantee of long-term sustainable jobs, but for my Treasury colleagues, there are also potential benefits to the taxpayer in a well thought out procurement programme. Let me provide two examples.

The Hawk, developed under MOD funding in the 1970s, cost a total of £1.2 billion for development and production. Subsequently, more than 800 were sold around the world to customers including the US navy, Australia, Switzerland and South Africa. The value to the UK economy amounted to more than six times the initial cost and the estimate of the return to the Treasury for those exports was about twice the initial outlay. That meant benefits to our defence base, benefits to our armed forces and benefits to our taxpayers.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about exportability, not least because of the supply chain in the south-west. Does he agree with and welcome what the Government said in their response to the Select Committee about small and medium-sized enterprises and their work with the defence supply network? That should ensure that, as well as the large industries, the small businesses also prosper. Many of them are the employers in our area.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Lady is exactly right. Small businesses are the bedrock of our economy and whenever we can help them, we should. Now is an appropriate time to pay tribute to the large number of small defence businesses in the UK. They are often niche businesses, and they are vital not only to the economic well-being of the country, but to our research and development base and the well-being of much larger companies inside and outside this country. The hon. Lady might want to get in touch with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ask why he was so harsh in the Budget with the income and taxation of small businesses.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

No, not for the moment.

Another example is the Tornado. The cost of development and production to the UK was about £7 billion, while exports to Saudi Arabia under Government-to-Government arrangements based around the Tornado have been worth some £40 billion to the UK economy over the past 20 years.

Not only does a healthy defence sector provide the UK with a high defence capability, but it provides a strong R and D platform for Britain's other industries, and it can maintain prosperity for the individuals in the industry and for taxpayers as well. However, a poorly thought through programme can be expensive to both industry and the taxpayer. We will be looking for major improvements in the procurement process as part of our review of defence and security policy.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I totally agree with support for the British defence industry, but can the hon. Gentleman explain why his party is playing politics with issues around arms exports to Saudi Arabia? We also had a ludicrous debate in this place about the export of radar systems to Tanzania. That is clearly playing politics with the issue and possibly damaging UK jobs.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I not only refute but resent the implication of that question. Conservative Members have never played politics with that particular issue in any way and would never seek to undermine either the security or the prosperity of this country. The hon. Gentleman might want to have a word with the leader writers of The Guardian.

The final matter I want to deal with is energy as a security issue. There is now broad agreement about the environmental consequences of our addiction to oil and gas, but there are other immediate reasons to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Foremost is our national security. In the years ahead, national security, economic security and energy security will become increasingly synonymous. Our addiction to oil and gas means that we are increasingly dependent on the stability of producer nations to ensure continuity of supply. Additionally, we are increasingly exposed to the risk that these nations will use the supply of energy as a tool of foreign policy. Such "resource nationalism" has already become a cause of alarm in certain vulnerable states. We need look only at the actions of Russia towards the Baltic States, Ukraine or Belarus to see the phenomenon in action.

There are two reasons why energy security has become a more urgent problem for the UK. The first is our increasing dependency on energy imports. Last year we became a net importer of gas and we are set to become a net importer of oil by 2010. Secondly, globalisation has brought a downside as well as an upside. I refer to our sophisticated interdependence and our inability to insulate ourselves from sudden downturns or disasters elsewhere. We are all competing for the same natural resources to feed our economies and we are more vulnerable to interruption of supply—either due to problems with supply itself or with distribution. The House can debate the global economy on a wider basis, but I believe that we have not yet developed the structures necessary to deal with the downside risk exposure that it brings.

I shall focus briefly on Iran and Russia in relation to the military aspects of that particular threat. The United States Central CommandCENTCOM—military command in the middle east watches Iran very carefully. A recent report stated:

"While generally thought to be for defense, Iran continues to build a credible military capable of regional power projection. It has the largest military capability in the region and a record of aggressive military action in and around the Arabian Gulf... Iran's ground forces are arrayed across the country with the majority of combat power along the Iran-Iraq border".

We know that, potentially, Iran is capable of internationalising any dispute by blocking the straits of Hormuz, for example.

All that is troubling and has been debated before, but what should be even more troubling to the House is the extent to which we have funded this defence capability. Iran's oil revenue has risen from $23.7 billion in 2003 to $47 billion in 2005. That economic windfall enabled the Iranian regime to undertake a spending spree on defence. Its defence budget has gone up greatly and it has purchased missile technology and small vessels in particular. Following assistance from North Korea, China and Russia, many analysts now consider Iran to be increasingly self-sufficient in the production of ballistic missiles. Obviously, that capability has received increased attention as a result of the country's nuclear ambition.

Over the past five years, Europe alone has pumped $50 billion into the economy of Iran and an astonishing $232 billion into countries of the former Soviet Union—mainly Russia. Those are the figures for spending on crude oil alone; they do not even take into account financial transfers resulting from the sale of gas or petroleum products. For every $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil, an extra $1 billion goes into the Kremlin coffers. That windfall has been used in both Russia and Iran to finance military build-up.

In other words, we in the west are in a security Catch-22. Our dependence on oil means that we cannot avoid paying whatever price is demanded of us, which leads to huge financial flows out from our economy into the economies of oil producers, some of which might be hostile to us, and the money then finances a defence build-up. That situation is part of the threat that this country faces, so we need to understand and deal with it as a matter of urgency before it becomes even more detrimental to our national security. We believe that dealing with the situation should be the responsibility not of the EU, but of NATO, for the prime reason that that would bring Norway and Turkey into the process at a time when Turkey especially feels alienated.

As I said earlier, this country has benefited from a largely bipartisan approach on defence. Although there have been minor differences between the parties on the way in which we carry out the defence of our country, we seldom disagree about strategic issues. The Government will continue to get our support when we believe that they are doing the right thing, as they have done on Afghanistan, notably, and Iraq. However, if we are to defend our country successfully in the future, we must ensure that the welfare problems relating to our service personnel and their families are properly addressed and that procurement is dealt with sensibly and more efficiently. Operationally, we must understand that we cannot continue to overstretch our armed forces as we are doing now. We cannot continue to fight the battles in theatre that we are fighting without putting in place sufficient investment to ensure that we are able to carry out our mission successfully and guarantee the safety of the troops who put their lives and limbs on the line for the security of this country.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry PPS (John Healey, Financial Secretary), HM Treasury 1:42 pm, 26th April 2007

As we heard from the speeches of the Minister and Dr. Fox, defence in the UK offers us myriad themes to discuss. I want to talk about the defence industry in the UK for two reasons: first, a reducing number of people in the UK have any experience of armed service, so the defence industry is many people's closest link to defence in the UK; and, secondly, this gives me another opportunity to raise points about the naval base review and Portsmouth naval base.

I want to consider defence procurement by focusing on how we get the best value for money and maximise the resources going to our front-line servicemen and women. After all, roughly two thirds of last year's defence budget was spent on defence procurement and logistics. I represent a naval constituency in which much of the local economy depends on defence. Significant numbers of serving and ex-serving naval personnel live in my constituency and 10 per cent. of our residents depend on the defence industry.

The naval base in my constituency is under threat as a result of the naval base review. I will not go into a great amount of detail because I have raised the matter in debates in both the Chamber and Westminster Hall, with support from the hon. Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock). However, I want to make a comment in the wider context of defence procurement. I have said before in the House that value for money in the public sector means economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Economy means not paying £5 for something that can be bought for £3. Efficiency means getting the most out of resources without waste or duplication, while effectiveness is about delivering on goals and strategic objectives. I wholeheartedly agree with that, but in the case of the naval base review, I want to ensure that we do not sacrifice our effectiveness—our strategic military objectives—for the sake of some superficial perceived efficiency. It might look very attractive on the face of it to close one of our three naval bases to avoid duplication, but I think that I have demonstrated on many occasions, as have my colleagues, that that is a short-sighted, short-term proposal. I hope that the Ministry of Defence and the Navy board, especially, will consider all the factors involved in the costs of running our naval bases and not just the headline figures. In particular, they should consider the synergies obtained by co-locating the defence industry close to the naval bases and the partnerships that have built up between the MOD and industry.

When considering defence procurement, we are looking at very long life cycles. There can be up to 60 years between an initial concept and something going out of service, so we need long-term vision and planning for the future. We also need to ensure that there is maximum flexibility, which, in my view, means retaining the three naval bases that we have. That does not mean that we should leave things exactly as they are. We all know that there is huge scope for cost savings and efficiencies in our naval bases, but they should take place in the existing locations.

While such an approach is financially and militarily right, I also think that it is right for the people who live in the cities and towns that house our naval bases. This country owes a debt to cities such as Portsmouth and Plymouth. I have lived in Portsmouth all my life, as have several generations of my family before me, and I am conscious of my city's vulnerability as a military target. It suffered disproportionate damage during the second world war and the rebuilding took years. Perhaps that is why I do not take national security and defence lightly. I do not look at the issue through rose-coloured glasses, but take a realistic and pragmatic view. I am always conscious that many of my constituents have put their lives on the line—and continue to do so—for us and our country, as have all our servicemen and women.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of being accepted on to the armed forces parliamentary scheme with the Navy. As part of that scheme, I have so far spent three days at sea—and been seasick—on HMS Illustrious. I went up in a Merlin helicopter and sat at the controls of a Sea Harrier at RNAS Culdrose, and I spent two days looking at our submarine and nuclear deterrent capability at Faslane. All those visits were exciting and interesting, but the best part of all of them was the chance to sit and chat with sailors of all ranks and to hear from them what they wanted from the Government and the MOD. I heard loud and clear that we need a balanced defence force, with well-resourced conventional forces that are backed up by a nuclear deterrent. Like me, those men and women do not look at life through rose-coloured glasses. They see the reality of protecting our national security.

Like everyone in the Chamber, I look forward to a world with no nuclear weapons—I am totally committed to achieving that. However, that is not going to happen overnight, or by the UK unilaterally divesting itself of its nuclear weapons. That was why I supported the decision to start the process of procuring a replacement for our Vanguard submarines, which carry the Trident nuclear weapons.

I sat through the whole Trident debate. I had hoped to have the opportunity to make a contribution, but there were too many speakers. I am sure that all hon. Members will be relieved to hear that they will not be subjected to the speech that I would have made on Trident if I had been called. However, there are a few pertinent points that I would like to make, especially about the length of the procurement process and the consequences of delays in the process.

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee

The hon. Lady touched briefly on the way in which the naval base review might affect personnel in Portsmouth. Before she goes much further into the nuclear debate, will she, as a Hampshire Member, consider the situation for the spouses of serving personnel? If the naval base were to move from Portsmouth, all the spouses based around Portsmouth who wanted to stay in their jobs might persuade their spouses to leave the services, which could have a very bad result for the future of the Navy.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry PPS (John Healey, Financial Secretary), HM Treasury

I could not agree more. Given that 50 per cent. of the entire naval married quarters are in the Portsmouth area, that would be a very real problem. The people serving on ships to whom I spoke said that if they had to move up to Scotland or down to Plymouth, they would leave the Navy. I am saying nothing to denigrate Scotland or Plymouth, but merely expressing the view of the people living in the Portsmouth area to whom I spoke.

In the Trident debate we discussed an amendment that advocated a delay in decision making, and my worry was that some hon. Members seemed to think that it was a risk-free option—a way of putting off a difficult decision. That seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, to demonstrate a misunderstanding of the process of defence procurement and the time scales involved. The latest possible in-service date for the Vanguard submarines is 2024, and we heard that that is already extending their life by five years. In my view, that is risky in itself, but we did not hear too much about it in the debate. The latest expert advice suggests that it will take 17 years to design, build and deploy a new submarine, and it does not take an arithmetical genius to work back and say that we need to start work on the new design in 2007.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Does the hon. Lady accept that one of the risks of delay is that we lose the skills base that we require to keep some of these capabilities in the United Kingdom?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry PPS (John Healey, Financial Secretary), HM Treasury

Again, I find myself agreeing. It is most important that we ensure that we maintain that skills base because, if we delay and lose it, we could find that we were unable to build the submarines here in this country, which would be a great shame.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Does my hon. Friend agree that those on the Liberal Democrat Benches who publicly argued against Trident but voted for the delay would have jeopardised not only that skills base but the careers of many of her constituents?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry PPS (John Healey, Financial Secretary), HM Treasury

I agree. The dangers inherent in that delay are very important.

Some people made the point that the Vanguard submarines took only 14 years to procure, but what was missed by many people is that that did not include the time taken to do the initial concept work, and that can easily take three years.

I spent 20 years working in the defence manufacturing industry, and I have been a member of project management teams on major defence platforms. I know only too well that current projects are far more complex than Vanguard was. We should also remember that safety and regulatory standards have been raised in the 25 years since Vanguard was procured. Because of my experience in defence industry and the time that I spent on the Public Accounts Committee, I am only too well aware that British defence procurement does not have a very good track record. Given the long time scales involved we do not always learn the lessons quickly enough for them to have an impact on our new projects. It is to be hoped that the replacement of Vanguard will not suffer from legacy problems, but will benefit from the new proposals in the defence industrial strategy.

Our defence industry is in a period of tremendous change. In this climate, getting public sector procurement right is difficult. The defence industrial strategy has been a major step forward in redefining the relationship between the MOD and industry, and it will deliver huge benefits in getting the right product to the front line, on time and on budget, and in maintaining that product during its operational lifetime.

I am old enough to remember the old relationship between the MOD and industry in the days of cost-plus. The MOD decided what it wanted and chose a supplier; the supplier told the MOD how much it would cost to build; the MOD sent in an auditor to check the costs, added a percentage for profit and that was the price that was paid: very cosy, but hardly cost-efficient and not value for money. So we moved on to fixed-price contracts and competition, where suppliers were pitted against each other to deliver the product at the lowest possible cost. Yes, it drove the price down, but there was a danger that, to secure the contract, suppliers would have to accept prices below the cost of manufacture and risk being unable to sustain long-term production, or ratchet up the price for product support, leading to higher costs over the life of the product. That is why I welcomed the defence industrial strategy's emphasis on a partnership approach and the recognition that there needed to be changes in the approach both of industry and of the MOD.

The MOD needs to move to a through-life relationship with industry, to define a project not in terms of a product, but in terms of an outcome, and to have the ability to be flexible within a project to meet changing demands across a long life cycle. In my days on the Public Accounts Committee, time and again in our reports we highlighted a lack of project management skills in government, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the MOD's major projects.

Industry needs to change too. It has to stop looking at the MOD as a customer to squeeze cash out of or a source of easy money, and to start seeing it as a genuine partner. It has to be willing to share the benefits of lean manufacture and cost reductions in return for the security of a long-running relationship.

None of this is rocket science, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I could point you to an example in my own constituency where just such a partnering relationship exists—between the MOD, VT Shipbuilding and Fleet Support Ltd. Fleet Support delivers ship support and is seen by many to be the benchmark industry partner. It has developed an innovative joint working relationship with the MOD that has already delivered over £50 million of savings. VT Shipbuilding houses the UK's most modern and productive shipbuilding facility. So we have the defence industrial strategy in action, delivering cost savings. Where might that be? It is at Portsmouth naval base—yet another reason it should remain open.

As I said before, there is a litany of MOD major projects where we can see where it all went wrong, but I hope that we are starting to learn the lessons from past mistakes and I want to illustrate that briefly with an example—that of Bowman. I am sure that hon. Members will be aware of the Bowman system. It is not just a radio but a complete tactical system delivering secure digital voice communications. It is a complex and technically demanding programme, involving the conversion of some 15,700 land vehicles, 141 naval vessels and 60 helicopters, as well as training some 75,000 personnel. As a consequence it involves many different and complex interrelationships between stakeholders in the Department, the armed forces and industry.

We can see in the recent report from the Public Accounts Committee where the Bowman procurement process went wrong. The summary to the report states:

"It is a complex and technically demanding programme and the MOD seriously under-estimated the challenges involved in both delivering it and sustaining it in service".

There then follows a litany of the failures: not surveying the state of the Army's vehicle fleet; underestimating support costs; examples where the equipment met the requirements of the contract, but not of the user; and the failure to appoint a senior responsible officer right at the start with the responsibility, funding and authority to deliver the programme. Is it any wonder therefore that the development of Bowman suffered such serious delays?

To be fair, in 2001 the MOD recognised that it was no good trying to patch things up with the original supplier and re-competed the contract, which was won by General Dynamics. That has proved to be a valuable partnership; indeed, it has been commended by the National Audit Office. Bowman is now delivering vital capabilities to soldiers on the ground. In a recent article in Jane's Defence Weekly the NAO director Tim Banfield spoke about the Bowman programme. He put in a nutshell why we had so much difficulty with it. He said that it was a typical example of how the old-fashioned linear approach simply would not work in these days of rapid leaps in technology and the consequent changes in the needs of the user. He went on to say that because of the partnership working between the new contractor and the MOD integrated project team, Bowman, despite its "long and troubled history" and the fact that it is "still getting a bad press", was

"actually delivering some really good and useful capability now".

J

Mrs McCartny-Fry held a position in finance in GKN, primarily a company involved with helicopter manufacture. With that I mind I have doubts about her staement that "I spent 20 years working in the defence manufacturing industry, and I have been a member of project management teams on major defence platforms. I know only too well that current projects are far more complex than Vanguard was". Vangaurd is a major defence platform, but as helicopters are not I question the validity of her statement. She may have been at meetings that dealt with project management, but only in the role of financier.

Submitted by Joe Johnson

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Does my hon. Friend agree that what has been achieved in a short time is a first-rate system, which is working in Afghanistan, as I saw last week, and other places around the world? Does she also agree that when people are commenting on Bowman they should not mix up the history of the mistakes that were made with what is now a very good piece of equipment? The recent comments of Mr. Leigh concentrated on that history rather than on the facts now.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry PPS (John Healey, Financial Secretary), HM Treasury

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. My point is that we should use the history to learn lessons so that in future we deliver. Out in the field, as he said, the feedback is very positive. In Iraq, Brigadier Andrew Gregory said:

"Bowman is giving us a real edge on operations".

Brigadier Patrick Marriott said:

"The potential of Bowman is immense, the reality is very good."

We can look forward in 2007 to new kit that will enable Bowman to interface with other UK armed forces communications systems. In the field that means that a brigade commander can easily share information. We are also looking at new battery technologies that mean that we will be able to offer a much more powerful, lighter version.

It is very easy for us always to criticise when things go wrong—maybe because things so often have gone wrong in major defence procurement projects—but let us celebrate the successes too. In the same article in Jane's Defence Weekly, Tim Banfield said that there are "lots and lots" of successful UK defence projects, but the MOD was "not very good at celebrating" those successes. If we can achieve an honest and open relationship between the MOD and the defence industry—a true partnership—hopefully we will have more of the successes and fewer of the problems.

I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee when it held an evidence session on Bowman, and I asked Bill Jeffrey, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, about the new partnership with General Dynamics:

"Do you think that, if you had had that sort of relationship with the contractor right back at the beginning, it would have prevented some of the problems you have had?"

He replied:

"I think if we were starting from scratch with our present perception of what works best, which is, generally speaking, that it makes sense to think in terms of acquiring capability through-life rather than kit, we would have been looking at the acquisition of not just a radio system, but a radio system with the through-life support built into it."

That concept of acquiring capability rather than a product must be the benchmark for future acquisition, and capability must be driven by the operational requirements of our armed forces.

A few months ago, there was a report in Warship World about potential reductions in the numbers of ships and about putting ships into reduced readiness, and I was quoted in my local paper as saying that I was "not hung up on numbers". That was misinterpreted to mean that I was happy to see big reductions in the numbers of ships, which is absolutely not the case. I am glad to have the opportunity to set the record straight today. We cannot consider the number of ships in isolation; we have to consider capabilities as well. More importantly, it should not be the number or the capability of ships that drives our defence strategy. Rather, we should set out clearly the role that we expect our Royal Navy to undertake, and then provide the right number of ships with the right capabilities to achieve the role.

The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, has made it quite clear that we need the new carriers to meet the operational requirements of the Royal Navy. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for once again reiterating the Government's commitment to the carriers. I want the acquisition of the carriers to be one of the Ministry of Defence's success stories, and an example of genuine partnership between the MOD and industry. In Portsmouth, we eagerly await the announcement of the orders for those ships, not just because we hope to play our part in building them, and not just because we can demonstrate a track record in partnership working, but because we believe that Portsmouth naval base is the only feasible home port for the ships.

Photo of Brian Jenkins Brian Jenkins Labour, Tamworth

I am listening intently to my hon. Friend's valuable contribution, but my difficulty is this: how does the new partnership working differ from cost-plus? Where will the pressure for innovation come from, if there is no competition between companies? How will we ensure that there is pressure to make sure that what we want is delivered by our partner, because it will have no incentive to be innovative?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry PPS (John Healey, Financial Secretary), HM Treasury

The incentive to be innovative will come from the contract, which says that in return for a long-running relationship over the life of the product, the partner will deliver cost savings to the MOD, through the savings that it makes by driving down costs, by bringing about cost reductions and by ensuring lean manufacture. What happened in the past under the fixed-price system was that if the price went down, and the company made cost reductions and used lean manufacture and new ways of working, the company got all the cost savings, and nothing went back to the MOD. Risk-sharing and benefit-sharing are the benefits that will come out of the system of partnership working. I will not miss this chance to make my final point about Portsmouth naval base: it must be the home port for the carriers, and that adds weight to the argument that we must keep the base open.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence) 2:03 pm, 26th April 2007

I start by joining the Minister of State in expressing condolences to the families of those members of Her Majesty's armed forces who lost their lives in recent weeks. I also join him in paying tribute to those who, less recently, lost their lives in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland. Nor should we forget the many men and women across the armed forces who have been injured while in service, and who have worked tirelessly. I also wish to put on record my appreciation for the work done, day in, day out, by members of Her Majesty's armed forces in the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, the Marines and the Army.

As far as defence in the UK is concerned, clearly we cannot ignore Iraq; the war is arguably illegal, ill-planned and expensive. The Liberal Democrats are the only party represented in the Chamber today to have voted against it, but even we did not anticipate the drawn-out and continually alarming fallout from the ill-advised backing of President Bush's shock-and-awe misadventure. Quite apart from the awful cost of life to our service personnel, other armed forces in Iraq and the civilian population, there is the cost to the British taxpayer to consider, which is about £24 million a day. That price needs to be remarked on, because that money could well have been spent on other, certainly better, things.

It is generally accepted, although not by those on the Government Benches, that there is overstretch. My concern is that the military covenant must be safeguarded, and even if it has not already been affected, there is a real danger that the continuous overstretch will undermine it. The impact of the Iraq war and our intervention in Afghanistan is taking its toll on the troops. It is important that troops feel valued and supported in their missions, and on their return. Our soldiers are the backbone of our fighting forces. The Government need to prioritise the welfare, fair treatment and conditions of service of those soldiers. Regiments and individual soldiers are being asked to do too much too often, without proper regard being paid to their welfare needs. Harmony guidelines have been consistently broken.

The Chief of the Defence Staff says that the armed forces are "very stretched". However, last month in the House, the Secretary of State for Defence said in reply to a question:

"We are not asking too much of our armed forces; we are operating at levels that are higher than the assumptions that informed our operational planning."—[ Hansard, 26 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 1139.]

I think that we may be playing with words, here. Many in the armed forces believe that "overstretch" is the best description.

Our current operational commitments in two theatres exacerbate the problem of overstretch and have a detrimental impact on recruitment and retention. There is an imbalance between current commitments and manning levels. It can be recognised that many members of our armed forces are still not paid sufficiently, given the hours and the work that they put in. Indeed, when they are working on an operation, the number of hours that they work means that they are on the equivalent of less than the minimum wage. It is essential to ensure that there are attractive packages available to our armed forces if we are continually to attract people to join the forces, and if we are to retain them.

About 10 per cent. of people in the British Army are not British. They come from 57 different countries, predominantly Commonwealth countries. We have already heard mention today of the contingent of South Africans, particularly those in the Army. I know that there are many in 16 Air Assault Brigade in Colchester garrison, too. I ask the Under-Secretary to give us further clarification before the day is out. I know that there has been an intervention and an answer on the South African question, but it is a crucial issue that must be addressed more firmly than it has been so far.

To go back to the huge number of non-British people serving in the Army, in one sense we should welcome that recruitment. Is there a cap, either official or unofficial, on the number of people from outside the United Kingdom who are recruited, and what percentage of the Army could be made up of non-British people from overseas before the Under-Secretary felt that the ethos of the Army had been affected? I do not necessarily mean that it would be affected negatively, but that it would cease to be what it has been hitherto. We also need to address issues such as accommodation—I shall come on to that later—mental health and care support. All of those feed into the recruitment and retention rates. It is not an isolated issue and it must be addressed as part of wider measures across the armed forces.

I praise the Government for the Veterans Agency and the work relating to it. In particular, the veterans badge has been warmly welcomed by people of all ages who formerly served in Her Majesty's armed force. They welcome the opportunity to wear in pride a badge that shows that they served, at some time, in Her Majesty's armed forces—indeed, in some cases, in His Majesty's armed forces.

Much important work relating to veterans issues was carried out by the voluntary sector, the Ministry of Defence and others before the veterans initiative was set up, but many of those areas of activity have been enhanced by Government Departments working in co-operation with the voluntary sector under that initiative. Among the many voluntary organisations involved, I single out the Royal British Legion—a wonderful umbrella organisation—but there are many other voluntary organisations and charities in the wider military family. The ministerial-level veterans taskforce has addressed issues of interest across government, which is to be welcomed, and the veterans forum is tackling specific issues that affect some veterans. The Department of Health, for example, is leading on long-term care for older people and the provision of treatment for mental health conditions, and the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister led on homelessness. Assisting ex-service personnel and their families to make a successful transition to society is another important service.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that something that the Veterans Agency, the Ministry of Defence and the Government must look at is the number of ex-servicemen who end up in prison? I was shocked the other day by a letter that said that the Government do not know how many ex-servicemen are serving a prison sentence. Does he think that we should look at that to see whether the cause is possibly related to military service, which has led to those people being in prison?

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's intervention. It is an interesting idea, but I have to confess that it is not something that I have any knowledge of. It is something on which the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office, as long as it retains the Prison Service brief, must liaise, because it is a valid point. Perhaps it does not relate to the issue that I was discussing, which was the successful transition to society of people leaving Her Majesty's armed forces, but I accept that some of those transitions end up with another Government department—Her Majesty's prisons.

The armed services already provide comprehensive resettlement support for the majority of personnel leaving the forces to rejoin civilian life but, for various reasons, some personnel are not entitled to that support, so the need to identify and assist those in the group who are most at risk must be addressed. If the Government acted on the hon. Gentleman's concern, that could well bring in those who drift and end up in the criminal justice system. Homelessness and rough sleeping are a serious problem among ex-service personnel, quite a high number of whom end up on the streets, although the exact figures are not available. That is something that the Government should look at, and I should like to draw the attention of the Minister and of the House to early-day motion 664, which marks the 75th anniversary of the Ex-Service Fellowship Centres. It congratulates

"the Ex-Service Fellowship Centres...on the occasion of the charitable organisation's 75th anniversary, January 2007; records with admiration that for three-quarters of a century the EFC has provided wide ranging support for homeless former members of HM Armed Forces; pays tribute to staff" and so on. The charity is an excellent organisation. I commend the early-day motion to the Minister, and urge him to consider whether it could be given Government support. In relation to veterans, too, I should like to stress the importance of working with local authorities and a range of other organisations to ensure consistency in the treatment of war pensions in means-testing for housing benefit and council tax purposes. There ought to be a formula so that every local authority recognises that and deals with it on an equal basis.

I should like to discuss reservists, because, as has already been mentioned, their contribution plays an important part in defence in the UK. I endorse those comments and commend the reservists, who play a vital and integral role in the operation of our armed forces, especially given the current manning shortfalls. Reserve forces have been deployed at unprecedented levels over the past 10 years. They are highly adaptable, and bring skills from civilian life to the forces. I should like to place on record—and I am sure that the House concurs—our appreciation of employers of those individuals, whom they allow to become reservists, and provide time for them to train and be deployed when they are called up. However, the reservists are still below strength, and although there have been improvements, there is a high turnover, so we must ensure that we can maintain the necessary manning levels of reserve forces.

The welfare and well-being of our troops are vital to retention and recruitment. In political debates and the media, much of the focus rests on the politics of war, conflict zones and the conditions in which our armed forces find themselves. Much less attention is paid to other aspects of life in the forces—life on the home front, so to speak—including the conditions in which the troops live, their welfare and care, and the issues that they face daily. It is therefore essential to ensure that, as well as looking after their welfare and safety in conflict zones, their physical and psychological well-being is provided for once they return and are away from the firing line.

On accommodation, I pay tribute to the Government for the new accommodation in the Colchester super garrison. We could have a separate debate about whether the private finance initiative is the right route but, nevertheless, the housing that has been provided is first class, and the regiments are fortunate enough to have a very high standard of accommodation. However, that is not the case across the country, and soldiers still live in accommodation in many places that is well below standard. There are increasing concerns about the standard of housing and of married quarters in various places, and the issue was recently raised by General Sir Mike Jackson and, at the beginning of the year, by Lieutenant-General Freddie Viggers. The standard of some of our single accommodation is particularly alarming.

Although it is clear that not all accommodation is bad, recent MOD figures concede that about 49 per cent. is considered to be of bad quality. That is not satisfactory: we must ensure that Army housing is up to a good standard, and that we support personnel and their families. Ultimately, issues such as poor, substandard accommodation impact on the morale and well-being of our troops. Concerns have been raised, too, about the availability of housing for armed forces personnel and their families on leaving the Army. That is not a new issue, but it is much worse than it has ever been in all my many years of living in a garrison town. It is the soldiers who are paying the price of the ill-conceived and disastrous proposal by the Tory Government to sell the houses to Annington Homes, yet not include the upkeep of the accommodation in the deal. I invite the Minister to work out the sums. It may well be cheaper to use some of the Iraq money to buy back the MOD housing, using the pricing formula that was used for the sale, so that proposal is not quite as expensive as it might appear at first sight. Of all the privatisations, in percentage terms, that has got to be the biggest rip-off of the lot.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a bizarre contradiction of what we are trying to do with married quarters for Annington Homes to sell off homes that they bought on the cheap from the MOD while, not half a mile away, the MOD is building at great expense new married quarters because of the inadequacy of such quarters in the Portsmouth area?

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am not surprised to hear that. The whole scenario and saga of that privatisation, the small print and so on are a rip-off of public funds. We need a full inquiry into what happened, and what is happening. It is quite ridiculous that the public purse is required to spend many millions of pounds maintaining, improving and upgrading houses that the MOD does not own which, in some cases, may soon be declared surplus to requirements and sold off at a massive profit. For example, in my own town, Annington Homes sold 40 houses, which it purchased for an average price of £15,000 each, and made a gross profit of £4 million—that was on just 40 houses. While the Tories plan to highlight their priorities for the armed forces in their manifesto, that should be a key concern, given that the Tories are the originators of the current situation.

Our men and women deserve more, and so do their families. Living standards are of fundamental importance to the well-being and welfare of troops. More needs to be done now, not 10 years hence. I pay tribute to the Army Families Federation, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. I had the pleasure of meeting some of its leading officers on Tuesday this week as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. They have a key issues list, from which I will read out a sample: housing, lack of upgrade programme, delivery of repairs and maintenance, problems on move in and move out, injured soldiers—the need for support for families—and dentists and their availability, or probably more accurately, non-availability.

Families are an integral part of forces life. Not only do we have a duty of care for the personnel, but we should take care of their families and make sure that they are supported as best they can be while their loved ones are on tour. The provision of good quality education for the children of personnel and support for Army schools is an issue that cannot be ignored. Army life can have an impact on the education of Army children. That was highlighted by one in three soldiers interviewed in 2005.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the problem in relation to statemented children? Army personnel have to move around the country a great deal. They battle to get their child statemented in, say, Catterick, but when they move to Colchester they have to go through the whole process again. Would it be possible to have a passport that could be used for statementing?

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is on the armed forces scheme with me and that was a subject that we discussed on Tuesday. I concur 100 per cent. with his observation. There must be a mechanism whereby a statement goes with the child when the parents move to a different education authority. The point is well made.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that that was a key recommendation of the excellent Select Committee report last year? It was a top priority that the Government should try and get co-ordination between the MOD and other Departments more finely tuned.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am aware of that, and I am grateful that the Select Committee made the recommendation, which I endorse. The hon. Gentleman should be asking those on his Front Bench what has happened since the recommendation.

Right hon. and hon. Members who were at Education questions today will recall that I asked a question to do with the school meals service, and I named the three Army schools in Colchester which had their hot meals service taken away in April 2004 by Conservative-controlled Essex county council—admittedly, using legislation handed to it by the Labour Government. The simple fact is that while their dads are in Afghanistan or Iraq, the children back in Colchester are not able to have a hot school meal because the three Army schools, for whatever reason, do not provide it.

My question to the Ministry is this: those schools are within minutes of the massive new kitchen arrangement in the super garrison that has been built, and if the MOD can organise troops to go to Iraq and Afghanistan, can it not organise a system whereby hot meals can be taken from the garrison kitchens to those schools, so that the children of military personnel can have a hot midday meal, if that is the parents' wish? I leave the thought. It is not beyond the wit of the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Education and Skills to work together on that one.

Service children often have very different lives from other children and are frequently moved around, according to where their parents are stationed. That can cause instability. It is important that there is as little disturbance to their education as possible and that staff understand the demands placed on them. Again, the Defence Committee should be commended for its recent inquiry on the subject. The turbulence factor is a vital part of the life of children of military personnel. I had an Adjournment debate on that a few years back. It is worth reading the record to see what the Minister at the time said and what action has been taken.

Two or three years ago when Mr. Clarke was Secretary of State for Education and Skills he had a meeting in my constituency, which I heard about an hour after he arrived, with the heads and chairmen of governors of the Army schools, and he pledged additional money for the those schools. There were photographs and newspaper articles. It is interesting that every time I have pursued the matter, the upshot is that no additional funding has ever been forthcoming. Indeed, because of the fluctuation in the school rolls, which can be more pronounced in schools attended predominantly by children of military personnel, those schools have fewer resources than they had when the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills promised more.

Another issue which I would like the Government to take seriously are the cuts in the strength of the Ministry of Defence police. There has been a 40 per cent. cut at the Colchester garrison, which means that the military families, the military schools and the garrison areas outside the wire have less Ministry of Defence police cover than they had before. That does not help the situation. The Essex police are called upon to provide additional cover to make up for the MOD police cuts. That means that civilian areas elsewhere have their cover diluted.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

Like me, the hon. Gentleman has in his constituency an important interface between the Ministry of Defence police, the military police and the Home Office constabulary. Last autumn I discovered that in the midst of two reviews of the Ministry of Defence police, there had been no discussion at all with the Wiltshire constabulary about the impact on the constabulary of withdrawing services of the Ministry of Defence police. They have been pushed from pillar to post, from Larkhill to Tidworth. There are many important places there, including Porton Down. There has been a woeful lack of co-ordination, and the Ministry of Defence police on the ground feel very bruised by that, because half the time they do not know what they are meant to be doing.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. If anything, his scenario sounds worse than that in Essex. At some stage there was a consultation between the Ministry of Defence police, the Royal Military Police and the Essex constabulary, but I have never found out exactly when that took place. As the Minister knows, because I have asked parliamentary questions on the matter, there is now a joint police station out of which the three police forces operate. It could be said that that is a good idea. There has always been co-operation between the Royal Military Police, the Ministry of Defence police and the Essex constabulary. There is nothing new there, but sticking them in one building is almost a bit of bluff to give the impression that something new has happened. Yes, something new has happened, and it is to cover the fact that there has been a 40 per cent. cut in the Ministry of Defence police. That is not very sensible.

I shall deal briefly with two further items. First, can the Minister comment on the issue of drug use among soldiers? I recognise that, in percentage terms, it is probably very low, but can he say whether it is true that the equivalent of a battalion or more a year are discharged because they have failed drug tests?

Secondly, this year is the 25th anniversary of the Falklands war. Can the Minister advise the House in due course on what the precise commemorations or celebrations will be to mark that? Will he ask colleagues to look again at the position of those who served on RMS St. Helena and two other vessels? RMS St. Helena is the only means of communication to the island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic, which gave up its only means of communication to support the liberation of the Falkland Islands.

It was not the fault of RMS St. Helena and its volunteer crew that they were outside the exclusion zone for as long as they were. They wished to play their part; they did play their part, but they were outside the zone for whatever the magical number of days the Ministry of Defence decided constituted justification for the award of a medal. It would cost nothing and put right a wrong if people who volunteered to serve to help liberate the Falkland Islands could have the medal that common sense says they should be awarded. That would cost nothing. Good will cannot have a price.

On the defence of the UK, it was said earlier that few people now have direct knowledge of serving in Her Majesty's armed forces. The reduction in the size of the armed forces and the closure of many garrison bases and Territorial Army bases mean that there is less of a military footprint. The Government need to revisit the issue to see whether there is any way that they can try to get a military footprint or at least a military presence so that more people see soldiers, sailors and airmen even if not on a daily basis—clearly, that can happen only in places such as Portsmouth and the super garrison towns. The country would benefit if the military footprint were bigger than it currently is.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton 2:31 pm, 26th April 2007

To follow on from the point made by Bob Russell, it is always a pleasure to take part in these debates, but it is a pity that there are not more Members here from constituencies that do not have a military footprint. Their presence would be one way of ensuring wider knowledge of the issues that we debate.

I want to talk about some procurement and welfare issues and to conclude with some points about the naval base review. I start by noting, on a strategic level, the publication by the Cabinet Office on 27 March of its capability review of the Ministry of Defence. As well as outlining the areas where significant improvements can be made, I want to note where it recognises the many strengths and successes of the MOD.

The capability review says that the MOD is highly regarded both domestically and abroad. I do not think that that will be news to many in the Chamber, but the review says that the Defence Management Board has not always clearly articulated how this links to strategy and delivery. The report recommends that the board take a

"stronger corporate role in directing strategy, developing and allocating resources."

The review also notes that the Department has made significant progress towards the creation of an integrated MOD by joining up work among the three armed services and civilian staff and that it is very much open to change. However, it also says that the DMB needs to articulate how to link the vision of the Department with strategy and delivery. It needs to create a "corporate narrative" that will unify Department purposes and give clarity to its missions.

The report recognises that a vision has been set out in the strategic defence review and the 2003 White Paper on defence strategic guidance and the defence industrial strategy, which provide help in carrying out this vision. However, more needs to be done. Although the MOD has been very focused and successful in delivering short-term outcomes, the review says that that is sometimes at the expense of its long-term planning. Although planning and resource allocation, as well as processes to inform decision making, are in place, there is a lack of clarity around roles, accountability and authority. It draws attention to the way in which approvals and decision making are often multi-layered and tend to get mired in paperwork. The Department's intensity and focus on short-term tasks inevitably impacts on the time available to consider, and deliver on, the longer-term issues.

The capability review concludes that the permanent secretary has already recognised the need to drive through a series of changes designed to achieve improved MOD efficiency, as well as effectiveness. It identifies three key areas for action that will complement his programme of reform and help to achieve the step change in departmental capability which he seeks and which he has outlined to the Defence Committee in his appearances before us. The recipe that the review lays out includes a review of leadership behaviours, governance and accountability. It says that the Defence Management Board must become a more corporate body and find ways of communicating as one voice. It needs to promote the defence agenda more effectively—an aspect that has featured in several debates in the House—and has a role to play in engaging with other Departments to promote a wider understanding of defence and the wider context in which the operations that we often debate take place. It should market its work and build upon its strengths in analytics and operational research. It also needs to build human capacity, and the report outlines how it might better do that.

As a member of the Defence Committee, I look forward to seeing the fruits of the change programme in delivering better support—perhaps, in light of the compliments paid by our report, I should say even better support—to those working in logistics, in procurement and in theatre. It is of course the role of the Committee to scrutinise delivery in all those areas. In the debate in February, I spoke about the range of inquiries in which we have been involved. We have before us several interesting areas for scrutiny, including health, defence estates and strategic lift, as well as visits and inquiries into deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. I hope that there will be plenty of opportunity to debate the findings of those inquiries. Although the Committee is careful to praise the Department when praise is due, it is of course looking for areas that need to be put right or improved. Media and parliamentary interest in our reports naturally tends to focus on those aspects.

I want to use the time that I have today to reflect on some of the advances made in matters that have been of concern to members of the Committee and, given the importance of defence to our constituents, to many Members on both sides of the House who do not serve on the Committee. The first topic that I want to examine is that of health services. We will be carrying out an inquiry on that, but I have briefed myself on where things stand at the moment, and the latest information that I have to hand deals with some of the matters that have been raised in the debate. Personnel returning from operations for treatment in the UK usually go to University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation trust, which is one of the country's top performers and home to the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine. On average, the number of military in-patients—this is relevant to the question of how to achieve an all-military treatment centre for returning officers in NHS hospitals throughout the UK—totals about 60 to 75 personnel: not a very great number.

Last year, the Government announced a multi-million-pound package of benefits for injured service people and their families, including community psychiatric and nursing support. That was criticised earlier. Nevertheless, the value of the contract with the Priory Group for in-patient psychiatric services is some £4 million per annum; and 15 military community mental health departments have been established across the UK so that such services can be delivered to personnel near to their home, unit or base. I hope that that has been mentioned as an important part of the support to our returning service personnel and that we will include it in our forthcoming Select Committee inquiry.

Whenever practical, military patients in Birmingham are allocated to one of the 12 military consultants co-located at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, and the Government have introduced improved travel and accommodation arrangements for families who visit patients at Selly Oak. The military-managed ward was mentioned earlier, and I understand that it has reached initial operating capability. It is based in a trauma and orthopaedics ward, where a significant proportion of military patients are treated. Since August, the Government have more than doubled the number of military nurses on the military-managed ward at Selly Oak and, by the end of the month, there will be 26 military nurses and health care assistants—up from 12 last August. By the summer, the number will have increased again.

That advance is reflected in the words of the Chief of the General Staff in March. He puts it better—and perhaps more credibly—than any of us might. He said:

"I spent most of yesterday at Selly Oak on a planned visit as I go fairly regularly to see the progress that we're making. There are two bays, six bed bays substantially filled with soldiers, they are now together, they are bantering as soldiers like to do and they are getting better because they are together. Six months ago that was not the case.

I and others raised that to people's attention, it's been changed and quite shortly it will be going a little bit further than that and the end of the ward where most of the military patients are will be partitioned substantially off. There'll be 14 beds predominantly available for military people. There was an issue, we have responded to it, it is getting better, and it's really important that that message goes across because it affects potentially morale of the soldiers on the front line, it affects potentially morale of medical staff and critically it also potentially affects the morale of the civilian National Health staff at Selly Oak who I desperately need to do what they do to make our soldiers better."

There is a message in that quote to us, which is that we need to be careful about the way in which we raise such issues and that we must debate them constructively. We also need to keep up to date with what is going on and progress on the matter that I have just considered is only one example of the problems that the Secretary of State and his team are effectively tackling.

Looking forward to another review, I acquainted myself with the scale of the Ministry of Defence's contribution to providing property through the Defence Estates agency. I realise that the Ministry is Britain's largest property manager, maintaining and upgrading 49,000 houses and 150,000 single-bed living spaces, spread over dozens of sites in 16 countries from the Falklands to Germany. That presents a huge challenge.

In 2005-06, the Ministry spent some £700 million on housing and other living accommodation. In some areas, it appears to be exceeding its improvement targets, as I said in an intervention. For 2006-07, I understand that good progress is being made towards the target to upgrade more than 1,200 service family houses. The Ministry will spend £5 billion in the next decade on housing and other living accommodation, with plans for a further 35,000 improved bed spaces in barracks and to continue to improve approximately 1,000 service family properties a year.

Defence Committee members will examine the value for money that Defence Estates provides. Armed forces personnel and their families deserve decent accommodation as well as the other decent services to which hon. Members have referred. The widely reported problems must be tackled. That is a top priority and it must continue to be one. That is why the Defence Committee has made accommodation one of its top priorities.

The Government are improving our support to service personnel who wish to buy property. We heard about the difficulties of accessing education and health services. As service personnel leave the armed forces, they often experience difficulty in getting on to council housing lists. Several hon. Members and I have signed an early-day motion on that subject. However, the answer to the problem is often to assist service personnel who wish to buy their own property. There is an ongoing programme of work with the Department for Communities and Local Government and private companies to give personnel access to shared ownership and joint equity housing schemes: for example, through participation in the key worker living programme.

The issue of helicopters has preoccupied the Defence Committee in a number of its inquiries. As I understand the current situation, commanders on the ground have said that they now have enough helicopters to do what they need to do. During his recent visit to theatres in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, the Secretary of State for Defence decided to provide more helicopters and increased flexibility. Perhaps because that is good news, it has not received the heightened press coverage that some other issues have had recently.

I certainly welcome the Secretary of State's announcement last month that 14 additional helicopters will be made available for military operations over the next couple of years. I understand that the MOD is buying six new Merlin helicopters, which will be available within a year, and converting the eight existing Chinook mark 3 helicopters to make them available for deployment in theatre in two years. The complete package represents an investment of about £230 million.

The Chinook mark 3 helicopters were ordered under the previous Conservative Government in 1995, and delivered in 2001. Since then, they have been unavailable, due to well reported technical problems. The Secretary of State has decided that, given the high priority attached to supporting current operations, and the many representations that he has received from across the House, the best solution is to convert those helicopters to a battlefield support role and get them into theatre for use.

The Defence Committee continually urges our NATO partners to do more—a subject on which Dr. Fox, who is just about in his place, engaged in lively debate earlier. The Committee is, of course, conducting an inquiry into NATO and its future, and sometimes—particularly when the Committee is devoting resources to the question—it is worth waiting for the outcome of such inquiries before shooting from the hip on certain issues.

Vehicles have been of great concern over the past year. Again, the Secretary of State has ensured that such requirements are attended to with the urgency that they deserve. Last summer, he implemented a rapid review of our protected patrol vehicles, after concerns were expressed that they were not suitable to withstand improvised explosive devices at roadsides. In July, after only a month, he announced a range of new or accelerated vehicle programmes to meet the evolving threat. Those vehicles are now in theatre. In Iraq, the UK forces in Basra are equipped with a mix of Warrior armoured infantry fighting vehicles, the Bulldog and the Mastiff, as well as retaining some of the Snatch Land Rovers that were the subject of such controversy but remain suited to tasks due to their manoeuvrability and low profile.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

I want to take my hon. Friend back to her comments about the Chinook helicopter being bought by the Conservatives and this Government having to convert it for a battlefield role. Is she saying that the Conservatives bought a helicopter for defence purposes that could not operate properly in the battlefield? Is that not incredible?

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

It is a matter to be deplored. I can only say that it is a mark of the current Secretary of State that he has decided that the controversy, and the difficulties of attributing responsibility, should be set aside in the interests of getting capability to the front line.

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee

I understand that it is all my fault. I understand that on my first day as Minister of State for Defence Procurement, I bought those helicopters. The first I heard of it was about three years ago, when apparently they would not fly in clouds.

I gather that one of the problems was the change in requirements that was introduced after the Conservatives unfortunately left office, along with the fact that at a time when new digital helicopters were in operation, these helicopters were part-digital and part-analogue, which made them extremely difficult for everyone to manage. If anyone must take the blame, however, it must be me.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

I can only say that the right hon. Gentleman, who chairs our Committee so ably, is obviously capable of eating humble pie—and on occasion, no doubt, saying sorry.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

As we have entered a new era in which Mr. Arbuthnot bares his soul, may I ask whether it was not also the right hon. Gentleman who sold Army accommodation when he was a Minister?

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

I do not want to go into attack mode too soon, as I have a little attack section which I will come to in a minute.

I was noting the advances made under the current Secretary of State and the 10-year stewardship of the Labour Government. A mixture of armoured and non-armoured vehicles have been deployed in Afghanistan, including Snatch vehicles, WMIK vehicles, White Fleet vehicles and CVR(T) light-weight combat reconnaissance vehicles, which the Royal Marines deployed with Viking vehicles to provide additional protected mobility. There has been very good feedback on those vehicles from theatre, and it has been decided that they will remain now that the Marines are returning. They have been supplemented by Mastiffs and Vectors, and—as the Secretary of State announced on 26 February—by a company of Warrior fighting vehicles from 1st Battalion Scots Guards.

I am pleased that the pay of the 13,000 lowest-paid servicemen and women is to rise by 9.3 per cent. as a result of the latest pay round. A further 6,000 in the next-to-lowest pay range will receive a 6.2 per cent. increase, which is well overdue. A total of about £350 million more per year will go into each year's operational bonus. However, I still find it shocking that the pay of a junior soldier—a trained private—will start at just over £15,500 a year following the pay increase, welcome though it is. A newly promoted corporal will receive a 4.2 per cent. increase, taking his annual pay from £23,500 to £24,300. These are very young men and women with huge responsibilities, and when representations are made to us by newly qualified nurses and teachers, I sometimes tell them that those young people are going into some of the most dangerous circumstances imaginable.

Nevertheless, the 2007 armed forces pay award is a good one, and I am pleased that the pay review body has confirmed the tax-free operational allowance of £2,240 for eligible personnel completing a six-month operational tour. It is backdated to 1 April, and I understand that proportional amounts will be paid to those undertaking shorter and longer tours. It is better than tax-free pay—for the lower paid, much better—because it is fairer, providing the same tax-free benefit for everyone. The amount is pitched to ensure that the more junior personnel on operations are compensated for their tax bills while they are deployed. In addition to their basic pay, those deployed on operations and training will now qualify after 10 days, rather than 110, for the separation allowance of at least £6.22 per day. The top rate of that allowance has been doubled from £12 to £25. We should thank the Chancellor for all those benefits, as well as the Secretary of State and his team. It is also important that the review body awarded new financial retention incentives to address the key operational pinch points—referred to earlier—for the infantry, other ranks, the Royal Marines and RAF aircrew.

The Tories say that they want to do more to help our forces.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

This is the "attack" section.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

It might be. However, although they say that, they have thus far refused to say how much money they would spend on that. They have announced on at least three occasions that they will have a forces families manifesto, yet they have failed to explain the detail of it, and I noted that there was no mention of that in the introductory remarks of the hon. Member for Woodspring. They have also failed to explain how much money they will invest. The comments of the Leader of the Opposition in a recent webcam interview served to expose the emptiness of their promises:

"Well, the first thing to say I have to be frank, there is no magic pot of money we can dip into to spend a lot more on our armed services, much as we would like to"

—would not we all?

"There just isn't and we have to show to people that we'd be careful and prudent in terms of the money that we're going to spend going ahead."

In contrast, the Government are getting on with the job of improving the welfare of our forces and their families. We have increased the defence budget by, on average, £1 billion a year over the past five years. We are increasing pay, improving equipment, investing in constantly updating medical care, implementing a military-managed ward and spending £5 billion on accommodation over the next decade.

The Tories must start spelling out in which of those areas they would cut spending in order to increase spending elsewhere. Would they spend more money overall? If not, what would they spend more and less on? The defence budget has risen by £1 billion a year over the past five years, in contrast to the past five years under the Tories when it was cut by £500 million per year. They say that at the current level of 2.5 per cent. of GDP, defence spending is at an historic low, but 2.5 per cent. is the same level as in 1997. Who cut defence spending as a percentage of GDP?

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

May I remind the hon. Lady that the only reason why the figure of 2.5 per cent. is being bruited abroad rather than the 2.2 per cent. that the rate actually is, is the Prime Minister's spin which is that the proportion remains roughly constant at 2.5 per cent. if the costs of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are included? As we all know, those costs should be met separately from the Treasury reserve.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

I was about to come on to that. The hon. Gentleman is not taking into account the fact that the cake is substantially larger. Therefore, that represents a significantly larger slice—20 per cent. more in real terms. Larger cakes give larger slices. A large-print health warning should be attached to any forthcoming Conservative commitments, because if the proceeds of growth strategy were to be followed by a Conservative Government and there were a smaller cake in real terms and the cost of the ingredients continued to increase, a 2.5 per cent. increase maintained could well be the same as 3 per cent. of such a smaller overall cake. That point should also provide a political health warning for those who think that the Navy will fare better under the Tories.

Finally, I turn to the Navy and the naval base review. I spoke about the review in the February debate on defence in the world, and my hon. Friend Sarah McCarthy-Fry has also spoken about it in this debate. I said that we were happy with the way that things were going in terms of both the review and the framework that had been developed except in one important respect, which was the benchmarks for socio-economic impact assessment. That is essential to ensure that any changes are considered on a like-for-like basis. As my Front-Bench colleagues know, we are still discussing that as much as possible to avoid unnecessary fudges—or, indeed, challenges—in terms of obtaining long-term value for UK plc as well as the Ministry of Defence.

We have certainly had every opportunity to put that case loud and clear, and in the months to come we will see whether note has been taken of it. In essence, we continue to believe that Devonport has a lot to offer if the centre of gravity of the provision of support for the fleet is shifted in our direction. Incidentally, I, too, would never talk of closure of naval bases—merely of changes that should take place to provide value for money for the MOD and Her Majesty's Government. In that respect, I hope that the Minister replying to the debate will encourage companies that are actively exploring buying DML to meet local MPs and other civic leaders, so that they can fully share in our community perspective on the importance that the city of Plymouth attaches to activities at the dockyard, and to its synergy with the naval base.

I was very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North acknowledged the importance of the recent decision on the Trident submarine, and of taking that decision now to maintain the skills base. In order to deliver value for money and to keep that still very fragile skills base intact, it is necessary to realise the important synergies between the naval base and the dockyard.

Although there is much more that could be said on this and other matters of concern to many of my constituents, I will conclude. I look forward to the period between now and the next such debate in this Chamber, during which further progress on the important issues that we are debating today will have been made.

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee 3:02 pm, 26th April 2007

It is obvious from the way in which Linda Gilroy spoke that she does an enormous amount of extraordinarily valuable work both on and outside the Defence Committee, and it is a great pleasure to follow her. I will refer to some of the things that she said a little later in my speech, which will be brief.

This is a debate on defence in the UK, but since the strategic defence review our strategy rests on an expeditionary policy, so we try to project our defence way beyond the UK. In some ways, defence in the UK is no longer as much of an issue as it once was. It is not regarded by the public as a particularly high priority because NATO has been a victim of its own success. Because NATO has been so successful over the decades, most people feel reasonably secure in defence terms. The result was that we took the peace dividend at the end of the cold war, which has been a serious mistake. My own view is that we should be spending significantly more on defence, but the trouble is that no Chancellor of the Exchequer, Labour or Conservative, will spend significantly more on defence unless the public demand that they do exactly that.

However, that demand is beginning to come about, and one of the people most responsible for that was Sergeant Roberts, who died because he had to give up his armour to somebody else. He did not die in vain, because his death generated a sense of unfairness among the British people about the way in which we were treating our troops. I am delighted that there has been a real increase in support for defence spending in opinion polls across the country.

We took the peace dividend, and since then the defences of Europe have never really recovered. America has gone a different and I believe more sensible way, and we in Europe need to go much more along the American defence spending line. I entirely agree with the point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Bob Russell—not his outrageous attack on my sale to Annington Homes, of course, which was all nonsense, but his point on the need for a bigger military footprint. It is essential that our armed forces should be encouraged more to wear uniforms in the streets and on the trains, to establish that they are part of the ordinary community. It would bring them closer to the community of British people whom they serve so well and so bravely.

This is a debate on defence in the UK, but I wish to trespass briefly on your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to comment on a visit that the Defence Committee made last week to Afghanistan. The success of our deployment in Afghanistan will have huge importance in the UK, because Afghanistan is the source of the vast majority of heroin in this country. We came away from the visit with a sense of confusion about our role in relation to heroin and the poppy. Are we there to destroy the poppy, to support the destruction of the poppy by the Afghan national army, to destroy some but not all of the poppy, or to leave it be? If we were a little confused about that, the Afghan people, whose hearts and minds we are trying to win, will be very confused about our stance.

As ever, we were very impressed by the morale and quality of our British forces in Afghanistan. We must remember that it is our job as politicians to ensure that our British forces are clear about their role and that, as a result, the Afghan people are clear about what we are doing there. One of the purposes of our presence is to prevent Afghanistan again providing a base for terrorist attacks on the UK, but there has been a worrying failure of communication.

According to the Secretary of State for International Development, we are no longer to use the term "war on terror". I think that he has a good point about that, but we are part of an international struggle and we need a coherent approach across our allies. I worry that we seem to have no campaign plan to combat terrorism, either in this country or in the wider world. It is not surprising that we are losing the information war in the UK and seeing the radicalisation of Muslim youth if we have no joined-up campaign plan that everybody understands and to which everybody subscribes. Either we have a plan that is not being properly explained by this Government and the international community, in which case the Government should begin to explain our plan better very soon, or—more alarmingly—there is no overall strategy to cope with the terrorist threat.

Let us suppose for a moment that we do have a plan, but that we are communicating it badly. That is symptomatic of a wider failure to engage in and win the communication war. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the terrorists we face are extraordinarily good at turning everything to their advantage. They have realised that the deaths of Afghans or Iraqis play to their agenda. They have also realised that the deaths of coalition forces play to their agenda. So the more deaths there are in either country, the more the terrorists seem able to take advantage of the media opportunities that they create. We have not worked out, in our rather plodding western way, how to win or even how to fight that information propaganda battle.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

I am following the right hon. Gentleman's speech carefully. Does he agree that in the information war the Iraqis and Iranians are much better at articulating what they are fighting for, as well as what they are fighting against? By using the expression "the war against terror", we have been less good at describing what we are fighting for.

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee

Damn it, I really should know better than to give way to the hon. Lady, as she has said exactly what I was going to say next. She is absolutely right: we will win people's hearts and minds by promoting their hopes and aspirations, not by inspiring fear and saying what is going wrong. She is completely right to say that we have to be for our beliefs and values and against those who try to undermine their own security, but that we have to act in a way that appeals to people's minds and hearts.

My suspicion, however, is not that we failed to articulate our plan but rather that we do not have one. That suspicion is fed by the fact that the Foreign Secretary has told us so. On 13 January, she and the Defence Secretary came before a joint meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees. My hon. Friend Mr. Holloway asked the Foreign Secretary whether she had

"a coherent, long-term global plan with our allies in how we are going to deal with this"— the terrorist threat—

"over the next five, ten, 20, 50 years?"

The Foreign Secretary replied:

"This is certainly an issue which is much discussed...the answer to that question will certainly be no but there is a very widespread, very strongly shared concern and people are looking to see what can be done".

The right hon. Lady said more in the same vein, but the truth is that we really need a plan. The Government must show that they understand that the rise of fundamentalism in UK communities, as well as people's sense of isolation, distance and lack of integration, are intimately connected with the difficulties and dangers faced by our troops in the middle east and with terrorism everywhere.

I turn now to how we look after our service personnel. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton said, we are about to conduct two inquiries. One will be into Defence Estates, the agency that administers the MOD's physical estate, and the other will be into medical care for the armed forces. At this juncture, and with all due diffidence, I should like to pay particular tribute to the Defence Committee itself. It does a lot of extremely valuable work thanks to its members' assiduity and hard work, and they are brilliantly and ably supported by the Committee's Clerks and advisers. A great deal of hard work goes into the inquiries that we conduct and I hope that the House will agree that it is generally to reasonably good effect.

As I said, the Defence Committee is conducting an inquiry into Defence Estates. The agency has a broad range of responsibilities, one of the most important of which is the provision of housing for service personnel and their families. The quality of service housing has received much media attention. It is very variable. When the Committee visited Cyprus last November, we were shown some quite exemplary single living accommodation, but we also spoke to soldiers who were dreading being deployed to Hounslow because of its reputation for having some of the worst barracks in the Army. The MOD has a duty to provide decent living accommodation for service personnel, but it is clear that the quality of accommodation affects both retention and morale. That is why we shall be looking into the matter very soon.

For exactly the same reasons, the Committee will be looking into the medical care that our armed services receive. That has been dealt with in depth and with far greater expertise than I could hope to summon by my hon. Friend Dr. Fox. He was absolutely right to concentrate on some of mental health issues that challenge injured personnel, as well as on the physical issues. The Committee is not sure about the state of the interface between Defence Medical Services and the NHS and about what happens when people are discharged from the armed forces. We are not sure whether that is being properly handled, so we shall be looking into the matter. It is essential that those who fight on behalf of our country and are injured and often suffer dreadfully should receive the very best of care.

In everything we say, we need to bear in mind the extraordinarily valuable contribution made by places such as Selly Oak hospital. There are media stories attacking the hospital, but there are also stories about the high-quality treatment given there. The Committee will do its best to get to the bottom of how such contradictions arise.

Finally, I want to touch on research and development. The Committee produced a report in February on the work of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. We noted that UK spending on defence-related research and development is about a tenth of US spending and that the gap is widening. The defence industrial strategy showed clearly that what we spend on defence research now will have a precise and definite bearing on our defence capabilities in 20 or 25 years' time. Our deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq focus research and development on short-term operational requirements, which may be to the detriment of longer term research. We have to ensure that does not happen.

Although the Committee accepted that the Government's defence industrial strategy sought greater investment in defence research from industry, we felt strongly that increased Government investment was also necessary to maintain the UK's position compared with its competitors. We expressed concern about the possible impact of the shortage of science graduates, although DSTL told us that that was not a problem. Nevertheless, we felt that although the shortage of graduates might not yet be a problem for DSTL, it could be in the future. If there are fewer science graduates, or if they are tempted to go to other countries, that could pose a problem for us in the long term.

A couple of evenings ago, some colleagues and I were fortunate enough to be entertained by QinetiQ, the extraordinarily valuable and exceptionally good company that employs large numbers of my constituents. A number of interesting points were made at the dinner, but I shall refer to only two of them. In the commercial world, what is in the shops today was on the computer design screen less than a year ago. We desperately need to be able to match that speed to market—or, in the MOD procurement world, speed to front line.

The second point arises from the first. There is an aversion to risk taking in the civil service. There is no system for rewarding civil servants who take risks. In fact, it is quite the reverse of a reward system, because what happens is that they get hauled before the Defence Committee or the Public Accounts Committee. I believe that there is a need to encourage civil servants to take properly assessed and properly evaluated risks in the interests of getting equipment into service before it becomes obsolete.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I cannot quite remember who said, "Advisers advise, Ministers decide," but does my right hon. Friend agree that the primary driver of this system has to be a ministerial one, because it is to Ministers that civil servants are ultimately responsible?

Photo of James Arbuthnot James Arbuthnot Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee

I agree and I will make a further point that relates precisely to what my hon. Friend says. It may horrify the House to hear it, but I believe that the current Minister for defence procurement is well placed to understand the point. Because of his background in industry, he understands the need for risk taking and the benefits that can flow from it. It is essential, I believe, that Ministers take those decisions to encourage risk taking, but it is also important that we scrutinising politicians learn the same lesson before we make life too difficult for those who take risks and sometimes fail.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 3:21 pm, 26th April 2007

May I say how pleased I am to contribute to this timely and important debate? No one can get away from the fact that our armed forces are under tremendous pressure at the moment—not just overseas, but in the UK. As Mr. Arbuthnot said, we are in a new era in which the certainties of the cold war have gone. The threat now is from international terrorism at home and abroad, and the methods of dealing with those problems in the new security world are very different. That challenges the Government to respond to the threat, while putting great pressure on our armed forces to recognise that we live in a different and dangerous world.

Along with the right hon. Gentleman I was privileged to visit Afghanistan last week and see that the men and women of our armed forces are working tremendously hard and with great dedication. It was rather odd to see a submariner in Kandahar miles away from the sea, but the men and women we met in all three services were working tremendously hard. I have to say that morale was very high. However, I sometimes think that we forget the pressures on the families left at home and the great worry they go through when their family members are on active operations throughout the world. Indeed, I would like to concentrate on the welfare issues in today's debate.

The Minister referred to the formation of the new armed forces independent complaints commissioner. Like other hon. Members in their places today, I was privileged to be a member of the Select Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill, which was good legislation. It went through a pre-legislative scrutiny phase in which many important issues were discussed in depth. I was pleased that, following the Blake report, the Government adapted the Bill to introduce a new armed forces commissioner.

No one can underestimate the damage caused by the revelations about Deepcut and the stories that we heard when the Defence Committee produced its report in the previous Parliament on the duty of care to young servicemen and women. I also have to say, however, that some of the media coverage was irresponsible and caused some unwarranted damage. I believe that the armed forces commissioner will help to provide a method of restoring some independence in dealing with complaints, and I hope that the post will be introduced as speedily as possible. I am a little worried that a lot of legislation that the House passes is left to the sausage machine of the civil service to enact. I am pleased that the advert for the armed forces commissioner has gone out, but the House and the Defence Committee will have to monitor the situation to ensure that the body is set up as quickly as possible.

In this media age, it is becoming quite clear that the men and women serving in our armed forces and their families will not sit back quietly and accept everything they are given. Instead, they will raise matters affecting the welfare of individuals and their families. I tabled new clause 23 to the Armed Forces Bill, although the Government did not accept it, which would have formed an armed forces federation. I am not proposing that there should be a trade union for the armed forces because that would be neither helpful, nor the way forward. However, there is increasing dissatisfaction about welfare issues, but, unfortunately, there is no mechanism through which people can express their views and get the recompense that some serving members of the armed forces and families deserve.

If hon. Members want an example, I suggest that they log on to the army rumour service website, which is very entertaining on occasions. Let me cite a recent post on the website. An ex-serviceman wrote:

"There are ... an increasing number of aspects that impact on a soldier's life that have little to do with the military. You will note the problems of debt, taxes, passport issues for our soldiers recruited from the commonwealth, family assistance issues; now, so heavily emphasised".

The post recognises the pressures on family life that are caused by separation from family and loved ones. It continues:

"These are not strictly military issues and go beyond the chain of command. It distresses me, a retired soldier, to see that in these areas over the past 30 years there has been no improvement."

On 30 October 2006, the British Armed Forces Federation gained legal status as a company limited by guarantee. I would like the federation to be recognised as a body that can represent the views of men and women serving in the armed forces, and they should be allowed to join it. People say that that would be a radical step forward that would affect the chain of command, but our men and women are serving overseas in Afghanistan and other theatres with Australian and Dutch personnel and individuals from other international NATO partners, all of whom have similar types of federations.

The federation is carrying out important work by not only lobbying for improvements in housing, but giving personal legal advice on not just the compensation-culture end of the spectrum, but family matters at home. Such a range of services will increasingly be needed by a lot of members of our armed forces. I pay tribute to Douglas Young and others involved in the initiative. Sooner or later, this Government, or a future one, will have to recognise that we need a body that can be a vehicle for highlighting the problems faced by members of our armed forces and for expressing their anxieties. Such problems and anxieties will only increase as we ask our members of the armed forces to do more on our behalf in difficult situations.

We have already heard about accommodation, and the federation's website shows that it is one of the most important issues to people. It is rather sad that media reports over the past few months have ignored the great work that has been done to put more money into accommodation for the armed forces. As Bob Russell said, however, we cannot ignore history. The Conservatives have to take some responsibility for the sale of MOD accommodation, which was not a good deal for the taxpayer, as the hon. Gentleman said. Having researched my speech for today, I have to say that I agree with the former Prime Minister, Lord Callaghan, who said in 1996:

"In the 1980s the Government preferred to cut taxes rather than look after the living conditions of the Armed Forces. They preferred to win a general election, even if it meant that water poured through the roofs and ceilings and homes in which service personnel were living."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 11 July 1996; Vol. 574, c. 455.]

Is every single unit of accommodation going to be upgraded overnight? No. However, another brave decision by the Government, which will improve armed forces accommodation, is to get rid of the arms plot and to develop super bases. The hon. Member for Colchester tells me that some of the new family accommodation coming on-stream is of a very high quality. That will help us to achieve the standards that the families of our armed forces personnel deserve. My hon. Friend Linda Gilroy made the point that over the next 10 years some £5 billion will be spent on armed forces accommodation.

We must not ignore the issue. Clearly, the Conservatives have jumped on a bandwagon, but the matter has been raised by members of the Army Board. Lieutenant-General Viggers recently said:

"The issue we have is that there is still too much accommodation which is of a poor standard, which is old, and which is not modern in the way it's fitted for families".

He went on to say:

"It's a key issue in what we call the military covenant—giving our soldiers and their families what they deserve in return for what they do for us."

I do not think that anyone in the House could disagree with that or with some of the comments made by General Sir Mike Jackson.

I temper that by saying that members of the Army Board should realise that they speak from a privileged position. Last year, the rent for the accommodation for the four generals came to £82,000, and if one adds in the cost of their gardeners, cooks and various other items, over £600,000 was spent.

Is the plan to improve accommodation going to be a quick fix? No. We ought to congratulate the Government on what they are doing to try to improve accommodation, not just here but abroad.

Some of the reporting of the medical treatment for members of the armed forces who are wounded in action has been sensationalist and outrageous. I have visited Selly Oak hospital, which I think is a fantastic facility. Using it is the right approach, as it has the necessary specialisms and the throughput of people means that expertise and skills are kept up to date. We must always be mindful of the fact that mistakes will be made in individual cases. However, I urge colleagues not to pick one example and then say that everything is wrong, because it quite clearly is not at Selly Oak.

The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire has already made the point that the Defence Committee will conduct an inquiry into medical services. One issue that needs consideration, and on which I hope the Select Committee will concentrate, is what happens when people leave the military and interact with their local primary care trust or acute hospital. That is important not only in cases of physical injury but, perhaps more so, in mental health services, where there is a gaping hole. We need to aim for a seamless service between the medical services that the military provide and those in the local community. There should be no gap in which people can sometimes be lost. Mental health problems are increasingly going to be an issue for people in stressful situations fighting wars. For perhaps the first time in my life I agreed with Dr. Fox when he said that this is the Cinderella service, not only in the military but on civvy street.

I was shocked to read in a letter that no one knows how many ex-servicemen are in prison, and no work has been done on how they got there. I congratulate the Government on setting up the Veterans Agency, which, as the hon. Member for Colchester said, has done a great job, not just in recognising veterans, but in its rough sleepers initiative and in its other projects. Work needs to be done on how many ex-military personnel are in prison, how they got there, and whether becoming involved in a life of crime was a result of experiences that they had in the military.

I was shocked by the approach of the hon. Member for Woodspring. He said that there was a bipartisan consensus on defence, but I have to say that over the past few weeks and months I have not seen a great deal of evidence of that attitude among members of the Conservative party. They are becoming as good as the Liberal Democrats at jumping on bandwagons, and if it was an Olympic sport they would certainly win a gold medal. The comments made about Afghanistan highlight that. Things change in theatre, and it is important that if something goes wrong we do not create an urban myth that the problem has been continuing for ever.

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman's description of Afghanistan is complete nonsense, and it is factually incorrect. I was there last week with the Select Committee on Defence, and I pay tribute not just to our men and women, who are working tremendously hard, but to some of our NATO allies—the Dutch, the Canadians, the Americans and the Australians, to name a few—who are working very hard, too. They are doing more than just contributing militarily; they are fighting very hard and are making a good contribution, but because the media do not concentrate on it, there is no recognition of the contribution being made by some of our new NATO allies, including the Baltic states and Romania, which are bringing troops and equipment to Afghanistan. The situation is new for them, and we should not criticise and snipe at them but congratulate them.

A lot of nonsense was talked about caveats. I went out and got a copy of what General Richards said to the Defence Committee the other day. The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire asked him about caveats, and his response was:

"You are as well aware of the issue as I am. Troop numbers are the real issue...Moving troops from the North to the south would not have helped...So in answer to your original question it was an increase in the overall number of troops, not caveats" that was the issue. To regurgitate the issues, and to say that our NATO partners are not working closely and doing a tremendous job in Afghanistan, is naive and not very helpful in our fight against terrorism in that country.

In conclusion, we should remember the debt that we owe our men and women in the armed forces. We should recognise that they are doing a tremendous job on our behalf, and we should support them when things are wrong. When something goes wrong, we should not say that everything is wrong, because clearly there are a lot of men and women in our armed forces who are working very hard. The media—and, on occasions, some of us—need to be careful that we do not knock the morale of those people, who are working in dangerous and difficult circumstances.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex 3:39 pm, 26th April 2007

I agree with a great deal of what Mr. Jones has said, particularly about the way in which the media report military matters. They pretend to be the great friends of servicemen and women. When anything goes wrong—and when things go wrong, it can be very bad—it is deeply shocking because it is truly unusual, and I commend him for making that point.

I wish to pay my tribute to servicemen and women, including members of our reserves and the Territorial Army, and their long-suffering wives and often much put-upon families. I also pay tribute to the civilian staff across the whole defence establishment. My right hon. Friend Mr. Arbuthnot referred to our magnificent defence industry, which is an important sector of British industry and makes a tremendous contribution to this country. I, too, for my own small part, offer my profound respects and thoughts to the families of the fallen, and I wish a speedy and full recovery and return to duty where possible to those who have been wounded in the service of their country.

Thinking about what I was going to say today, I realised that in about two weeks' time it will be 25 years since the Royal Navy at dawn on Friday 21 May, under the very eyes of the enemy's guns, missiles and aircraft, on the hostile shores of a coastline 8,000 miles from home, put ashore on San Carlos bay a combined taskforce of all arms which, in under 16 days—16 hard days—recaptured the Falkland Islands. It was one of the greatest feats, if the not the greatest feat, of combined operations since D-day, and was accomplished by boldness of conception, superb planning and determination, and formidable skill at arms. We should remember with pride and gratitude the achievements of the Falklands taskforce.

The strategic defence review that followed the 1997 general election was by and large supported by everyone. It was, in many respects, a remarkable piece of work and, in my view, it should have been undertaken by a Conservative Government. It had a great deal to recommend it, and its conclusions were, in my judgment, entirely correct, but the support of the service chiefs and of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition was conditional on funding being made available to make its conclusions a reality. That funding was not forthcoming, and as Mr. Hoon, the then Labour Secretary of State for Defence, said in 2003:

"Since the strategic defence review our Armed Forces have conducted operations that have been more complex and greater in number than we had envisaged. We have effectively been conducting continual concurrent operations, deploying further afield, to more places, more frequently and with a greater variety of missions than set out in the SDR planning assumptions."

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth for drawing that remark to my attention.

It is therefore important to say two very important things. First, the services are now seriously underfunded for the task in hand and, secondly, a coach and horses has been driven through defence planning assumptions, which must be revised as a matter of urgency. It is interesting to look at the military establishment, as Defence Equipment and Support puts into practice a proposal made by my party at the last election to merge the Defence Logistics Organisation and the Defence Procurement Agency. Defence Equipment and Support does everything that it possibly can on a very urgent basis to make sure that our people have the right kit and equipment in the field, and it takes considerable risks and cuts every possible corner to do so. Compare that with the top—the Ministry of Defence, the defence establishment and the whole machinery of government, which are still firmly mired in a peacetime process, without any visible sense of urgency. The malign influence of the Treasury is ever present, sitting on their shoulders.

Defence planning is notoriously difficult, but the lessons of history teach us, without exception, that every major emergency involving the British services in the past 25 years was almost completely unforeseen. I include the Falklands campaign in 1982, the Gulf in 1991, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Macedonia, Iraq and now Afghanistan, to say nothing of the emergencies at home, including the fuel crisis, the foot and mouth emergency, firefighting and the terrorist attacks of July 2005. The ill intention towards us can wreak havoc in a way that would have been unimaginable a short time ago.

The question that needs to be asked is whether, in light of events, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence believe that the world is becoming a safer place. None of us knows any serious commentator or observer who thinks so. There is every likelihood that our services will be required to do more, rather than less, over the next decade and for the foreseeable future. I see no likelihood of the tempo of operations diminishing or the requirements for combat, peace enforcement, peace support and humanitarian relief growing any less, and I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that when he winds up.

In the longer term the growing threat from climate change and sudden catastrophic environmental disaster must be considered, as well as the stability of Governments and states in parts of the world where we have considerable interests, and the activities of non-state actors such as major terrorist groups and international cross-border crime syndicates. We live in a globalised world. What happens in Pakistan, the middle east or the horn of Africa affects us. It is not possible to say that we will avoid involvement. We do not and will not always have the luxury of choice in that regard. It would be irresponsibly risky and dangerous to predicate our future policy and budget purely on avoiding trouble.

As I say, events have breached the defence planning assumptions asunder. The services are seriously underfunded and operating at the very margins of what is sustainable, particularly the Army. It is necessary for the present Government or whoever will follow them to make crucial judgments on investments to create balanced forces that can adapt quickly to the demands of new crises. I have no high hopes, for, as our armed forces are engaged in a full-on high intensity war fighting operation, the machinery of government is mired in a peacetime mentality.

As Lord Guthrie, a distinguished former Chief of the Defence Staff, has wisely said, operations are being conducted successfully today, but they cannot be maintained at their present tempo on current human and equipment resources and funding for much longer, without inviting a dramatic deterioration in capability and performance in the not too distant future and risking operational failure. It is a long time since any former Chief of the Defence Staff has made that so plain.

I want Ministers to understand that there is no need for us to have a political argument about this. I agree with the hon. Member for North Durham. When he meets troops in Afghanistan who are really doing the business, of course their morale is high. They are well trained and they are some of the most remarkable troops in the world. Generally speaking, however, our armed forces feel taken for granted and undervalued. That must be fixed. At the minimum, there needs to be an uplift of the defence budget to produce balanced forces more appropriate for the times we live in and the tasks they are being asked to undertake. The Army, in particular, is in grave need of extra money if it is to continue to conduct operations at the current rate.

Many others more experienced and cleverer than I believe that when it comes to policy making and strategy, the military chiefs are shut out of the major decisions and Ministers being told the truth about life and death in the real world. I think that I am not alone in finding it extraordinary that when the Prime Minister travels to the United States—for example, to deliberate with the President on really important matters of life and death to this country involving the deployment and use of British armed forces—that he is not accompanied by at least the Chief of the Defence Staff and other senior officers. Had more of their views on the post-conflict problems of Iraq been listened to, many of those problems would have been diminished.

The next Conservative Government will need to ensure that senior commanders have a far greater input into policy at the very highest level. The Conservative Government will wish, I hope, to return to the chiefs of staff the public authority that they once exercised and to make clear, for example, that far greater account is taken of their views in some of those major decisions.

I want to finish reasonably soon, but I must bang on about something that I have spoken about in every speech in a defence debate that I have made in the House for about the past 10 years. Very little attention has been paid to what I have said, so I will have one more go about an issue that is absolutely fundamental to our armed forces. I do not want to sound like Colonel Blimp, but this issue matters very much. I want to say a few words about training and discipline.

It is not an idle boast, and it is true to say, that the British Army and the British armed forces are man for man the best fighting force in the world. In the Falklands, in the Gulf, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and, most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan, both their enemies and their allies have been truly amazed at their fitness, determination, courage, professionalism and, of course, their humanity. That is why what happened to the Royal Navy the other day is so truly shocking. I was in Washington last week and was touched by the solicitude of our American friends at what had happened to the Royal Navy in this particular case.

The answer is simple and I suspect not well understood much outside the armed forces. In no other army in the world, can a soldier depend on the men around him in the way that they can and do in the British Army, and they are doing every day of the week in Helmand and Basra, as the hon. Member for North Durham and the Select Committee will have seen. From Waterloo to Alamein, from Goose Green to the Euphrates and from Bosnia to Basra and Helmand, the British soldiers, commandos and all those others fighting on the ground have proved time and again that they can face the most tremendous odds and triumph. If one asks a soldier what the key to that confidence is, they will immediately say that it is discipline, training and trust in the chain of command. It is therefore a matter of the first importance that the system that produces young men and women of this calibre must not be altered in such a way that it will produce only pale imitations of what is required.

So far the Army has just about held the line, but it is a constant battle for all three services to fight off politically correct notions that are profoundly dangerous when it comes to operations and training and absolute anathema to the ethos of the armed forces.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. He will recall that there is an old Army adage: "Train hard and fight easy". Does he agree that, in respect of the Deepcut inquiry that was mentioned by Mr. Jones, Mr. Blake, like everyone else who has inquired into the circumstances at Deepcut, was at pains to point out that unless we train our young men and women robustly, we will do them the most enormous disfavour in failing to equip them properly to meet the challenges of war fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. There has been a series of very unfortunate events which, because of their rarity, achieve a magnitude out of all proportion to the everyday run of military training. I pay tribute to the backbone—the spine—of the British armed forces: the non-commissioned officers, who, on operations and in training, do all that is necessary to produce those very fine and remarkable young men. We really are very lucky, and they are the envy of all other armed forces.

It is not well understood in this House that the people of our armed forces live under a very different code of rules and conduct from the rest of us. Practically no one in the press, and very few people in this House or in the wider world, has any real understanding as to the circumstances in which they operate. That is not good for the armed forces and not good for the country. An amazingly high standard of personal conduct is required of our armed forces, sometimes under the most grievously difficult circumstances: respect for the law, teamwork, cohesion, trust and loyalty, together with a highly developed sense of duty, obligation and integrity. Those are qualities almost alien to most members of the press who would write about our armed forces. If he has not already done so, I suggest that the Minister reads "The Values and Standards of the British Army: A Guide to Soldiers". It is a remarkable document that deserves to be more widely read; indeed, it should be read in every school in the land.

What happened to the Navy in the Shatt al-Arab was an unforgivable disaster. As Brigadier Allan Mallinson said in a brilliant article in The Daily Telegraph, it was an entirely avoidable tactical military cock-up. The Navy was operating in highly sensitive waters in seemingly the most complacent manner, with unclear rules of engagement and wholly inadequate military intelligence. There will be, and need to be, the most serious consequences, and I have every confidence in General Sir Robert Fulton, who will get to the bottom of this atrocious failure.

As I have often said in the House, for the soldiers, sailors and airmen of today and tomorrow, as for their formidable forebears, warfare will and does continue to represent the ultimate physical and moral challenge. These young men and women will encounter extreme danger in rapidly changing circumstances amid conditions of chaos and uncertainty. Their skills and leadership qualities, and their weapons and equipment, are being tested every day of the week in our name. These operations are sustainable only by very highly trained and committed young men motivated by service ethos, by pride in their traditions and institutions, by comradeship and an astonishing level of team spirit, and by the emotional, intellectual and moral qualities that lead people to put their lives on the line—and of course by loyalty and patriotism and by an enduring belief in essentially British values and an unshakable determination to defend them.

It has always worried me that Ministers do not really understand what is being asked of our soldiers. I should like to remind the Minister of what Lord Wavell said in one of the most famous military lectures of all time—his lecture on generalship. His words were remarkable, and all of us in this House, when we think of these young men and women, need to hold them up in our minds.

He said that,

"in the last resort, the end of all military training, the settling of all policy, the ordering of all weaponry and all that goes into the makings of the armed forces is that the deciding factor in battle will always be this: That sooner or later, private so-and-so will, of his own free will and in the face of great danger, uncertainty and chaos have to advance to his front in the face of the enemy."

If it all goes wrong after the training, intensive preparations, provision of equipment and expenditure, the system has failed. That system has, so far, never failed, but it is now not failing only by the skin of its teeth. The armed forces have never let us down, but the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State are letting them down by failing to resource them adequately for the demanding tasks that they are under constant obligation to undertake. They must stop taking the armed forces for granted.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South 4:00 pm, 26th April 2007

I apologise for missing the opening speeches and two hours of the debate. I was attending a dinner that the Minister for Europe gave for the President of Georgia.

Mr. Soames is almost Churchillian in his oratory, but he is guilty of missing out a bit of history from the Falklands to 1997, when he was a distinguished Minister, as was my successor as Chairman of the Defence Committee. I still find it difficult to view the work of the Defence Committee with detachment. Leaving it was not voluntary but imposed by a rule for which I did not vote and that I did not appreciate.

I remember reading that the hon. Gentleman's grandfather famously said after the war that history would be kind to him because he would be writing the history. That was prophetic and brilliant and no hon. Member, with the possible exception of the hon. Gentleman, has more admiration for his grandfather than me. However, the hon. Gentleman was a Minister when the defence budget fell from 5.5 per cent. to 2.5 per cent. I recall Ministers appearing before the Defence Committee, and our pleading with them, "Please don't think because the cold war is over that the threat to our national security has been dissipated. History shows that crises will return."

I am not trying to be hostile; I want to be constructive in the same way as the hon. Gentleman and others. Governments are always guilty of finding reasons for not increasing expenditure on defence and for cutting defence spending. In 1997, the Defence Committee was Conservative led, and our last report before the general election said something along the lines of, "Defence expenditure has fallen to such a dramatically low level that, should any further cuts be introduced, we believe it will endanger the defence of the realm."

The Government appear to be following a tradition of doing the bare necessity. I support the Government—if I supported the party under Michael Foot, I will always support it. I cringe about some of the things for which I had to vote in the 1980s, holding my nose every time I went through the Lobby to vote on defence issues. There was one exception: the Falklands, when Michael Foot returned to his "guilty men" days, and I applauded him.

I remember writing a mostly historical book about my local Staffordshire Regiment, which survived the Conservative Government. Thank God for Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who reversed some of the atrocious cuts that the Government had pushed through. Unfortunately, the new Government got their own back on some of the regiments that survived, and the early options for change policy appears to be in the process of implementation. As we have seen with some of the failures of the previous Government, supporters of this Government will also look back critically in 10, 15 or however many years.

When I came to the debate late, I had a sense of déjà vu, because the sale of the Ministry of Defence housing estate—sold by Michael Portillo to Annington Homes, also known as the Nomura corporation of Tokyo, Japan—was again being discussed. In the early 1990s, the Conservative-led Defence Committee said that the cuts to Defence Medical Services, as a result of defence costs study 15, had proceeded at such a pace and intensity that it doubted that it could ever recover.

The Labour Government made one of the biggest mistakes—which has been referred to rather approvingly—in flogging off the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. That was an atrocious decision, even though people now take some pride in it. Mr. Hancock was part of our four inquiries' endeavour—

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

I am sorry to show how bipartisan the report was.

Therefore, Governments fail. At the beginning of this Government, I remember making what I thought was an amusing speech, which I called the A to Z of Tory procurement—the Clerks advised "foul-ups" as the final words. I said at the time that the speech had been made too soon, and now is the time to accuse the Labour party of making procurement mistakes.

All Governments make mistakes. They should at least have the humility to know when mistakes have been made, and look to history to try to avoid such mistakes in the future. The history of the British armed forces over the past 200 years shows an oscillation between intense effort to meet a sudden threat and—almost in a matter of days after the threat was over and military victory had been achieved—the inevitable descent in expenditure and recruitment. Once again, having bottomed out, a crisis emerges and the situation must be repaired in a short space of time.

What are the current dangers? We have all said that we now look back on the cold war almost as the halcyon days. We knew the enemy then: all the Germans looked like Anton Diffring, and the Russians all looked like Russians. Now, however, we live in a different world. The threat is different, but I fear that some of the cold war threats and problems will sneak back. There was a time when the cold war had apparently ended, and we were in our euphoric phase. With Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the beginning of democracy, we were in a loving embrace with Russia—no longer the Soviet Union—with NATO training the Russian military and good words all round. Anyone who thought that that would last in perpetuity had no knowledge of, interest in or wish to gain the experience of history.

It is too soon to start getting paranoid about developments, but we need to be aware of them. Russia went through an humiliating period, and is now coming out of it. The British and others helped Russia to develop its oil and gas industry, and now, understandably, it is becoming increasingly wealthy and self-confident. We are beginning to hear phrases which, if not alarming, are cause for concern.

The cold war created the need for cold war expenditure and action. Then we entered a period in which people said "Well, there is only one superpower now. All is going swimmingly. Russia is no longer a threat, and China does not really count." We are moving into a different era now. We are no longer in a unipolar state; we are in a multipolar state. We are seeing a multiplication of ownership of nuclear weapons, and countries with significant grievances. As I am sure other Members have pointed out, we face a new range of threats. There are environmental threats, and of course there is the growth of terrorism.

We are having to deal with those new threats, but we may also face a recurrence of the old threats. It has been said that in an era in which we need forces that can be deployed rapidly, we do not need heavy tanks. People have said, "No one wants the Eurofighter any more, because it is surplus to requirements." We are going to have to prepare for a traditional, conventional war, such as we fought only three years ago. We must prepare to defend ourselves with the concepts and strategies that were used in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, while having to deal with terrorism at home and a multitude of other pressures that we are beginning to recognise. Can that be done with a defence budget that is falling to a level close to 2.2 or 2.3 per cent., perhaps even closer than we fear? It cannot.

As everyone with a sense of history knows, after the Ottoman navy was largely sunk at Lepanto, the Ottomans licked their wounds, sailed home in what ships they had, chopped down every tree in Anatolia and built a new navy in six months, after which they were back winning naval victories. Our protracted procurement process may mean a delay of 10, 15 or 20 years. We must start to anticipate what the dangers may be in 10 or 15 years, or perhaps even sooner.

Members may say, "You have criticised the Government. Now may we have a little plug for the Government?" The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex rightly said that the strategic defence review was overdue and that its analysis was correct. Adjustments were made because of succeeding events, but one wonders how long it will be before more adjustments are needed. I am not calling for a new SDR, but five years from now we may be forced to admit that the strategic environment is different from the one that existed when the SDR was drawn up in the late 1990s.

I do not wish to be seen as an old cold war warrior who, Rip van Winkle-like, has fallen asleep for a decade and then returned to the world as if nothing had happened. I genuinely believe that we are entering a dangerous period of international relations.

I am very pro-America, and always have been. We should support the alliance, and support the United States even when things look pretty stupid over there. Anyone with a sense of history will know the importance of the United States to the security and survival of western Europe. Who was largely responsible for the delivery of eastern and central Europe? It was not the British or the French; it was the United States. Because of the deteriorating economic environment in the United States and the bruising that it, like the British, has received over Iraq, my concern is that the United States might do what it did after 1918-19: retreat into itself and say, "Well, it's your problem." It must not do that. However good our armed forces are, and even with Trident II or Trident III, could we survive? No, we could not. Can we rely on the European Union to defend us? No, we cannot.

In the dangerous world in which we now live, there must be an increasingly close relationship between the traditional allies—not only between the English-speaking peoples, but right across the world. The economic, social and demographic threats that we face have to be dealt with, but the primary threat will be the multiplicity of threats that I have been talking about. We can cope with those threats only by means of a solid twin-tracked alliance in which the American part is matched—and not only in terms of the quality of armed forces. We have learned that defence is no longer a matter only for the Ministry of Defence.

That brings me on to my main point. The debate is on defence, but the topic is in some respects anachronistic. Defence is a watertight area of Government policy. We know exactly what it is, who makes most of the decisions—the Chancellor—and who makes the decisions consequent upon his decisions. We know the personnel involved. However, 9/11 showed that each Department of State is not watertight. No solid wall can be built around the Foreign Office or the MOD. In fairness to the Executive, they have built up and developed a system of decision making that transcends departmental stovepipes. However, it is far from perfect, and I do not want there to be a crisis of decision making so that there needs to be an inquiry into that failure. I do not want the Government to have to rework constantly their decision-making and policy-making procedures to ensure that, in the event of a crisis—whether a minor crisis involving a relatively minor terrorist attack, or a major crisis—the entire series of edifices of central Government, Cabinet and Cabinet Committees, with the entire range of personnel involved, are so well calibrated in terms of both domestic politics and our relations with our international partners that our response is sufficiently swift and effective.

My major concern is an institution that is closer to home: our House of Commons. The Executive have over time acted to create a more cross-cutting decision-making process, but parliamentary structures remain wedded to 19th-century principles. We even call Select Committees "departmental Select Committees". However, the Defence Committee, which I was proud to chair, broke the mould. After 9/11, a meeting was held—a couple of Members who are present attended it—of the Defence Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the International Development Committee. It was a substitute for a second recall of Parliament after 9/11. I contacted the Chairmen of those Committees as well as the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which is not a Select Committee, of course, and said, "Look, we're all going to be involved in an inquiry into 9/11. Let's get the ground rules right so that we do not keep calling the same people." I asked the Defence Committee staff and others to list from one to 10 the best forms of inquiry. At the top of the list was a joint inquiry across the board: one large committee with inputs from the other Committees. At the bottom was the option of no co-operation whatsoever. What model of co-operation was chosen? The bottom but one, which was a joint briefing from the intelligence services. So the Defence Committee said, "Sod you—we are doing our own."

A lot of people were angry. One Cabinet Minister was incandescent with rage because we, the Defence Committee, at the instigation of the MOD, were undertaking an inquiry way beyond our competence as a Select Committee. We did it, however, and we covered defence and, to an extent, foreign affairs, home affairs, civil contingencies preparation and response, aviation and maritime security, the response of the health service, regional and local government, policing, and the private sector in a genuinely integrated inquiry, carried out by the Defence Committee on its own. After that we had exhausted our good will with the other Committees, which had progressively joined in, so we sank back again into our stovepipe.

I have done a lot of research on this issue. I wrote to the Leader of the House, who was not interested in my proposal. The Chairman of the Modernisation Committee was quite interested, but I got no reply from the Liaison Committee. I said, "Can we not think of ways of improving the situation and of getting out of our 'stovepipe-ism'? Can't we have a national security committee, which could be ad hoc and would come into effect only if a crisis occurred that required the Select Committee system to get the Committees together in a combined endeavour to deal with it?"

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Everything is not as black and gloomy as my right hon. Friend is suggesting. His successor, Mr. Arbuthnot, has held a joint session of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees, taking evidence from the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

I am aware of that, although I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing it out. However, that is nothing—in fact, less than nothing. I recall saying that we must have more meetings with Foreign Affairs Committee. We had one with the MOD and then the Clerk was instructed that if that representative of the FAC ever attends a joint meeting, that is the end of any co-operation. So I lapsed for a moment into the attitude that I am now criticising.

I proposed a system that can replicate the co-ordinated response of the Executive. We cannot do that, because the Treasury can play one Department or Select Committee off against another. The Treasury will not appear before us—to my knowledge, only once in 30 years has a Treasury official appeared before the Defence Committee. We need to think about improving our own structures. There are models, of sorts, such as the Quadripartite Committee, and the Commons and Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights. We cannot deal with the multiplicity of challenges that a modern state faces by examining the MOD singly. If what the Defence Committee did on civil contingencies preparation and planning were replicated in a Government structure, it would fill a wall. Who—apart from the Defence Committee five or six years ago—has done anything about this issue other than table a few parliamentary questions? Who has asked questions of the Civil Contingencies Committee or the civil contingencies secretariat, which are vital to responding to a devastating attack? I wish that we would put our house in order in that regard.

I have not yet touched on the main points of my speech— [ Interruption . ] We have lots of time. I sought advice regarding the Register of Members' Interests, and I should point out that I have an obsessive interest in the state of Georgia. That interest first developed in the mid-1990s, when Georgia was under the corrupt regime of Eduard Shevardnadze. I also headed the observation of a number of elections in Georgia, and in doing so I was very objective. I am very supportive of Georgia and I will never again be asked to observe an election there, or anywhere else probably. Alarm bells may be ringing and people may be asking what Georgia has to do with this debate—

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

Well, it is the one place that the hon. Gentleman has not visited. I cannot think of many places that fall into that category.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

Well, perhaps the hon. Gentleman has been there once.

To try to minimise criticism, I mentioned earlier in my speech the fact that as the Secretary of State for Defence spent a lot of time talking to the President of Georgia—as did the Prime Minister—it must be a matter of interest for us. What happens in Georgia is of importance to us. First, so much of our energy comes through that country and BP is the largest investor there. Secondly, we want Georgia to become part of NATO and it is in our interests that that part of the south Caucasus is democratic. None of the countries to the north are democratic and the other countries in the south Caucasus are—to put it politely—not yet on the significant path towards becoming consolidated democracies. Georgia is trying very hard to be accepted as a member of NATO. It has gone through the acronym process of partnership for peace and, I hope, next year it will go through the membership action plan.

My great concern is Russia. I am not being paranoid and saying that Russia is a threat. It is not, but the speech that President Putin gave a couple of months ago in Germany criticised the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which must be the least harmful organisation in the history of the world. It is the Russians who are being paranoid. It is not in our interests that any Russian bullying achieves its aim of intimidating Georgia into accepting the re-establishment of Russian control. The Russians often forget that Georgia has extricated itself from the Soviet Union and Russia. More worryingly, it is possible that Russian pressure—not from the old Red Army, but from the exploitation of a near monopoly in oil and gas—will buy off any support that some countries might otherwise have given to Georgia's burgeoning democracy and its aspirations to become part of the Euratlantic region and political culture and a member of NATO.

The British Government are doing much to assist in the modernisation of the military. Through the pipeline we are the leading investor in the Georgian economy at present, and we have close connections between our Parliaments and Government Departments. I hope that in one or two years' time Georgia will become part of NATO.

When I first became a Member of Parliament, the antagonism on the issue of defence was appalling. The issue became so personal that it was impossible to achieve any consensus on any defence issue, and that was just inside the Labour party. Between all the parties, the debates were acrimonious and speeches on the issue could cause great offence on both sides. Now, despite the rhetoric and leg-pulling, and the claims that the Government have not done various things right, there is an incredible near-consensus on defence policy. Yes, there are those who do not want Trident, but there is substantial agreement on basic issues. Whichever party is in office over the next five to 10 years, I hope that that consensus will prevail. The challenges that the UK will face will demand clear-headed decision making in Parliament, because the level of threat will be unlike anything that we have seen for generations.

I am not making a valedictory speech, but I believe that the House of Commons is up to that task. The Opposition may not admit it, but they generally offer the Government their support and as a result we are going in the right direction. The way forward set down in the SDR is right, even though some substantial adjustments have to be made. However, we would be burying our collective head in the sand if we believed that the present defence budget, even though it has not been cut, was sufficient to deal with present difficulties, let alone future problems. If we want to adhere to our international obligations and fulfil the principal requirement that our state be defended, the money for that must be found somewhere. That is the challenge facing the Government and the next Prime Minister. We cannot expect our armed forces to continue their difficult task without the necessary funds or resources. I very much hope that the Government meet their obligations in that respect.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton 4:31 pm, 26th April 2007

It was a pleasure to be in the House this afternoon to hear the sterling contribution of my hon. Friend Mr. Soames. I want to associate myself in particular with the remarks that he made at the beginning of his speech about our armed services and their families and about those who have fallen on behalf of this country.

Those remarks prompted me to reflect that defence should be any Government's No. 1 priority, as it is our insurance policy that ensures that freedom and the right of self-determination continue in the UK. It was for that reason that the Falklands taskforce set out almost 25 years ago, as most of us will remember well. I am pleased and honoured to be going to the Falklands for the first time in June, to be present at the commemorations celebrating the return of freedom to the islands.

I agree entirely with Mr. George about the alliances with America and the English-speaking countries that have stood the test of time. We should work more closely with those who share our ideals and values.

I came across a quotation the other day that seemed especially apt for this debate on the UK's defence. In his "The Art of War", Sun Tzu wrote:

"And as water has no constant form, there are in war no constant conditions."

That succinctly describes the dilemma facing those charged with the procurement of arms, vehicles and systems for our armed services on active duty on behalf of the UK.

In order to plan comprehensively for the defence of the UK, one has to predict future difficulties and conflicts that could threaten, directly or indirectly, our nation and its interests. It would seem that the present counter-insurgency challenges facing our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan—part of the war on terrorism—have not been accurately predicted by the military or by politicians. The Home Secretary recently talked about splitting the responsibilities of the Home Office to improve prospects in the war on terror. Perhaps the MOD needs to give a higher priority to counter-insurgency work, and to the necessary procurement for it, because the war on terror will most certainly not go away.

I am often reminded of the phrase "boys and toys" when I hear about the huge expenditure on procurement in the UK's defence budget, not least because I have always believed that it is not what we spend but how we spend it that is more important. For example, the RAF's budget is haemorrhaging because of the Eurofighter—that fantastically expensive creation of European integration—and if we enter into tranche 3, which will provide for ground attack, the aircraft will be too fast to be of any use as close air support in counter-insurgency work.

Similarly, the Royal Navy is besotted with the idea of its two future aircraft carriers, which inevitably absorb most of its funding. However, should not we ask whether those vessels will fit the requirements of the future? They will certainly be of limited value in counter-insurgency work, where the requirement is often as simple as inshore patrol vessels. The Army has been painfully restructured to fulfil the original concept of FRES—the future rapid effect system—to wage war against a conventional army at a distance, as part of the European rapid reaction force, double-hatted with NATO; yet that unattainable pipe dream seems to have been downgraded to the provision of medium-armoured vehicles.

The three examples that I have briefly described, with the extra parts bolted on to form the complete packages, are very large funding projects indeed. During the Westminster Hall debate that I secured on FRES, the Minister announced that its cost had risen, almost overnight, from £6 billion to £14 billion and I believe that it has now gone up to £16 billion in only a short time. Once again, the question has to be posed: can the UK afford such expensive procurement without compromising lesser but equally important projects with immediate needs, such as those to provide maximum protection and support for our troops on active service in Iraq and Afghanistan? The final question is the $64,000 one: will a future British Government be prepared to continue funding those expensive projects?

The MOD is making great strides in base protection from indirect fire, which includes the introduction of counter rocket, artillery and mortar—C-RAM—about which I asked an oral question on 22 January, following a tragic incident at Basra palace camp. Improved body armour has been supplied. The VIPIR thermal imager is excellent. Mastiff and Bulldog vehicles have been introduced and there are improved electronic counter-measures against improvised explosive devices. As has been said, there are additional medium-lift helicopters: eight mark 3 Chinooks, which are to be downgraded to mark 2s, to ensure that they actually work, and six Merlins from Denmark, which are exceptionally expensive aircraft. In addition, among other items, we now have the underslung grenade launcher and better communication kit.

Where we might be going wrong, however, is that the military, or perhaps even politicians, seem to want advanced technical toys that cover 100 per cent. of all possible requirements. I have already mentioned tranche 3 of the Eurofighter, but there is also the joint strike fighter, the Merlin helicopter and electric armour on new vehicles. Then, on cost only rather than technology grounds, there are the two carriers, Astute submarines, A400M transport aircraft, air-to-air refuelling replacement and the MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability—programme to replace all the Navy's ageing supply ships. They are all incredibly expensive, and often need massive logistical back-up, yet we simply do not have the manpower to service them without taking personnel from other duties. Nor could we contemplate their potential loss, because we have insufficient financial resources to replace them, even if they could be procured at short notice, which is nigh on impossible.

Over the past three years, I have consistently pursued the issue of counter-insurgency, where the enemy is unknown and is indistinguishable from the local population. That was the main reason I was so sceptical about the original concept of FRES. It is essential for counter-insurgency work to have aerial surveillance, yet I am not entirely convinced of the reliability of unmanned aerial vehicles, which do not come cheap by any means, especially when the Iraqi air force has at least 12 SAMA CH2000 small aircraft fitted with XM15 electro-optical surveillance turrets for less than the price of one Lynx helicopter. However, the Minister will be relieved to hear that it is pleasing that the Army Air Corps now has four Britten Norman Defender 4S AL Mk1 aircraft, which I trust are still in Iraq. I recently tabled a written question on that point. They operate at a fraction of the hourly cost of other aircraft and are no doubt doing a superb job.

With the correct surveillance equipment, an expensive platform is not necessary to deliver results. With the contraction of UK forces in Iraq to Basra air base, for example, the limited routes into Basra should be under aerial surveillance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as should those routes going south to protect the supply lines from Kuwait. That should not be too expensive, but I wonder if the Royal Air Force and the Army Air Corps would work together and co-operate on such a project.

Moreover, insurgents are upping the ante, as it were, by taking out Warriors and Challengers, but it takes them considerably longer to lay the much larger charges needed than to lay an IED—improvised explosive device—against a Snatch Land Rover. That provides the golden opportunity, if there is adequate surveillance, to catch and deal with the insurgents.

There should not be a shortage of helicopters, as there are plenty of Bell helicopters—commonly known in the American slang as "Hueys"—which can be leased at a 10th of the hourly cost of a Lynx. They can also operate well in the heat of Afghanistan and fly when conditions ground the Lynx.

At present, many of the requirements in the field of defence arise from dealing with insurgents resisting democracy, and the UK simply cannot afford to fight that kind of a war by using the most expensive equipment, which is not always the best for the conditions. We can succeed, however, by using practical, cost-effective means such as the electro-optical surveillance turret within a simple platform. We can build vehicles with a balance between protection, speed and manoeuvrability, although it has to be said that reports about the Panther Command and Liaison vehicle have not been all that encouraging. As it seems that many, if not most, future conflicts will have to deal with insurgency, Britain needs a force that is both equipped and trained for insurgency work, which can be achieved at a fraction of the defence budget.

I end my brief contribution by saying that I believe the Secretary of State acted properly and appropriately in announcing an inquiry into the incident involving the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines on 23 March. I trust that the inquiry will have a beneficial long-term effect on counter-insurgency work and that the UK will be better equipped in future to deal with these extremely difficult situations.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead 4:43 pm, 26th April 2007

Before I start my own speech, I would like to comment on what the shadow Secretary of State for Defence said earlier this afternoon, which I can describe only as barmy paranoia. His basic argument was that we should not trade with Russia or Iran because they will invest some of the proceeds in their defence. That is quite silly. Are we not to trade, then, to receive the pretty large portions of the world's oil and gas that come from those parts of the world? Are our people supposed to go cold instead? In another part of the hon. Gentleman's speech, he talked about selling arms without restriction because he wanted to boost our defence industries. That aspect of his speech was silly and incoherent. He should revisit the matter for the future.

The debate is about defence in the UK, so it is quite restrictive. However, it is astonishing that we have not had a full debate on Iraq in light of recent events and reports, which have included an escalation in the killing of civilians and troops. Iraqi citizens have less security and protection than ever, as was witnessed when the Parliament was bombed. More than 100,000 Iraqis participated in a demonstration in Najaf to call for the US and UK occupiers to go. The coalition Government are losing Ministers and there is more puppet government by the US than ever. We have also seen reports such as that by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which presented a scathing catalogue of the consequences of the occupation for soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

In the United States, public opinion has moved overwhelmingly against the Iraq engagement. There is a joke in Washington: "What's the difference between the Iraq war and the Vietnam war?" The answer is, "George W. Bush had an exit strategy for the Vietnam war." George Bush is going to continue with the disaster until his term in office is up, whatever the fruitless cost in extra lives. His actions are taking the lives of British troops, yet that seems to be of little concern, other than for prayer. It is openly said in Washington that the Iraq war is a failed war. The US Congress knows it, the British public know it, and Ministers know it—and say so privately. It is wrong not to act on that knowledge so that the carnage and loss of life that the occupation is generating can be brought to an end.

As the debate is about defence in the UK, I want to focus my speech on the UK defence institutions that have come under pressure from the war and occupation and to talk about the process in this country for dealing with death, torture and murder in British military custody. I will not mention a current case because aspects of it remain sub judice, but I can refer to more general matters.

Such matters were raised in an article in Monday's edition of The Guardian by the solicitor, Phil Shiner, who wrote:

"The evidence of British abuse and killing of Iraqi civilians is part of an iceberg of disgrace which demands a public inquiry".

He wrote that the nation should be "shocked", but that media outlets chose to ignore the matter. He stated:

"By comparison, when Canadian troops meted out similar treatment to a prisoner in Somalia in the 1990s, the result was a five-year public inquiry and spring-clean of the military justice system."

The article pointed out that the torture by British troops

"included the use of four techniques banned by the government in 1972: hooding, stressing and sleep and food deprivation."

It stated that the torture was carried out by

"not just one rogue battalion", but others. Phil Shiner referred to

"senior brigade legal advice, which said it would not be breaching international humanitarian law to hood and stress civilian detainees."

He wrote about a

"failure to train troops to observe the law and also, it seems, to teach them the basic principles to enable them to fulfil their role."

In that context, he wrote that troops had "precisely 1.25 hours training" in prisoner handling, although that was the main job of some of the troops. The article also cited "military operations" with

"racist connotations from an earlier era", and stated:

"Uncomfortable questions about our complicity in war crimes with the US also lurk beneath the surface."

He talks about the need for a public inquiry. The Government need to respond to those issues; otherwise they will be discredited.

That has implications for our defence institutions, such as the Royal Military Police. I have a lot of time for them and I pay tribute to them. They have an incredibly difficult job, but they are understaffed and undermined. They investigate thoroughly and deliver the evidence but are then undermined by the rest of the process. They really should be demoralised, and I suspect that they are, because they are given very little support, even by the Government. They are let down by the Army Prosecuting Authority. Their status is too low, and for troops who are prepared to use abusive tactics they are really little more now than a nuisance, when they should be a proper police authority.

The Army Prosecuting Authority was the subject of a parliamentary question that I asked in January. It dropped a case of assault because it was more than six months old, saying that it was time-barred. I found that an incredible decision for any prosecuting authority to make. I cannot imagine that if somebody who commits an assault is not caught for six months they will not be prosecuted. The APA put out a press release referring to the incident in 2004 in al-Amarah, which was, of course, shown on television in February 2006. It involved British soldiers allegedly assaulting Iraqi civilians. The video commentary appeared to encourage what was being done and the footage showed an alleged kick to the body of a deceased Iraqi civilian.

The APA said that following a thorough investigation by the Royal Military Police, nine servicemen, members of the Light Infantry, had been referred to it, but it had decided that they should not be tried by court martial. Its reasons involved tests of evidential sufficiency and what it called "public interest". It claimed that it was not in the public interest to prosecute, even though it had established the identity of two of the servicemen. It said:

"Charges of battery are, however, summary only offences in civilian law and are currently subject to a 6 month time-limit. This would also apply in proceedings in a civilian court."

The charges were therefore time-barred. It went on to say:

"The military authorities were not aware of the incident until February 2006", even though it took place in 2004.

That is a ridiculous position. Is assault and battery a summary offence in the civilian world? It is not; it is a most serious offence, and it would be treated as such under criminal law. Is the APA really saying that in civilian society someone can beat up another person and it they are not caught for six months they are in the clear and cannot be prosecuted? I do not think so. By saying that the APA shows how biased it is and what a poor position it is in on this matter. It claims to be acting in the public interest, but it is really just what is wanted by the ill-informed press who see these military abusers as a special case. This is their definition of public interest; it is not what the armed forces need and it is not what the UK needs to uphold its reputation for justice and human rights. On the public interest, the APA got it wrong in this case and it repeatedly gets it wrong. Where is the analysis and the transparency in such cases, which are in the public interest? The APA claims to be independent, but that alleged independence is a chimera. That is what I believe, and that is what the world will believe. If it was independent of the armed forces, it could be safely abolished, and its role handed over to the Crown Prosecution Service.

The court martial system is not working properly in the Iraq abusers context. It sets up all sorts of mechanisms for delay, and, as we know from the APA's reinterpretation of the law as regards the six-month time limit, the guilty can get off simply because of the delay. The court martial system is not to be trusted; it is time for it to be abolished, and for the criminal court system to apply instead. I conclude by quoting from this week's Tribune:

"A military court has thus far refused to convict on charges of manslaughter, discharging all but the one case involving a voluntary admission. It is misguided to see this result as 'protecting our troops'. The reverse is true. Without an independent investigation there is a danger that the British military will attract a reputation for unpunished brutality within a system which protects the brutalisers...It is not about witch-hunting, nor about holding the military to higher standards than they should be subject to anywhere. It is about accountability, the universal defence of fundamental human rights and the pursuit of justice."

The way in which people have been dealt with in UK military custody is a disgrace and a shame on Britain, in human rights terms.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. Quite a few Members are still hoping to catch my eye, and the time left in this debate is limited. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind when making their contribution. I call Mr. Mike Hancock.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South 4:56 pm, 26th April 2007

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish that some of the Members who spoke earlier had borne that advice in mind, particularly as those of us waiting to speak have been here since the beginning of the debate. Some of them had not been in the Chamber for very long at all, yet they managed to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair. It is a shame that they did not show the rest of us the courtesy that we showed them.

I join the Minister in what he had to say about the fallen soldiers—the personnel whom we have lost in the past sad month, and all the others who have gone, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Members have talked about the Falklands today, and my family and I have sad memories of that conflict. My cousin lies in a grave in the Falklands, and my brother-in-law has never really got over the effects of having the ship on which he served bombed out from under him, so, as a family, we know of the historical consequences of those actions. It is fortuitous that we are talking about the defence of the United Kingdom today, with the Falklands anniversary so close; the events took place just 25 years ago.

My mind goes back to the situation in Portsmouth naval base 25 years ago. It was one of desperation, of job cuts, of Navy reductions, and of ships being laid up and scrapped. The perpetrator of those problems, the then Secretary of State, John Nott, was infamous in Portsmouth for what he had done, because a matter of months after the cuts started to be implemented, the work force were brought back, as were the ships, many of which were on their way out of service. They were reconditioned very quickly and brought back into service. It is a great tribute both to service personnel and to the work force in naval bases throughout the country that we were able to achieve what we did in the Falklands. It was through the dedication of the civilian personnel who put so much effort into the work, many of whom sailed on the ships, and left them at various points on the way down to the south Atlantic, that we were able to achieve the success that we did.

It is a tribute to all of our armed forces that so many Members have spoken in this debate with great eloquence and authority about the commitment that the members of the armed forces show all the time. The nation appreciates their work, dedication and commitment, and the way in which they carry out their duties, and nobody should take that away from them. I have yet to meet anyone who has been to Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else where our armed forces work who says that there is a morale problem. There manifestly is not. When our armed forces are on active service, wherever they are, morale is not the issue. There is disappointment sometimes that equipment is late, or that other units receive equipment that they need before them, and so on, but those things are normal. No one should ever try to diminish the true fighting spirit of those men and women, and say that there is a morale problem among the country's fighting forces.

I should like to speak, as Sarah McCarthy-Fry did, briefly about the naval base and the consequences of any proposed changes. I do not want to go over issues that have already been raised, but the future of the Royal Navy is irreversibly linked to the future of Portsmouth as the home of the Royal Navy. In an announcement this week, the First Sea Lord said how important Portsmouth was as the future home of the carriers. That led people to believe that by the end of this week—perhaps even today—the Minister might announce the signing of the contracts for the carriers. We lived in hope. Our local newspaper optimistically believed that it was about to happen, and that the signal for that was the statement by the First Sea Lord. We were glad, however, that the Navy's serving sailors were determined that Portsmouth should be retained as a naval base.

There are other issues, however, affecting the Navy. Hon. Members have discussed the future of training, and in an intervention, the Minister discussed what is going to happen at St. Athan, which will have repercussions on the demise of HMS Collingwood, HMS Salton and Whale Island and affect the Greater Portsmouth area. Four constituencies—Portsmouth, North; Portsmouth, South; Gosport; and Fareham—will be dramatically affected by those repercussions. We still have not had any indication at all, however, about what will happen to those large pieces of real estate or to the enormous number of civilian staff who work at those bases, many of whom cannot move several hundred miles to St. Athan. We are entitled to ask whether we will have answers to those questions, and whether we will have them in time for people to reorganise their lives. Many people who can move have young children, and if we care about our armed forces personnel and the civilians who support them, we must give them credit they deserve, and provide them with straight answers to those questions. Hence the fact that there is still frustration in the naval base, as the final decision seems to be further and further from being taken. In all honesty, the loyalty and dedication of those people are worthy of a straight answer as soon as possible.

Many Members have discussed married quarters. Despite the best efforts of Mr. Arbuthnot, who made that decision—he suggested that it was one of his last decisions as the then Armed Forces Minister to sell off those houses—if we had the money that Annington has made on the sale of the land and property that it acquired from us, as my hon. Friend Bob Russell said, at rip-off prices, we would be able improve 25 per cent. more of the service accommodation than we have been able to improve so far. That is the proportion of profit and gain that Annington has made at the taxpayer's expense.

There are still many years to go before we catch up, and we must recognise that the state of our married quarters has been a disgrace. I am delighted that a great deal has happened, and I have to say that over the past five years, there has been an enormous improvement. One need only go into the single service accommodation in Portsmouth to see the amazing transformation from the ghastly mess in which young service personnel were forced to live to accommodation that is much better both in quality and the way in which it is serviced. We must recognise that transformation. I was delighted that, in response to my intervention, the Minister of State recognised that there is a need to train the trainers, and make sure that the duty of care to the young men and women who join our armed forces is addressed properly by the people who carry out those exercises. Of all the things that dismayed me in those very difficult meetings with the parents of the young people who died at Deepcut and of others who died around the country, I was most dismayed by the criticism of the trainers and the way in which that they took it upon themselves to dish out abuse in one form or another—not all them, by any means, but many of them did so.

One of the criticisms that came from the Army itself was about the calibre of those trainers and the lack of training of the trainers. That goes back to the people in the recruiting offices. Once again, to his credit, the Minister of State recognised that and said that the way in which we draw people into the armed forces and take them on at the initial stage will be open to greater scrutiny.

I am full of admiration for the way in which our armed forces have turned around young men and women who had hopeless lives ahead of them. Given the opportunity of joining our armed forces, they have been transformed not only into first-class citizens, but into first-class service personnel. The best education they ever got, they tell me when I meet them, was the one they got when they joined one of our armed forces. I am proud of that. Sadly, though, some still get into our armed forces who should never have been allowed to join. That is not a criticism of them—it is a criticism of the system that did not check thoroughly enough the medical background or the suitability of some young men and women to join our armed forces. I am delighted that more care and attention will be paid to that. I welcome the Minister's remarks on the matter this afternoon.

On retention, we have learned many lessons over the past 10 years. We have learned that certain categories of staff, such as fast jet pilots, skilled divers in the Navy and aircraft fitters in the Air Force, have skills that are readily marketable out there in civilian life and that we must prepare packages to retain them. As the Minister has said on more than one occasion, we must make the right judgments. It is not just about getting the pay scales right. We must offer breaks in service to members of our armed forces who can easily market their skills elsewhere. After the country has invested so much money in them, I want us to retain those people. I am sure that we are developing the necessary techniques.

Several speakers have mentioned veterans. Let us consider the plight of the Gurkhas. A few years from now, they will celebrate 200 years of service to this country, yet 22,000 Gurkhas who retired before 1997 receive inadequate pensions and have no right to settle in the UK. Whenever the subject of the treatment of the Gurkhas and their pensions is raised, there is universal support for them. As a Parliament and a nation, we should not deny them what most people believe they are morally entitled to, which is no more and no less than any of us would expect.

I hope the debate today has demonstrated to Ministers and the Ministry of Defence that there is not one parliamentarian who does not hold the armed forces in high esteem. All of us believe that they do a first-class job and that they need the appropriate service, such as equipment, back-up in civilian life and support for their families. The duty of care extends from the time they join to way after they leave. Many Members have spoken about the difficulties that service personnel experience when they leave. Some have housing problems, others have health problems, and some end up in prison.

One thing surprises me time and again when I meet young men and women who have returned from active service. They have been in situations that they may never have expected to encounter, when they were close to or involved in the killing of other human beings in a war situation. Some do not express their fears and concerns when they are with their unit or when they are with their families, but they express them to their friends. Very few are equipped to deal with that. Sadly, local GPs cannot deal with it. Some former members of the armed forces find it extremely difficult to come to terms with what they have experienced over those months and, in some cases because of more than one tour, years on active service, when they have seen things that none of us would wish on them. We must find a way of giving those young men and women support before they go, to give them a better understanding of what to expect and the traumas they might experience, and after they come back.

With all that said, I have nothing but admiration for the way in which the armed forces Minister robustly presented his case. Above all else, both sides appreciate the fact that he has never shirked his share of responsibility, and I do not think that the House should either. We should ensure that we resource our armed forces fairly and properly.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 5:10 pm, 26th April 2007

I shall be brief because I know that two of my hon. Friends are keen to speak before the winding-up speeches.

It has been a wide-ranging and well informed debate. When one thinks of these debates, one thinks slightly of groundhog day, of a fly buzzing quietly in the corner and the same old defence people turning up and saying the same things. Today has been a remarkably well informed and interesting debate, involving a variety of people who have tested one particular thesis. The thesis is that there is some kind of contract or covenant between the nation and our armed services. In each of our different ways, we have tried in the debate to assess the degree to which the covenant between the Government or the nation has been fulfilled on our side. As Lieutenant-General Freddie Viggers has said, the issue is about

"giving our soldiers and their families what they deserve in return what they do for us."

After all, all of us in the House must acknowledge that what they do for us is not something that we could possibly contemplate doing, or at least not at our advanced stage in life.

The covenant between the nation and the armed services seems to be multi-faceted. It covers the whole question of resources in general. I wish that I could stand here and say that I was confident that an incoming Conservative Government would give the resources that I would like them to give to the armed services, but the issue involves the resources that Governments of any complexion give to the armed services.

Part of that involves manpower. Is it right that we have an Army of about 100,000 people, the smallest since Waterloo? Can a tiny Army of that kind do the things that the Prime Minister and the Government are asking it to do? Can we live with 18 ships in the Royal Navy doing the work of at least 30? Can we live with the deep cuts that have been made to the Royal Air Force? I speak with feeling on that latter issue, because of the upcoming closure of the base at RAF Lyneham in my constituency.

Can we do what we are supposed to be doing given the inadequacies of the equipment? We have heard about the tragedies of the deaths of servicemen because they did not have body armour or had the wrong kind of body armour or other equipment.

Can we really ask our people to go to Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere and do awful tasks under difficult circumstances if they know that 46 per cent. of their families are at home living in substandard accommodation? I acknowledge the fact that a lot of money has been spent recently on improving housing, and I welcome that very much. However, some 46,000 armed service homes are still substandard. That will not do.

If we ask our boys on the front line what concerns them, they do not talk about the fact that there are not enough of them or that they have not got the right equipment. As someone has just said, by and large, their morale is extremely high. The thing that they talk to us about is what is happening at home. They are deeply concerned by the fact that their families live in conditions that they would not have to live in if they were in civilian life.

People often come to my surgery in Chippenham and they might say, "I'm a mechanic in the Royal Army Service Corps and I'm getting £14,000 a year. I'm sent abroad for six or eight months of the year and my wife lives in terrible conditions at home. If I left the Army and became a mechanic in Chippenham, I would get £25,000 or £30,000 a year and I'd be at home all the year round. Why shouldn't I do that?" That is a very difficult question to answer.

Why should a fully trained private soldier in the British Army get something like £14,000 or £15,000 a year? A fully trained nurse gets about £18,000 a year and a fully trained police constable gets something of the order of £24,000 a year. Are we as a nation fulfilling our side of the covenant by putting people up in poor accommodation and paying them badly? I suspect that we are not.

I shall touch on a few other points very briefly. Spending of 2.2 per cent. of GDP is the lowest since 1930. An Army of 100,000 is the smallest since Waterloo, and the Territorial Army is the smallest it has been since it was founded in 1906, but it is being asked to do so much more than it ever has been. As General Sir Michael Rose said:

"In the past six years, the Prime Minister has presided over near-catastrophic decline in defence spending which has put our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan at considerable and quite unnecessary risk."

Admiral Sir Alan West said:

"The resources...don't allow us to do the things we need to do. Over time, we don't have the forces available should there suddenly be a strategic shock...like the Falklands"— to which several hon. Members have referred so passionately today. We simply do not have the resources required to do those jobs; we are breaching the resources covenant as we are breaching the housing and welfare covenant. We are not doing all the things that we should be doing for our people. I am not blaming the Government, or saying that if we were in government it would necessarily be different. We as a nation are not fulfilling the covenant, and it is vital that we should find ways of doing precisely that.

No hon. Gentleman or hon. Lady in the House today would foresee any diminution in the amount that we do in the years to come. It is likely that we will ask our services to carry out more and more operations, perhaps in different parts of the world, in increasingly difficult circumstances. If so, I ask the Minister to take away from the debate this message, if no other. For goodness' sake, please try to remember the important covenant between us as a nation and our armed services. Give the services what they need to do the job and give the families at home what they need to be proud of their men and women out in the front doing the work that they have to do.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 5:16 pm, 26th April 2007

I do not usually contribute to defence debates, and I have learned an awful lot by listening to the debate today. One must certainly be a little careful with so many experts in the Chamber.

The fact that the military footprint in society is smaller than it has ever been is a sign of the success of the post-war settlement, of NATO, and of our friends, the United States. It is probably a good thing. I am a little wary of simply talking about percentages of gross domestic product. The true power of the United States is based on the fact that it has a very large and successful economy. Ultimately, whether we can project British power, and provide the necessary tools and equipment and pay our servicemen, depends on the success of the British economy; that must be a key issue.

I decided to contribute briefly to the debate having been out canvassing in Hamworthy in Poole last week, when I had a few discussions with the Royal Marines who are based there. We are immensely proud of Royal Marines Hamworthy. It is the home of the Special Boat Squadron and other special units who have made a great contribution to the defence of our country and to the war on terror. For the third time in the 10 years for which I have been an MP, the base is being reviewed. Fortunately, at the end of these reviews there is usually more investment, and even if forces are moved out other units are moved in. We in Poole hope that it will remain a base and that the important contribution that the Royal Marines make to the local community will continue, for all the reasons that we heard from other Members who spoke about their local bases. People become settled in communities, their spouses get jobs, and they wish to remain. As it happens, Poole is a nice place to live and to bring up one's children.

I want to talk principally about the concerns about medical services that several Royal Marines raised on the doorstep. Clearly, someone who is going to go into an area of danger hopes to have the best possible support if they get wounded or injured. There are general concerns about medical support—we have debated them in this House—but two or three Marines put to me their specific concerns about mental health services. My hon. Friend Mr. Jenkin said that about 12 per cent. of Iraq veterans have psychological problems. Nowadays, there is greater understanding of the psychological difficulties that troops encounter when they come back to this country. The Marines told me that they did not feel that they were getting support in this area. They recounted several stories about colleagues who had done very valuable jobs. I heard about the case of somebody who directed artillery and saved many lives as a result, but on one occasion, because of false intelligence, had directed it on to some civilians and children. He suffered psychological problems. When he returned to the UK, he was not met at the airport and had to take a taxi. He had been through a catalogue of difficulties and then a prolonged period of home leave. It is important to get things right.

Earlier, we heard that the Government had put £4 million into a contract with the Priory. The local Marines asked whether that was the most appropriate action to take. The Priory is good at alcohol addiction, bulimia and so on, but I question whether it is the most appropriate place for the special problems of those who have been traumatised in battle. I am not an expert on the matter but I hope that Ministers will reflect on whether we are giving adequate support to those who experience trauma.

Another matter that local families who have sadly lost relatives raised with me is the length of time for the inquests of those who are flown back. I appreciate that the subject is complex and difficult and I have raised it with the Secretary of State in the past. I know that bringing the bodies to Brize Norton so that the Oxfordshire coroner dealt with them created a backlog and that, once an inquest is opened, it cannot be moved, even if it is immediately adjourned. I welcome the fact that some of the bodies are being brought back through Lyneham, where the Wiltshire coroner can deal with the inquests.

The point that was made earlier about resources is important. I hope that the Minister will take the matter up with the Department for Constitutional Affairs and ascertain whether more resources can be provided. The families have not only suffered the shock of losing a relative but they sometimes have to wait for two or three years for an inquest before they can get on with their lives and put things behind them.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I reiterate what I said earlier. We are actively considering the matter to find the best solution. Coroners have to be family friendly and we are trying to find the best, rounded approach. We are considering resources and the number of coroners, trying to get the inquests close to where the families are and ensuring that the sort of support that we put in is reflected in inquest hearings.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I welcome the Minister's helpful intervention. There is a problem—I am glad that the Government are examining it and I hope that we can speed up the process.

I have made, briefly, the points that I wanted to stress. I appreciate that mental health services are the Cinderella of the NHS, but there is a problem for those who serve abroad and need support. I told the Marines to whom I spoke that I would raise the matter before Ministers. I hope that they will reflect on how we can further improve support for our brave men and women who serve on the front line.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham 5:22 pm, 26th April 2007

Our troops are performing magnificently in Iraq and Afghanistan but I fear that they are being let down. In all Departments and, indeed, organisations, the ambitious have a tendency to talk up success and say that things are on target when they know that that is not true. In recent years, that has been especially marked in and around the Ministry of Defence. It almost signifies a cultural change, and saying that all is going well, when often it is not, has become the default setting. That matters, not only for the safety and performance of our troops but for the success of their mission and thus for the safety of our population at home.

Let me give some examples. A few months ago, a general was leaving Iraq. He reported to Permanent Joint Headquarters that three provinces were ready for provincial Iraqi control. He came home. His successor arrived and the first signal that he sent back to PJHQ was that only two provinces were ready for provincial Iraqi control. I call that short tour-ism—six-month tours. The first two months are spent learning about the position, the middle two are spent dealing with it and the last two are spent getting the story right about how things have got better. So, on a graph of Iraq over five or six years, the line goes down, with a little spike every six months when things are better. That is not often the case.

Earlier in Iraq, the media were told that the high unemployment that they witnessed in Basra did not matter and that there was employment. Then riots occurred and the magic spell for security, at least in the south, was broken.

I could give numerous examples of the position in Afghanistan—a place that is closely watched by people in the Arab and Muslim world on satellite television channels. The success of the UK in Helmand is critical to our future security.

I have numerous examples of the gap between the reality on the ground and what we are told. I do not have time to go through them—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I have allowed a passing reference to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the debate is about defence in the UK.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

The point that I am trying to make, Madam Deputy Speaker, is that the gap between ground truth, as the military call it, and what Ministers and others are told, is deeply dangerous to the security of people in the UK. That culture emanates from headquarters in the UK and Government Departments.

If one speaks to senior officials in the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence, one is told that everything is on track: in reconstruction, for example, in the case of Afghanistan. The ordinary Afghans on whom our success depends, however, have seen none of that. The same officials repeat the mantra that one cannot have reconstruction without security, but are less good at responding to the point that in the provincial capital, which is reasonably secure, the ordinary Afghan people have seen no reconstruction. I could go on.

My point is that well-intentioned Ministers, such as the Minister of State, do not get the messages about where the problems are quickly enough. When they do, they are soothed into believing that measures are in place to mitigate them. Deeply regrettably, Iraq is now a done deal in terms of its effect on the perception of the UK by much of the Muslim world and a substantial minority of our own Muslim population. Afghanistan is a noble cause and a multi-billion—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I said earlier. The debate is about defence in the UK.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

I am just trying to point, Madam Deputy Speaker, to what I consider to be a form of sophistry, an endemic spin culture that has infected officials and senior officers to become a default setting—that all is well when things are not.

As I see it, the challenge for this country over the next one, five, 20 or 50 years, is to get ourselves back to the situation we were in on 12 September 2001, when the vast majority of people in the Arab and Muslim worlds were deeply sympathetic to us. Since that time, we have created a "stickiness" with those tens of millions of people, and pushed them more towards the extremists, whom the vast majority previously wanted nothing to do with. It is time that we had a long-term strategy to deal with that problem, which will affect us all.

The good-news-only culture obscures problems and increases the likelihood of a second strategic failure, this time in Afghanistan, which will be reflected on Arab television screens. In terms of terrorism, that will not contribute to the defence of the UK. Every day, we are deluding ourselves.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence) 5:28 pm, 26th April 2007

I sympathise with you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in your endeavours to restrict contributions to relevance to defence in the UK, just as I sympathise with hon. Members on both sides of the House who have passionate views about defence issues that perhaps go wider than the debate title. Throughout the debate, various degrees of latitude have been afforded to different speakers. In responding to some of the speeches we have heard, I hope that I shall receive a similar degree of consideration.

For once, I hope to talk about some topics that have not been mentioned much. I intend to divide my remarks into the general categories of plots, leaks, morale and methods. Before getting on to that agenda, I shall refer to some of the contributions made.

On the whole, welfare issues have been predominant, particularly in the speeches of the hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell), for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and of my hon. Friend Mr. Gray. Like Mr. Hancock, my hon. Friend laid great stress on the inadequacy of resources with which Defence Ministers of any party must contend when fighting their lonely battles against the Treasury in order to enable our armed forces to fight their rather more dangerous battles against the enemy. My heart goes out to Ministers, because I know that they do their best in that respect. That is probably the nicest thing that I will say about them this evening, so they had better make the most of it.

My hon. Friend Ann Winterton focused challengingly, as always, on major procurement projects and the assumptions that underlie them. Sarah McCarthy-Fry made an excellent speech featuring a typically robust defence of her local naval base. I think that she is fundamentally right to focus on the strategic implications of reducing our dependence to a single naval base, although we may part company when I point out that the reason it is possible to consider reducing the number of naval bases from three to two is the slashing and burning of front-line units of the Royal Navy. If that reduction takes place, it will become all the harder to reverse cuts that go far beyond what was outlined in the 1998 strategic defence review should circumstances reach such a degree of danger and necessity that even the Treasury sees the need for reversal of those losses.

My hon. Friend Mr. Syms stoutly defended the role of the Royal Marines base in his constituency, and also spoke of the need to provide support for people with mental health problems after the experience of combat. I believe that such support is particularly important for reservists who, on returning to their civilian occupations from serious war fighting on operations, no longer benefit from the support and environment of their regular units and comrades. That must add considerably to the pressure of coming to terms with what they have seen and undergone. My hon. Friend also spoke of the ordeal of families awaiting inquests, and I was reassured by the Minister of State's reply.

As a seasoned parliamentary operator, Harry Cohen was able to get in his remarks about Iraq before disarming the Chair by saying, "But of course the debate is about defence in the UK", and devoting the rest of his speech to courts martial. As I have said from the Dispatch Box before, it is worth considering a change in the way in which the subject matter of defence debates is allocated. There is a good deal to be said for debates that focus on individual services, in which it is possible to cover not only the whole ground over the year, but everything from welfare to war fighting in the context of a single debate. That would avoid the difficulties encountered by the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend Mr. Holloway in trying to raise subjects that are outwith the strict terminology of the Order Paper.

My right hon. Friend Mr. Arbuthnot, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, broadened the debate slightly when he said that following his visit to Afghanistan he was concerned about the strategy of the Government—back in the UK, I hasten to add—for the waging of the war there in connection with the poppy crops. He thought there might be a degree of confusion on our side. I agree with that, but there is certainly no degree of confusion on the side of our opponents. In an interview reported in The Daily Telegraph on 9 February, a Taliban commander is quoted as saying:

"We are obeying the orders of our leaders who have told us to defend the farmers... The Taliban will support the local people, because the people's support will make it impossible for the government and foreign forces to defeat us."

That shows that the Taliban at least understand the basic principle of counter-insurgency—that its aim should be to divide the insurgents from the mass of the people, while the aim of the insurgents should be to remain united with the mass of the people. I think that somebody somewhere in the Ministry of Defence does not understand that—or, more probably, that somebody somewhere in the Government is not prepared to stand up to our American allies and emphasise this point. It is immoral that we should have troops fighting and dying in pursuit of a strategy that drives our opponents' cause forward by enabling and encouraging people to sign up to their ranks.

However, I must not wander from the topic of defence in the United Kingdom, so let me briefly refer to a point that my hon. Friend Mr. Soames, a former MOD Minister, made in his outstanding and riveting speech, and which was also mentioned by Mr. George. They referred to the inevitability of unpredictable crises arising and the difficulties involved in persuading Governments that they must find the resources to deal with them and subscribe to the flexible doctrines that will enable our forces to fight effectively in those circumstances. The idea that the chiefs of staff and their military advice are being cut out of the policy-making process, as my hon. Friend said, is particularly disturbing.

I shall now turn to my own perspective on this topic. We know only too well the price that has had to be paid for allowing Islamist militants to plot in London throughout the 1990s. It is important that we never again make the mistake of tolerating the activities of the intolerant in our midst in any other context. In that connection, I have no hesitation in saying that it is totally unacceptable for an exiled Russian oligarch such as Boris Berezovsky who has been granted the privilege of residence in this country, to announce that he will abuse that privilege by fomenting revolution by force in his homeland. It is equally unacceptable that somebody such as Alexander Litvinenko can be assassinated, almost certainly by agents of the Russian state, within our borders.

It is worth remembering that in July 2006 the Russian Parliament, the Duma, approved a law permitting the FSB—the Russian state security services—to hunt down and kill terrorists or "enemies of the state" anywhere in the world. That Bill was passed shortly after the abduction and murder of five Russian diplomats in Iraq in 2006, but critics of the Kremlin fear that the Russian security services now enjoy effective immunity should they assassinate Russians who live abroad and who are perceived to be opponents of the state. It is worth remembering that next year the statute of limitations will come into force on the murder in 1978 of Georgi Markov, who was killed in London in similar circumstances, given the technologies of the day, to those of Litvinenko's murder. Given the huge changes that have taken place and the fact that a suspected assassin has been identified and interviewed, it is not satisfactory that the investigation has progressed at a snail's pace for so long and that it might soon might run out of time

On leaks, it is particularly worrying that the deputy assistant commissioner in charge of anti-terrorist measures has felt it necessary to speak out as he did. Two former chairmen of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir Paul Lever and Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, have both stated their belief that the situation is serious. The finger of suspicion points to what Sir Paul Lever calls

"the army of media advisers and spin doctors".

They believe that there should be a proper investigation and a proper leak inquiry. I am at a loss to know, although I can suspect, why there were no fewer than two separate leak inquiries into the events surrounding the embarrassing leak of the e-mails that disclosed Jo Moore's wish to "bury bad news", and why there is no prospect of a—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is now going to relate his remarks to the topic under debate.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

I certainly am, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I think it essential that the defence of the United Kingdom depend on communities' trust in the police and in the police's ability to conduct anti-terrorist operations in this country without people being put at risk if they assist the authorities by being exposed in the media. I will move on now, but it is a matter of extreme concern that we are not fighting and winning the battle against terrorism, which, after all, is at the heart of the defence of the United Kingdom.

As part of the Prime Minister's legacy, the Government recently published a policy review entitled "Building on progress: Britain in the World". It does contain one feature relating to the defence of the UK of which I thoroughly approve; I wish only that it had been formulated earlier. We read the following on page 30 of this 32-page document:

"As agreed by the Ad Hoc Group on Terrorism, a new cross-government research, information and communications unit is being created to generate the policy analysis and material needed to...counter Al Qaeda ideology and the use of other forms of extremist propaganda by hostile regimes."

I hope that the unit's work will not be confined to hostile regimes. We hear time and again that we are engaged in a war of ideas, and such a war can be won only by a proper counter-propaganda strategy. We were good at that during the cold war and the second world war, but it is true to say that we have not even begun to fight that type of war properly, some six years after 11 September. This is a very late development, albeit a welcome one.

In the time that remains, I refer finally to methods of maintaining morale in the armed forces. One method is to show a degree of competence in handling the armed forces when they get into difficulties. I find it absolutely astonishing that when the decision was taken to allow Royal Navy personnel to sell their stories to the media, the effect was not considered on morale—on the morale of people whose children had come home in coffins; on the morale of people who had limbs blown off while serving in theatres of war overseas; or on the morale of servicemen and women who might find themselves in extremely dangerous situations and who might have to weigh up the alternatives of fighting to the last bullet or surrendering and selling their stories when eventually they were repatriated.

In terms of the propaganda war to which I referred, did no one consider how it would serve the Iranians' purpose to be able to say that the people who were selling their stories were exaggerating in order to justify the money that they were being paid? It is no good having leaks and spin doctors. What is needed is a concerted strategy, properly organised by a counterpart to the political warfare executive or the information research department, if one likes, or the London controlling section that managed to carry out deception strategies, if that is what we are trying to do where our enemies are concerned.

Such a strategy has to be organised properly. Splitting the Home Office down the middle makes it hard to see how a cross-Department approach will work. What we actually need is departmental co-ordination and we are not getting that yet. I can only hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that in future the defence of the UK against an ideological terrorist threat will be far more systematically organised than it has been in the past.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans) 5:45 pm, 26th April 2007

This has been a wide-ranging and considered debate, with a surprising amount of consensus on some issues. Hon. Members recognised that we are doing a tremendous amount for our armed forces, but of course there is an argument about how much more we can do. We heard some interesting speeches and what came over clearly was the admiration that this House has for our armed forces and the work that they do in difficult circumstances. Of course, all our thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives and with those who have been injured or seriously wounded.

It is a great privilege and honour to do my job and to work with the armed forces. I hold them in great esteem—even more so after doing this job for a while. Those who have visited Afghanistan and Iraq—as I did a few weeks ago—will have seen the courage, determination and sacrifices involved in that work. That is why our armed forces are the best in the world, and there is certainly consensus about that and the support that we want to give them.

Much of the debate has centred on personnel and welfare issues, so I shall spend most of my time on those issues. Dr. Fox raised some specific issues to which I shall return, but he also referred to improvements in equipment and accommodation. He especially mentioned the fact that the improved medical treatment in the field hospitals has saved more lives and lessened the effects of injuries, compared with the effects that they would have had a few years ago. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's recognition of that.

I think that I heard the hon. Gentleman right when he said that the Conservative party now thinks that the debate about military hospitals has passed and the issue now is whether we should have specific military wards. That is an important step towards consensus and to making progress on the issue. All the medical opinion in the armed forces is clear that military hospitals are not the way to go. Instead, we will provide the best possible treatment for our wounded servicemen and women by working with large hospital trusts, such as Selly Oak.

We are seeing fantastic results at Selly Oak and I pay tribute to the work of the military and civilian clinicians and nursing staff in saving lives and treating and curing our injured service personnel. We also appreciate the support for families that is provided. It is important that we pay tribute to that work, not least because of some of the publicity it has had. There are treatment issues, and if things go wrong they will be fully investigated and dealt with. However, from my regular visits to Selly Oak, where I talk to the service personnel and their families, the quality of treatment and care is clear and we will continue to improve that.

We have now moved to an initial operating capability for the military-managed ward and work is about to commence on ensuring that we have a partition to define that area even more clearly. When I answered a question previously in the House, I made it clear that the development of the new hospital in Birmingham to replace the current buildings at Selly Oak will give us a greater opportunity to improve the operation of the military-only ward. For the record, we are considering a military ward as part of the new hospital building, but a business case will have to be made for that—as hon. Members would expect—and of course we will also take account of clinical opinion. I am examining that at the moment, as part of my role as Minister with responsibility for the armed forces health services. We will continue to improve the treatment, care and welfare support that the whole House wants us to make available for injured service personnel and their families.

The hon. Member for Woodspring asked a number of questions, one of which was about traumatic brain injury. I am sure that he will be aware that the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is conducting research into that, with a view to informing injury management and body armour protection. Our analysis has examined patterns of brain injury in the context of helmet design and the protection that is offered, and there has also been close liaison with the Oxford coroner so that lessons can be learned from those casualties who do not survive their injuries.

Traumatic brain injury patients are transferred to Birmingham, as the hon. Gentleman knows. They are looked after at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court, which provides comprehensive management of neurological injuries. Like the US, we deploy computer tomography to operational theatres, and the use of telemedicine means that scans are reported to military radiologists in the UK within an hour. That system is already fully operational in Iraq, and it will soon be operational in Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the research into traumatic brain injury that is going on in the US. I can tell him that we are aware of that research, and that we are engaged in it through our medical liaison officer there. I hope that that gives him some reassurance.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the care of armed forces personnel with mental health problems. Tremendous improvements have been made in the advice and support offered to service personnel, both before and after deployment. In addition, much more extensive information is given to families about the possible effects of serving in an operational theatre. We acknowledge that support for personnel who suffer mental health problems while on operation is also important, and we have made sure that it is provided.

As I have set out on previous occasions, a scheme for reservists who return to their homes is now up and running, providing support for those who need it. We have also put in place appropriate care pathways for people who leave the service because of a mental illness. In addition, support is available for people who develop mental health problems some time after leaving the armed forces, and we are working with the health authorities and Combat Stress to set up a scheme to raise awareness and improve the treatment available on the NHS. Negotiations are at an advanced stage, and the first pilot should be up and running in the next few months.

The Department is working closely with Combat Stress in negotiations over that organisation's budget, which at present stands at £2.8 million. We are also looking at other ways to improve the support for people who are suffering from a mental illness as a result of their service in the armed forces. We have an excellent resettlement package—which is being looked at by many other countries—that offers help with housing, training and employment for people who leave the forces.

The Department has also set up various schemes and initiatives to help service personnel who end up homeless. I have visited the excellent Compass scheme, which does so much excellent work to get people in that situation back into housing, but there is more to be done. For example, we must ensure that people who leave the service have better pathways in respect of health and housing. The MOD and the services themselves, as well as the service organisations, regimental associations and service charities all have a part to play.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the problems arising with primary care trust waiting lists when service personnel and their families move home. I can tell him that transfers between PCTs in England and Northern Ireland are arranged so that people retain their position in the waiting list, and that negotiations are under way about the cross-border issues connected with that policy.

Many Members mentioned accommodation for service personnel, and the House will recognise that such housing has been underfunded for many years. We accept that some of the accommodation is not good enough for our service personnel, and we are spending significant sums. Last year, more than £700 million was allocated to improve both service family and single living accommodation. Members referred to the excellent examples of such accommodation around the country. Although £5 billion has been allocated over the next 10 years, there is more to do. It is important that we obtain best value for that money, with as many improvements as possible.

Bob Russell referred to the Falklands and, given the commemorations this year, it was important to record in this debate our admiration for what our service personnel did in the Falklands. We look forward to the commemorations; many of those who served in the Falklands will take part in both the main event in London—on Sunday 17 June in Horse Guards parade—and the visit to the islands. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will go out there for the anniversary and I shall visit later in the year with the main delegation of veterans. I am pleased that Members expressed recognition of what our armed forces did, as well as of the fact that many people lost their lives in that conflict.

My hon. Friend Sarah McCarthy-Fry mentioned the naval base review and the importance of defence industries to her constituency. I am sure that her comments will be borne in mind in the review. She also drew attention to the benefits to Members of the armed forces parliamentary scheme.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

I was just about to mention my hon. Friend. She made a strong case for Plymouth, as she has done for several months, and her comments have been noted and taken on board. She also raised issues about the defence estate and medical services.

My hon. Friend mentioned DML and the defence supply chain. We obviously support the company's meeting local MPs and civic leaders, which is an important aspect of the process, and I shall bring my hon. Friend's comments to the attention of my noble Friend Lord Drayson.

Mr. Arbuthnot made important points. He spoke of the Select Committee's visit to Afghanistan and of the Committee's important work, not least on accommodation and medical services. He mentioned the care pathways and the objectives in Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend Mr. Jones made a powerful speech. He referred to the visit to Afghanistan and noted the particular strength of the tri-service approach there, which struck me during my visit, too. The Army, Navy and RAF are working closely together in Afghanistan. My hon. Friend mentioned welfare and accommodation issues, and made a strong point about the Annington Homes deal and super-garrisons. Like other Members, he referred to the care pathways for medical treatment for service leavers.

Mr. Soames paid due tribute to our people in the Falklands. He made an important point about training and discipline, as he has done before. I am sure that the House recognises the tremendous work on training undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State in relation to Deepcut to ensure that attention is paid to the welfare of trainees. Given the work that our armed forces undertake, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex was right to say that training has to be robust, professional and challenging. As he made clear, it is because of their training and discipline that they are the best in the world. There has been much discussion of the need for the right tactics and discipline to deliver the results we want. The hon. Gentleman made an extremely important point.

My right hon. Friend Mr. George made a number of points about the previous Government's defence expenditure cuts. Ann Winterton made an interesting speech. She asked what equipment we should supply for our service personnel, and referred to the funding for projects and the speed with which equipment was put into theatre. She spoke consensually of the great strides that have been made on force protection for our bases—although clearly more needs to be done. She also mentioned improved equipment, such as body armour, the new armoured vehicles—Bulldogs and Mastiffs—and communication equipment. She made some important points.

Mr. Hancock made the case for Portsmouth's position in the naval base review. He was generous to my right hon. Friend the Minister about his work on training in the armed forces. He made an important point about the impact of the defence training review on the Portsmouth area.

Our armed forces are a success story—

It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.