[Relevant documents: First Report from the Defence Committee, The Strategic Defence and Security Review, HC 345, and the Government response, HC 638; and Sixth Report from the Defence Committee, The Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy, HC 761, and the Government response, HC 1639. ]
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of progress on defence reform and the Strategic Defence and Security Review.
I begin by welcoming the Secretary of State to the first full debate on defence in which he has taken part as Secretary of State. In the short couple of months in which he has been in post, he has really impressed the Defence Committee, and me. I have formed an extremely high opinion of him as Secretary of State. I am perfectly well aware that he will be thinking at the moment, “If only I could say the same of him,” but I hope that during the course of the debate we will get to the bottom of some of the issues we face. I also welcome the very fact that we are having the debate, and thank the Backbench Business Committee for at last finding a day on which we can discuss one of the most important issues in the world, and the most important issue of government.
I, too, welcome the fact that the Backbench Business Committee has found time for this debate, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that defence should be a matter not for that Committee but for Her Majesty’s Government? This issue should be debated in Government time, not in Backbench Business Committee time.
I would hope that this issue could be debated both in Back-Bench time and in Government time, because of its central importance, but as the Committee will see, the pressure on speaking opportunities this afternoon is heavy, so there is a time limit even though there will not be a vote at the end. I hope that that means that we will have further such debates.
I accept everything that my right hon. Friend says about the pressure on time today, but does he observe that very little of that pressure is likely to come from Opposition Members, among whom there is a desultory turnout for such an important debate?
At the moment the Opposition Benches do look rather empty, but let us hope that things will change.
I should like to examine what is different about the United Kingdom. Our role in the world is unlike that of any other. The quality of our armed forces is, I believe, second to none, and that comes mostly from the training that they receive, from the structure of the armed forces and from the fact that they work together in regiments and in units to fight, not actually for their country, and certainly not to fight for their politicians, but to fight for each other—so we must be very careful indeed before we tamper with that structure.
We should give thanks, however, to those men and women who lay their lives on the line and are prepared to sacrifice everything they have and everything they are in defence of this country. We are incredibly well served. We need to treat those people well, and I shall return to that point later in my speech, although I shall try not to take too long, as there is such pressure on time.
The UK is different, too, because we are prepared to put our people where our rhetoric is: we are prepared to fight when force is needed. In spite of that, we are seen as a force for good, and in that respect I draw one comparison with one other country: Germany. Germany is doing really valuable work in Afghanistan, and it is led by German politicians often in defiance, almost, of the beliefs and values that, largely at our instigation, have grown up in Germany since the second world war. When one goes to Germany and asks, “Why can you not contribute more to NATO operations?” one finds that they say, “Well, you’ve always been telling us not to fight; you’ve got to make your minds up.” We are gradually getting there, and in Afghanistan we are seeing a really valuable contribution.
I want, nevertheless, to read out a quotation from May 2010:
“In my estimation…we—including society as a whole—are coming to the general understanding that, given this strong focus and corresponding dependency on exports, a country of our size needs to be aware that where called for or in an emergency, military deployment, too, is necessary if we are to protect our interests such as ensuring free trade routes or preventing regional instabilities which are also certain to negatively impact our ability to safeguard trade, jobs and income. All of this should be discussed and I think the path we are on is not so bad.”
That is not an unexceptionable thing to say, but it was said by the President of Germany in an interview in May 2010, and because of those words he was forced to resign as President. That is a real issue. So Britain is one of the few countries in Europe which is really prepared to put its forces where its rhetoric is, and we should be praised for that.
We have a history of involvement with most of the world. At one stage or another we have owned most of it, and many borders over which we now see disputes are probably our fault. Nevertheless, as a result of those historical issues we have, throughout the world, relationships that we need to preserve and that those parts of the world want us to preserve. We also have a history that is borne out of our prosperity, and our armed forces have a real role to play in that.
Owing to all that uniqueness, that difference between the United Kingdom and others, our alliances and our position in huge alliances, we have huge ambitions to match that history, but what we do not have any more, to match our lofty ambitions, is the resources required to back them up. There is a clear contradiction between what the Government said in the strategic defence and security review about rejecting the shrinkage of UK influence throughout the world, and the reduction of the money that we spend on the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We may well have to reduce the money that we spend on those Departments, but our ambitions should be reduced to match it. We now spend less on the Foreign Office than on the winter fuel allowance. That is a striking statistic.
I have no objection to this Government and this country being committed to hitting the target of spending 0.7% of gross domestic product on international development; I am proud, actually, of that ambition, that aim and that goal, because our role of defending our interests extends to, for example, preserving the stability of countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and our international aid effort is important in that. In that respect, however, I ask one brief question: why is the stabilisation unit being withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014? Although I took some time to come around to any agreement with the idea, I fully understand that our combat troops should be removed from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but the stabilisation unit is precisely the reverse of combat troops. The current expectation is that 25% should be withdrawn this year, 25% next year and the rest by the end of 2014. The Government should reconsider that.
Equally, I have no objection to defence having to bear its brunt of deficit reduction. When, as in the past day or two, we hear that our debts are now £1 trillion, we have no choice, and let us remember that the greatest weapon—the greatest defence—a country can have is a strong economy. Indeed, we should not object to the fact that defence has to play its part in trying to produce that strong economy, but to pretend that while we reduce our defence resources we can be as strong in terms of our armed forces as we were before is wrong.
On the Defence Committee’s role, I return to the issue of treating the armed forces fairly, touching briefly on the little local difficulty that was produced by our report this week on the Ministry of Defence’s annual report and accounts. It is of course regrettable that for five years running the MOD’s report and accounts have been qualified, and it would be nice to have a true and fair view of what it has to spend and what its assets are, but the point that has obviously hit the headlines is the impression of unfairness created by compulsory redundancies among the armed forces but not among civilian personnel.
We have asked, therefore, for a compelling and persuasive reason why the one should be so and the other should not. If the answer is, “So many redundancies have been applied for in the civilian services of the Ministry of Defence,” perhaps that is because morale in that area is so low. If that is the answer, it is an issue that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State really needs to address. If the answer is, as the permanent secretary told us, that civilians are flexibly employable whereas the military is not, that too is something that the Secretary of State needs to address. However, I do not believe that to be the right answer. I have heard the Secretary of State ask what else we could have done. I am afraid that four reasons for the disparity have now been explained to the Defence Committee, and without knowing the real reasons we cannot help to find an answer. We have, at least, highlighted the issue.
The relationship between my right hon. Friend and me, and the Defence Committee and the Ministry, is not cosy—quite right, too; it should not be. But neither should it be a relationship of antagonism and a feeling of “They are the enemy”. We do not regard the Ministry of Defence as the enemy, and we hope that we can move to a position in which the Ministry does not regard us as the enemy.
I am tempted to say that it is even a grotesque way, Mr Deputy Speaker. In the spirit of my right hon. Friend’s remarks, perhaps I can try to help him. I understand his concern about the voluntary and compulsory redundancy numbers, but the simple fact is that we have set out a trajectory of headcount reduction among the civilian employees of the MOD and among the armed forces. At each tranche we have called for volunteers, and enough volunteers from the civilian population have come forward for no compulsory redundancies to be required. There has been an insufficient number of volunteers from the military population so, regrettably, compulsory redundancies have been required. I do not rule out the possibility that compulsory redundancies will be required among the civilian work force in future.
My right hon. Friend is, as always, helpful. I hope that he will now address the issue on which there is some dispute of fact—whether those in the military on whom compulsory redundancy is imposed are allowed to offer themselves for retraining; we have heard variously both that they are and that they are not. That is an important issue.
I now turn to the strategic defence and security review—although I do not want to take too much longer because a large number of people would like to speak. One of the main aims of the Defence Committee is to see how the next strategic defence and security review, in whatever year it will be—2014, 2015, 2016; we do not yet know—can be better than the last one. Our criticisms of the last one included the fact that it was rushed to fit in with the comprehensive spending review, and was therefore undertaken without sufficient consultation with academia, industry, Parliament or the country. I heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister say that taking longer over decisions does not necessarily make them better, and that is true. But having proper full discussion in the country before such decisions are made would make them more informed.
Yes, I do. Embarrassingly, I was fully consulted by the French Government on the introduction of their “livre blanc”, and I felt honoured, but I have no impression that the chairmen of the Assemblée Nationale or Senate committees were similarly involved in the discussion of our strategic defence and security review. That is one example of how, although Anglo-French co-operation is very good, it could still work a bit better.
There was no sense in the strategic defence and security review of a discussion of what sort of country we wanted to be, and the threats that we were facing, followed by a decision about how we were going to face those threats. Instead, there was a feeling of, “This is what we can afford, so these are the threats against which we will defend ourselves,” whatever those threats turn out to be.
For example, we now have six Type 45 destroyers. Why is six the right number? The original number was going to be 12, then it was cut to eight and then to six. When I was a Defence Minister we used to say that the right number of major ships was about 50. Why is it that now about 19 can defend our interests around the globe? However powerful a Type 45 destroyer is, it can only be in one place at any given time. There is also a concern about a loss of contingent capability. We always get our predictions about the wars that the country will face wrong, so we must be able to address unpredictable concerns that may arise.
However, there are many things to praise in the SDSR. The cyber-strategy, very welcomingly, refocuses the Ministry of Defence, other parts of the Government and industry on future issues. It is partly to welcome that that the Defence Committee is doing a series of inquiries into the cyber-threats that we face.
Lord Levene’s determined look at reforming the Ministry of Defence is radical. A number of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and other right hon. and hon. Members, feel that in some respects his work may be too radical or going in the wrong direction, but the Defence Committee will look at that issue, too. Bernard Gray’s focus on changing defence procurement already looks extremely promising; the Defence Committee has always been extremely impressed when he has appeared in front of us.
I shall end as I began. In the interests of mending fences, I wish to repeat, with praise, what the Secretary of State said to the Committee in December:
“If there is one clear lesson, it is that we have to move away from managing this business for cash to managing it for value, and that is the transition process that we are now into.”
As I said at the time, if my right hon. Friend can achieve that, he will turn out to have been a great Secretary of State.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee in this debate. I wholeheartedly identify myself and my constituents with his tribute to our serving personnel; that issue would never divide us.
I also want to take up the theme that the right hon. Gentleman began and place these matters in the context of the public expenditure circumstances that face our country. But before I do so, I, too, would like to welcome the Secretary of State to his new responsibilities. I am pleased that he is here, taking an interest in this Back-Bench debate, and I wish him well in the difficult duties that he has in these strained circumstances.
I want us to look again at the case for Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. I know that that will probably not be popular on either side of the House; others can make their points as the debate progresses. Given the current circumstances, it is time to consider the question again. The Government projects a total cost of £15 billion to £20 billion for the Trident successor programme. Independent research has suggested that the total cost would come in at three or four times that figure and our past experience with such big defence programmes suggests something similar.
Conservative Members are nothing but consistent on this issue. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Polaris fleet and the Trident submarines came into service on time and within budget.
The hon. Gentleman presumably hopes that that will be the case in the future. However, I challenge him to point to any other defence programme from which he could extrapolate that conclusion. I know that he follows these matters with care, but I cannot think of another programme. He is right to point out the special cases of those procurements in the past, but I am not reassured that they will be repeated in the future. In any event, that point is not at the heart of my case. No matter how one looks at it, this is a very large sum of money to spend. My point is that we should look carefully at whether we should spend it.
The maingate decision on final renewal has been pushed back until after the next general election. The cost of that is said to be an additional £1.5 billion to refurbish and prolong the lifespan of the existing fleet. Parliamentary answers from Defence Ministers show that upwards of £2 billion has already been spent on preparatory work for the manufacture of the new submarines.
The Government clearly intend to press ahead with Trident renewal. In my opinion, they should seek explicit parliamentary authority for doing so. The failure to hold a vote in Parliament on the renewal of our independent nuclear deterrent is because of the inability to reconcile different views in the coalition. The question that faces us is whether an independent nuclear deterrent is a good use of such a large sum of public money in the present circumstances. The arguments, which were never that strong, are now moving away from Trident renewal.
I am listening with great interest. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that a long-term strategic decision, such as the replacement of our nuclear deterrent, should not be taken in the context of the current short-term economic conditions?
I will come on to deal with that precise point. I have no quarrel with the hon. Gentleman for making it.
The current Trident system relies heavily on US logistical, capacity, technological and military know-how. It is nearly impossible to imagine any circumstances in which we would launch a nuclear attack, much less that we would do so independently of the Americans. Likewise, were Britain to be attacked by a nuclear power, the terms of our membership of NATO would require a joint response by all members, including the US.
I cannot give way because of the rules on these things.
NATO is a mutual defence pact. It is a fundamental strength that its armoury includes the nuclear capability of the US. There has always been a question over why Britain needs to duplicate NATO’s nuclear capability, rather than more usefully supplement its conventional capacity.
When I first entered Parliament in 1983, I resisted joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I did not support our decision to go ahead with an independent submarine-based system of our own. However, I did support Britain’s membership of NATO, which CND did not. At the time, that was regarded in the Labour party as a very establishment and right-wing position. It is a small irony of Labour politics that the same position is today seen as very left-wing.
When the decision was taken to adopt the Trident system in the early 1980s, there was an understanding that in exchange for non-proliferation by the non-nuclear powers, there would be restraint by the existing nuclear powers, in particular the US and Russia, when it came to further weapons development and upgrades. That idea was enshrined in article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It can be argued that that has been more honoured in the breach by countries that did not possess a nuclear capability, but that do now. The underlying principle, however, seems to me still to be sound.
The large financial outlay that the Government are committed to in planning to replace our independent deterrent could be better spent in a number of ways. During the economic boom, I argued that we ought to better equip our troops, invest in the specialist field of anti-terrorism capability in line with the real threats that we face, and supplement our existing overseas aid budget. We now face new threats. To take one example, the money that we spend on Trident could be used to bring down substantially the tuition fees of every student. I think that cutting a generation adrift from higher education poses a bigger threat to our nation than the idea that a foreign power with nuclear weaponry would uniquely threaten to use it against us, and not the rest of NATO, and would somehow be able to disapply NATO’s founding terms. The real nuclear dangers of the future come from rogue states and terrorism. The possession of an independent nuclear deterrent does not make us safer. A better investment would be in anti-terrorism capabilities.
Three main arguments are put forward by proponents of Trident replacement. The first is that it is the best weapon that money can buy. The second is that it guarantees a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The final argument is that it contributes to our ability to punch above our weight in the world. I argue that it is not much of a weapon if the circumstances in which it may be used cannot be envisaged. Fundamental reform of the United Nations Security Council is long overdue and the difficulty, as we all know, is getting agreement on what that reform should be. I also think that other countries might like us more if we stopped punching above our weight in the world. We might be better thought of by the international community if we settled for being the medium-sized European nation state that we are, rather than the imperial power that we used to be.
We have a choice as a country: do we want to continue to drift into spending billions of pounds on supplementing a nuclear capability that we already possess through NATO or do we want to spend that money on tackling the problems that Britain actually faces in squeezed economic times? Surely we should resolve this issue now with a vote in this Parliament.
I will not respond to Mr Brown, because I am confident that one or two of my hon. Friends will do so. Instead, I will talk for a few minutes about defence procurement.
Twenty-five years ago, I was responsible for carrying out a survey with three colleagues as a management consultant to compare the procurement systems in seven western powers. It is depressing, a quarter of a century on, how little things have moved on from the issues at that time. I remain convinced, as I was at the end of that process, that Britain is about average or a little above average, and not as inefficient as it is presented to be by some commentators.
I share the view of the Chairman of the Defence Committee that Bernard Gray is exactly the right man in the right job and that his report is excellent. I am deeply concerned that much of Lord Levene’s report will undermine some of Bernard Gray’s best and most important ideas, much as I respect the noble Lord and the work that he did in procurement at about the time I was a consultant.
There is time to touch briefly on only four points, of which two relate to the procurement function and two to the Ministry of Defence. My first point is that Bernard Gray is absolutely right to point to weaknesses in the contract staff, who are grossly underqualified for the job of stacking up against the highly competent lawyers employed by the other side. In project after project, we have found ourselves badly damaged by the small print.
My second point is about project managers. Gray, Levene and everybody else who has looked at this matter have concluded that we need more continuity in project managers and that they need to be professionally trained. Nevertheless, we are out of line with most other countries in concluding that project managers should be civilians. The most efficient procurers in the world remain, in my view, the Swedes. Their project managers are overwhelmingly military. They are in post typically for four to five years and they are properly trained before they become project managers. The problem, particularly on the army side where there are large numbers of comparatively cheap interlocking projects, is that if civilians are in charge of the projects, as in France, one ends up with lots of detailed user-problems that would have become obvious earlier if they had been before a military project manager. That is why
France, despite spending far more on research and development than any other continental country, does not have a particularly good record on land vehicles.
My third point goes more to the heart of the distinction—in my mind, anyway—between Levene and Gray. The heart of Gray’s report—perhaps his single most important recommendation—is at point 4 in his summary, where he says that we must
“Clarify roles and create a real customer-supplier relationship between the capability sponsor (MoD centre)”—
—this is a distinction that we, alone in the whole world, developed before the second world war—
“and project delivery (DE&S)”.
He goes on to stress that the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Capability) is the man who has to drive this. In contrast, Peter Levene suggests that DCDS (Capability) should be merged with one, or possibly two, other functions out of a long list—that it should be downgraded—instead of having, as Gray recommends, one board whose secretariat and day-to-day policing should be provided by DCDS (Capability) to oversee the process. In Levene’s structure we would end up with a complete muddle, with, in effect, four different bodies considering these matters—the new Defence Board, which is all-civilian except for the Chief of the Defence Staff, and the three armed forces themselves. That would take us halfway back to pre-1936.
If the move is to make the CDS the commander-in-chief, and therefore in charge of the Army, with the same going for the other two services, surely it is proper that such people are represented on the Defence Board, if not particularly within the Ministry of Defence?
I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend. I was about to come to that as my fourth and final point, but let me first finish my remarks on capabilities.
There is a very important reason, which Bernard Gray fingers exactly in his original report, for having a proper supplier-customer relationship. In the second world war, the Luftwaffe had a much more powerful research and development and industrial base, but the RAF, because it had a separate capabilities group, was able to make sure that all the pieces interacted so that we did not have problems with fighters that could not talk to bombers, and so on.
The A300M is a modern example of where that structure has broken down because—Gray criticises this—the capabilities staff have got weaker, and they will get a lot weaker still if the Levene recommendations are adopted. This aircraft is being bought for the Air Force—I have huge respect for Air Transport Command because of the brilliant work it has done in Afghanistan—but the user is the Army. Bizarrely, we have managed to arrive at a point where we are choosing to buy an aeroplane that is much more expensive than its tried and tested competitor, the Hercules, on the grounds that it can carry one armoured vehicle per aircraft whereas the Hercules cannot. If asked, the Army would say that armoured vehicles usually go by sea—it has C17s if it has to move them by air—and that it could not afford most of the armoured vehicles it wanted anyway. A strong central capabilities directorate would probably have been able to get a grip on that. Furthermore, the problem is as much in the detail as in the big picture.
That brings me to my fourth and last point, which was anticipated by my hon. Friend Bob Stewart. Some countries, particularly on the continent, do not allow executives on to their company boards; we would say that their company boards are all non-executive. Putting those countries to one side, in all my years as a consultant—I worked on all six continents—I never came across a successful company anywhere in which the heads of the main operating divisions were not on the main board. Peter Levene’s recommendation that the individual chiefs of staff should not sit on the Defence Board is bizarre. If one puts that alongside my third point about capabilities, with the greater powers that the individual services are going to take back from the centre to monitor projects, one can see that it is a recipe for increased in-fighting and for a reduction in interoperability. That is a big step away from joined-up defence.
I should like to end on a more positive note. With Bernard Gray, who is probably the best informed and best equipped man in the country, being put in charge of procurement, there is a fair chance that he will manage to overcome many of these problems. Certainly, under his leadership the performance of the procurement function itself will move from being a little above average internationally to being among the best. However, if we simply implement at the centre the Levene reforms as they are constituted—I have mentioned two of the weaknesses, and I could go into some of the others in detail—there is a risk that, in this area and in several others, we may undermine long-term defence planning.
I fear that the strategic defence and security review was a cost-cutting exercise rather than an exercise that focused particularly on the defence needs of this country. As those who know me are aware, I have a particular worry about maritime patrol capability.
Following the decision to scrap the Nimrod MRA4, we have been left with no maritime patrol capability. The £6 billion Nimrod fleet is now ancient history and resting in a scrap yard somewhere. I do not want to spend any time discussing that again, but I want to consider where we stand without the capability that it would have provided. The former Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Fox, summed up the problem in his infamous letter to the Prime Minister:
“Deletion of the Nimrod MR4 will limit our ability to deploy maritime forces rapidly into high-threat areas, increase the risk to the Deterrent, compromise maritime CT (counter terrorism), remove long range search and rescue, and delete one element of our Falklands reinforcement plan.”
I want to examine each aspect of that assertion—first, the rapid deployment of the maritime forces into high-threat areas. The maritime patrol aircraft is there to protect our nuclear deterrent. In mid-December, The Scotsman reported that a Type 42 destroyer had to be dispatched when a Royal Navy battle group appeared off the coast of Scotland. [Hon. Members: “Russian navy battle group”] I am sorry—I meant a Russian navy battle group. Did I say “Royal Navy”? That is a real Freudian slip—I do apologise. Clearly, my meetings with Alex Salmond have left things in my brain that I should not have brought forward. A Russian navy battle group appeared off the coast of Scotland, as have a number of Russian submarines. In addition, Russia is building a new fleet of submarines. In the past a Nimrod would have been dispatched to keep a watchful, discreet eye. Instead, we sent a Type 42 destroyer. Without the MPA, we do not know who is out there or what risks we face.
Scotland is a part of what we should consider our back door—the high north. We spend very little time focusing on that region, but we ignore it at our peril. We tend to forget that we are a northern European country, and that the high north is growing in significance. Without a comprehensive maritime patrol capability, we cannot address the strategic and economic importance of the high north. As the ice melts in the Arctic ocean, the 160 billion barrels of oil that are assessed as being in that region are becoming more accessible. No one dreamed of those sea routes being opened up, or of the 40-day saving on travel made possible by the Suez canal being available for our shipping lanes. Without the MPA, we cannot keep an eye on those shipping lanes to watch for military deployments or respond to any disasters, whether they are environmental, security-related or human.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and particularly for the extraordinarily good work that she does on the Defence Committee, including in drawing our attention to issues such as the high north. In the comments that she just made, was she also making a comment about some of the possible implications of Scottish independence?
It is vital that the House addresses the issue of defence in relation to Scottish independence. I hope that, with the Chairman’s agreement, the Defence Committee will include it in our future programme. It is a matter of grave importance to the security and defence of the United Kingdom, and we should take it extremely seriously.
I turn to maritime counter-terrorism. On a visit to Northwood, information was given to me that having one Nimrod, a maritime patrol aircraft, was the equivalent to having 12 ships. We have only 19 ships, and we no longer have MPA capability. We have the increasing problem of countering piracy, which is a form of criminal maritime terrorism. Naval command said last year that 83 warships were needed to ensure a one-hour response time to merchant ships attacked in the high-risk area, yet in October only 18 vessels were deployed. The area of risk is huge—2.5 million square miles—and over the next 20 years, the volume of trade going by sea will increase by 50% and Navy cover will drop by 30%. Tracking rogue ships over such a wide area needs maritime patrol capability, which we do not have.
Counter-piracy operations conducted through NATO and through EU NAVFOR—Naval Force Somalia—rely on the resources provided by members. The availability of MPA fluctuates according to demands elsewhere, and operations in Libya meant that those limited resources were diverted. We face increasing numbers of attacks in the Indian ocean, the strait of Hormuz and now off the west coast of Africa.
Our reliance on the sea is enormous. In 2010, 35% of our total natural gas imports arrived by sea. By 2020, 70% will be imported in that way. Some $952 billion of trade a year passes through the Suez canal, and piracy costs the international economy between $4 billion and $7 billion a year. Those figures are being passed on to taxpayers through the rising cost of the goods transported through the region.
There are huge problems with the proposal to post armed guards on merchant ships. I have particular concerns about the rules that would be needed to govern the licensing of firearms on UK-flagged vessels, and about what would happen to the pirates who were captured. Kenya is no longer willing to help. How will pirates be transported to third countries for trial, and what will the legal position be of both the pirates and the maritime security company that transports them there? Are we in danger of giving rise to the issue of rendition?
I turn to our long-term search and rescue obligations. In 2010 our Nimrods were called out between 30 and 40 times to assist with search and rescue. We have an international responsibility for search and rescue covering 1.2 million nautical miles, but in a collection of letters in The Daily Telegraph in 2010, one writer said:
“I advise mariners to avoid requiring rescue more than 250 miles from shore.”
Without a maritime patrol capability, our capacity to rescue our seafarers is removed.
I wish briefly to consider the Falklands. I remind the House that when the invasion started on
Let me begin by paying tribute to Signaller Ian Sartorius-Jones of 20th Armoured Brigade Headquarters and Signal Squadron, who died on operations in Afghanistan on
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot on securing this debate on behalf of the Select Committee on Defence, and on his speech, most of which I wholeheartedly agreed with. I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the House on the defence reform programme that I have inherited, on my approach to it, and on how I will take forward the delivery of the defence outputs required under the strategic defence and security review.
Does my right hon. Friend remember—perhaps he would do so nostalgically—the days when we had at least three debates annually on defence on a Government motion in Government time? Does he agree that this should be a Government debate rather than a Back-Bench one?
My hon. Friend will know that the Government took a decision to give a large slug of parliamentary time to the Backbench Business Committee, to be allocated according to the priorities that Back Benchers identify. That was a bold decision for a Government to take. The result is that we have that defence debate today. I hope the Committee notes, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire said, the strong attendance, and that that will mean we have more defence debates on Thursday afternoons in future.
I am delighted also to have the opportunity to address the House—I have said that once so I will not say it again.
Today’s debate is about the reform of defence. That reform is for a purpose. Sometimes, amid the minutiae of budgets and organisational structures, we need to take care not to lose sight of that purpose: the defence of this nation and our dependent territories against those who threaten our security and our national interest.
The challenge we face is to deliver that defence on a sustainable basis within a resource envelope that the country can afford. That challenge must be set in the context of the fiscal and economic circumstances, as other Members have noted. History tells us that, without a strong economy and sound public finances, it is impossible to sustain in the long term the military capability required to project power and maintain defence. The debt crisis is therefore a strategic threat to the future security of our nation and to the security of the west. Restoring sound public finances is a defence imperative as well as an economic one, and defence must make its contribution to delivering them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Part of the answer to the questions raised by Mrs Moon is collaboration with NATO allies. They can share assets that they have and that we do not have, and we can reinforce their capabilities in other areas. The smart defence agenda is an important one—it involves collaboration among NATO allies in procurement to ensure that we get the best defence effect we can get with the limited budgets available.
As I have said, defence must make its contribution to delivering sound public finances, so even if the defence programme that we inherited had been in good shape, the spending review and the SDSR would have had to find savings to contribute to overall deficit reduction. However, the defence programme that the Government inherited was very far from being in good shape. At its heart, it had a £38 billion black hole filled with procurement projects that were at best hopelessly over budget and out of control, and at worst pure fantasy. They were projects announced by politicians—actually, mainly one politician—without any budget cover or prospect of ever being delivered, in a programme that had no proper contingency, no effective recognition of risk, and no provision for the “conspiracy of optimism” that was evident in MOD equipment cost estimates. The support programme systematically underprovided for the proper maintenance and sustainment of the equipment that was already in service. In short, Mr Deputy Speaker, it was a shambles.
I am obviously not privy to the advice given to Ministers in the previous Government by their defence advisers, nor should I be, but if the previous Government were succumbing to recommendations from the defence chiefs, they were doing them no favours by pretending that they could deliver equipment programmes for which there were no funding lines or budget cover, and when there was no prospect of their materialising.
I am going to make some progress.
Does it matter that Labour’s programme was stuffed full of projects that would never and could never be delivered? I would argue that it did, because so long as the fantasy persisted, the doctrine and philosophy of our armed forces—[ Interruption. ] If Mr Jones listens, he might understand the point being made. So long as the fantasy persisted, the doctrine and philosophy of our armed forces were built around the notion of those platforms being delivered, when what the forces really need is a realistic programme that we can deliver and that they can have confidence in, so that they can start rethinking their doctrine and operating philosophy for the future around the platforms and capabilities that we will have.
What I say to the hon. Gentleman is that we face the situation that we face. We came into office with a massive deficit, which we inherited from the previous Government, and as I shall argue, we have taken the tough decisions that, frankly, the previous Government shirked over the last few years, thereby doing the armed forces and the country no favours.
By 2010, Britain’s armed forces had endured a decade of high-tempo operations without a formal defence review and were faced with a period of acute fiscal pressure. The case for reform to ensure that the armed forces were restructured and re-equipped to protect our national security against the threats that we would face, within a budget that the nation could sustain, was unanswerable. Tough decisions were necessary to deal with problems on the scale of the inherited defence deficit, and this Government took them. I am clear, as the Prime Minister and my predecessor have been, that whatever the pain, our first duty is to put our armed forces on a sustainable basis by restructuring them for the future and putting the budgets that sustain them on a stable footing. As the SDSR acknowledged, the process of transitioning to Future Force 2020 will require us to take some calculated and carefully managed risks against certain capabilities, most prominent among which are wide-area maritime surveillance, to which the hon. Member for Bridgend referred, and carrier strike.
I regret in particular the cuts in personnel that are required to deliver that rebalancing and make the armed forces sustainable. However, in case any confusion has been created over the last few days, let me clear up one point. The headcount of military personnel will have been reduced by around 18% by 2020 compared with the 2010 baseline. That is in contrast to a 38% reduction in civilian headcount. Regrettably, some of that reduction will have to be achieved by redundancy. Where that is necessary, every opportunity is being given, and will continue to be given, for military personnel at risk of redundancy to retrain for alternative roles of which there are shortages in the armed forces.
I heard the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire earlier. Following the publication of the Select Committee’s report, I have asked for a specific briefing on the point that he raised. I would be happy to share that with him after the debate—[ Interruption. ] I will share it with Mr Murphy as well, if he wishes. It includes a list of the shortage trades for which suitably qualified individuals who are facing redundancy are invited to apply.
The Gurkhas remain a very important part of the British armed forces. I think that my hon. Friend understands exactly the problem that we face in regard to Gurkha numbers. Their terms of service were changed as a result of decisions made by the courts and the campaigning pressure that was placed on the previous Government. That means that most Gurkhas have elected to extend their service to 22 years. Consequently, the numbers of Gurkhas in service are projected to be above the levels needed to sustain the two brigades that we wish to sustain. That has given rise to a larger number of Gurkha redundancies than we would have expected to see. That is regrettable but, I am afraid, inevitable.
We are making tough decisions to tackle the massive deficit left by the previous Government and the unfunded defence programme. If those decisions had been easy or popular, you can bet your life that the Labour Government would have taken them years ago. They did not do so, however, and it now falls to the coalition to do the right thing in the long-term national interest. Translating the strategic prescriptions of the SDSR into decisive actions was always going to be a process rather than an event. Turning the corner on a decade of mismanagement will take time and determination.
To shine a bit of light into the end of the tunnel, the Government announced in July 2011 that the MOD could plan on the budget allocated to defence equipment and equipment support increasing by 1% a year in real terms between 2015 and 2020. That amounts to more than £3 billion of new money over the period. Importantly, that commitment was renewed by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury after the autumn statement. That will enable investment in a number of programmes, including the procurement of new Chinook helicopters, the refurbishment of the Army’s Warrior fleet, the procurement of the Rivet Joint, or Airseeker, intelligence and surveillance aircraft, and the development of the global combat ship.
The MOD is currently undertaking its annual budget setting process, which is known as the planning round. I am personally engaged in that process, and I am increasingly confident that we are close to achieving a sustainable and balanced defence budget for the first time in a decade or more. That would be an immense achievement, and would allow us to plan with confidence and to spend well over £150 billion on new equipment and equipment support over the next decade, as well as delivering the force restructuring and rebasing that we have announced. A turnaround on that scale requires a major cultural shift. Defence must change the way in which it does things and the way in which it addresses problems. It must challenge the received wisdom around the doctrines used to deliver defence tasks and around the management of defence itself.
Last month, the Government published the first annual report on the SDSR, which set out in full the progress that is being made. Let me address a couple of salient areas of what the MOD calls “transforming defence”—that is, the journey from the mess that we inherited towards achieving a sustainable, capable, coherent and adaptable force, built on balanced budgets and disciplined processes, by 2020. As I have said, I am clear that the Ministry of Defence must balance its budget. I am equally clear that it does not exist to balance its budget; it exists to deliver effective defence within a sustainable budget envelope.
I reassure my hon. Friend that I absolutely agree that morale is very important. I shall come to morale in a moment, and I understand that accommodation plays an important part in that. He will understand that there are thousands of moving parts in the defence budget, and trying to bring them back into balance is a massive challenge. Inevitably, people will always ask us to do more, more quickly, whether on accommodation, front-line equipment or any other area. We must try to balance the equation and get the judgment right.
As I said, the Ministry of Defence exists to deliver an effective solution within a sustainable budget envelope. NATO membership and our defence relationship with the United States and other key allies, such as France and Australia, are a vital part of the strategic solution as we move to Future Force 2020. It will, of course, be a smaller force, but it will be equipped with some of the best and most advanced technology in the world. It will be configured to be agile, focused on expeditionary capability and carrier strike, able to intervene by airborne or amphibious assault, and with the ability to deploy, with sufficient warning and for a limited time, a whole-effort force of about 30,000, or to maintain an enduring stabilisation operation at brigade level while concurrently undertaking one complex and one small-scale non-enduring operation. It will be a formidable regular force, supported by better trained, better equipped reserves who will play a greater role in delivering defence effect on the back of the extra £1.8 billion that we will invest in them over the next 10 years. All that will be underpinned by the expectation that, in most circumstances, we will be fighting alongside allies, and it will be supported with doctrines that will effectively address the threats of the future with the assets that we will have.
The proposal is about finally moving on from cold war reliance on mass to the “lethal and light” doctrines of flexibility and agility that the challenges of the new century require. It is not just the armed forces that need to reconfigure; the management of defence needs to change too, by developing a laser focus on delivering defence cost- effectively and accountably, protecting the front line and the taxpayer at the same time. Under my predecessor, that transformation had already begun. The recommendations of the Defence Reform Unit under Lord Levene were broadly accepted. Many have been implemented and others are in the pipeline. The Defence Board has been reconfigured to provide for a clear, single, joint service voice on military priorities, and a greater role for non-executive directors under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State. I reassure my hon. Friend Mr Brazier that the single voice for the military on the Defence Board is supported by an effective armed forces committee, at which the chiefs of the individual services are able to work together to determine their combined order of priorities for the Defence Board’s allocation of available resource. That priority order is then presented to the Defence Board by the Chief of the Defence Staff—a presentation that has become extremely effective, because it carries with it the authority of all three services and the joint forces commander.
The Defence Infrastructure Organisation has been stood up to rationalise the Ministry of Defence estate and reduce costs by 25%. Defence Business Services has been created to unify human resources and other back-office functions across the Department. The reform of the procurement process has begun with the appointment of—you guessed it, Mr Deputy Speaker—Bernard Gray, who has now had four name checks, I think, so far in the debate, as chief of defence matériel, and the establishment of the major projects review board to hold those responsible for failing projects firmly to account.
This year will see the transformation accelerate, with an evolution towards a leaner, more strategic head office; the introduction of a stronger financial and performance management regime across the whole Department; the service chiefs being empowered to run their individual services and their delegated services budgets; the new joint forces command being stood up on
The next few years will also see the beginning of considerable change on the ground as the rebasing programme set out in July last year is taken forward and the Army begins its return from Germany, as well as its withdrawal from Afghanistan and its internal restructuring to deliver five multi-role brigades. I know those last changes, in particular, are of great interest to individual Members. The House will understand that many of the changes are interdependent and complex, but I can give a commitment that I will make further announcements on the details of individual elements of the transforming defence programme as and when it is appropriate to do so.
First, I should apologise for being unable to be present at the beginning of the debate due to other responsibilities.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that the basing decisions have caused a great deal of disappointment. In the case of my constituency, the closure of RAF Leuchars, which has provided nearly 100 years of service in aerial warfare, has been particularly difficult to accept. Part of the argument in favour of that closure was that there would be specific deployments of units of the Army to occupy the base. So far, very little detail has been made available. May I encourage my right hon. Friend to ensure that the announcements he has just foreshadowed will be made as soon as possible?
I can reassure my right hon. and learned Friend on that point. RAF Leuchars is not so much closing as transforming its role to become the home of one of the five multi-role combat brigades after the rebasing of the Army back to the UK.
The purpose of all the changes is to increase the investment we can make in service people and their equipment and training, to increase investment in the front line by making the back office more efficient and more accountable, and to deliver value for money in defence. I know that change is unsettling and that the threat of change and the uncertainty it brings can sap morale, which my hon. Friend Sir Bob Russell mentioned. I will make every effort to ensure that the people who are directly affected by the proposals are kept fully informed as they progress and that we get the changes made as quickly as humanly possible.
I will not give way to my hon. Friend a second time, as I am conscious that a large number people wish to participate in the debate.
People remain the greatest asset of defence and, despite the tough decisions that must be taken, we will do all we can to protect them. This Government understand our duty to the country and to our armed forces. We have made the tough choices necessary to put them on a sustainable footing for the defence of national security and of the United Kingdom’s interests around the world. We know that making those changes will not to be easy, but I have no doubt that the British armed forces that will emerge will be formidable, flexible and adaptable, supported by the fourth largest defence budget in the world, meeting our NATO responsibilities and equipped with some of the best and most advanced technology on earth.
To get there, we need not just the series of structural and organisational changes I have set out, but a cultural shift in the way the organisation thinks and works. We need a shift in military doctrine to deliver the defence effect we will need, using the capabilities we will have; a shift in civilian culture to one of discipline, individual accountability and delegated decision making; and a shift to a leaner, fitter, more empowered and more empowering organisation. This is a programme of renewal and change of a scope and on a scale greater than anything else being delivered across the public sector. It is a blueprint for a sustainable future for the UK’s armed forces as one of the world’s most capable fighting machines. That is what Britain needs and what our armed forces deserve, and as we move forward to deliver it we will never forget that at the heart of this organisation are the servicemen and women who are prepared to put their lives on the line for us day in, day out. We owe it to them to make sure that the transformation we have embarked upon delivers its full promise.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this annual debate.
The debate was initiated by the Select Committee on Defence and facilitated by the Backbench Business Committee, but I hope that in future the time allocated will be additional to that allocated by the Government to such debates.
I congratulate the Chair of the Defence Committee, Mr Arbuthnot, on his very thoughtful speech. Even though parts of it criticised the Government of whom I was a member, his assessment was often fair. Parts of his speech, however, were in stark contrast with the opening passages of the Secretary of State’s partisan comments.
It is right that we remember the names of those serving in our name across the world and those, such as Ian Sartorius-Jones, who have lost their life serving our nation, particularly in Afghanistan, which must remain our country’s principal defence mission. The bravery of the UK’s servicemen and women is in all our thoughts and many of our prayers. Their actions overseas make our country safer and we thank them and their families.
We continue to support strongly the mission in Afghanistan because we are entering a difficult phase in that conflict. With 33,000 US troops and 500 UK troops departing this year, and with the pace of further withdrawal yet to be set, the capacity of Afghan forces is a crucial issue. There are worrying signs in terms of retention rates and recent high-profile infiltrations of those forces. Building the strength and the legitimacy of the Afghan national army and police force must be a priority for this year alongside the delivery of representative, stable local governance and the continued engagement of regional partners. Labour will continue to support and scrutinise the Government, as well as pressing for the pace of withdrawal to follow the conditions on the ground. It is vital that we have clarity as soon as possible on the size of any residual UK force in Afghanistan and on its responsibilities.
Afghanistan sits alongside many new and emerging threats faced by the UK and our allies. Events in north Africa and the middle east continue to prove this. The potential for conflict between states or among peoples is on the rise.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I said right at the beginning that I am keen to have a bipartisan approach in Afghanistan, and that will continue. There is sometimes a temptation with these very difficult, often impractical, problems to give in to the temptation to seek and find synthetic differences, but as I have said before at the Dispatch Box it is important that this year there should be a genuine political process to match the military might of the past decade. That did not happen last year, and it should be compulsory this year. The Bonn conference was a failure in that regard, but I did not attack our Government for that from the Dispatch Box because it was an international failure to formulate the political strategy that that country so badly needs.
I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman was not in post during the relevant period, but does he regret not conducting a defence review in the past decade? A review might have helped to identify the fact that Snatch Land Rovers were not appropriate in Afghanistan. We went through a period of bizarre procurement in which the Ridgback, the Cougar, the Vector, the Jackal and the Mastiff were produced one after another and bought off the shelf to try to identify something that would work in Afghanistan. If we had held a defence review, perhaps we would have seen that the conduct and style of war was changing before our eyes and we could then have ensured that we sent our armed forces to Afghanistan with the right equipment.
The hon. Gentleman has great and varied experience, but I think he will fairly accept that the urgent operational requirements worked well in Afghanistan, and after 9/11 we updated our defence review with a new chapter. In a debate that is intended to be relatively thoughtful rather than our traditional cut and thrust, it is fair to say that the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan changed and surprised many people, including those who were engaged in it day to day. As we reflect on what happened in Afghanistan, it is crucial that we learn deeply the lessons of the conflict, in the hope that we never have to deploy them, but in the fear that on occasion it might become necessary.
I was making the wider point that events in north Africa and the middle east continue to prove the uncertainty and unpredictability of the future shape of conflict. Coupled with the Arab spring, the growing global population, the threat of climate change, new information technology and biotechnologies, nuclear proliferation and cyber-attack, we live in what is, by consensus, an era of dramatic new global security challenges. All that means that it is sensible for the Government to invest the £650 million they have announced for cyber-security. The continuing emphasis on soft power and multilateralism to supplant the inevitable capability shortfalls resulting from spending constraint is vital. It was crucial in good times, but it is compulsory in these difficult times of budget cuts in a world of flux.
I have learned from experience that it would never be wise to misrepresent the words of the shadow Chancellor, and I dare say the hon. Gentleman is doing just that. We have been pretty clear; we cannot commit to reverse specific cuts that the Government have made. Similarly, before the 1997 election we said we would stick to the size of the state for the first two years of a Labour Government. It is important to be clear: before that election, we committed not to reverse individual spending cuts.
On defence reform, we know that we must meet the ambitions for our forces that we share across the Chamber, and which the Secretary of State referred to at the end of his comments. Reform is more important than ever before and when the Government make the right choices, they will have our backing. I listened carefully to Mr Brazier, who spoke with real passion about an important issue that can often be quite dry. Much of the restructuring of the MOD announced in the Levene report was as welcome on the Opposition Benches as it was, in the majority of cases, on the Government Benches, in particular, greater financial powers for service chiefs. Some of the rebalancing of the equipment programme, notably cutting tank regiments, was necessary and has our support.
Unfortunately, that is not the case for every decision taken in the Government’s controversial and much criticised defence review, which has set our country’s defence policy on an uncertain path. However much some try to depict the process as a success, the evidence to the contrary is striking. The strategic defence and security review was immediately reviewed in a three-month study that announced thousands of further redundancies in our forces and the civil service. There are new unfunded liabilities on the balance sheet and further cuts to the equipment programme appear imminent. The conflict in Libya saw military equipment planned for the scrapyard recalled. The UK has been left with serious capability shortfalls for a decade, most notably the carrier strike capability gap. Military experts have repeatedly been open in their criticisms, and all in all it is a cuts package still in search of a defence strategy and there should be a rethink.
On forces welfare, I welcome much of what the Secretary of State has said in the announcements that he has made in advancement of forces welfare, but last week saw 400 Gurkhas being made redundant—the second painful cut they have had to endure in just a few months. The whole House will recall that the Prime Minister championed those remarkable soldiers in opposition, and many will agree with the Defence Committee’s statement that the level of compulsory redundancies among those in uniform is “grotesque.” That comes alongside cuts to front-line allowances, and permanent changes to pensions that will disproportionately affect members of the armed forces and their dependants, who rely on their pensions at an earlier stage in life than almost anyone else.
I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman says he is giving way, then stays standing up for another three sentences. I am confused. He says the redundancies in the armed forces are grotesque, but he says he will not reverse the spending cuts that the Government have announced. Which is it? Is he going to reverse the cuts or is he going to accept the redundancies?
The right hon. Gentleman is not going to wriggle out by putting it in an historical context. A tranche of military redundancy is going on right now, and regrettably there will have to be further tranches. Would he scrap them and, if so, where would he get the money from?
It is ironic and peculiar that the current Secretary of State is seeking a commitment from the official Opposition to reverse cuts that he has not even yet announced. It is a ludicrous way to conduct politics and economics.
This cut comes alongside cuts to front-line allowances, and permanent changes to pensions, which will detrimentally affect those who require to take their pensions earlier in life. A corporal who has lost both legs in a bomb blast in Afghanistan will miss out on £500,000 in pension and benefit-related pensions. War widows will also lose out enormously. A 34-year-old wife of a staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan would be almost £750,000 worse off throughout her life.
Ministers blame deficit reduction but the argument does not add up. These changes are permanent, so the impact will be felt long after the deficit has been paid down and the economy has returned to growth.
I believe it is uncomfortable for us all that Sir Michael Moore, the chairman of the Forces Pension Society, has been moved to say:
“I have never seen a Government erode the morale of the Armed Forces so quickly”.
What has been the Prime Minister’s response? It has been a Cabinet Sub-Committee of his Ministers. To those in the front line, that will be little consolation. Indeed, given some of the decisions that have been taken, they are likely to want less, not more ministerial meetings. As I have previously said, I think there is a case for fewer Ministers in the Ministry of Defence in and of itself.
As the Secretary of State has rightly said, UK armed forces are a “force for good” across the globe, bringing peace to the Balkans, promoting stability in Sierra Leone, building capacity across Africa, supporting the actions around Libya, the normalisation of Northern Ireland and counter-terrorism at home and overseas, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. We want our forces to continue to play such a world-leading role, but their ability to do so is being challenged by the decisions of the Government.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for giving way so courteously. In his list of commitments, the one thing he has not mentioned is the strategic nuclear deterrent. In the light of the first contribution that was made from the Opposition Back Benches, would he care to reiterate his party’s commitment to the renewal of the strategic nuclear deterrent?
My hon. Friend John Woodcock is over my right shoulder, and I would not wish to steal his speech, because without anticipating its detail I expect it will be a detailed rebuttal of my right hon. Friend Mr Brown. Briefly, our view remains that we believe in the minimum credible independent nuclear deterrent. The timing of the Government’s process does surprise many, because it seems to be designed for internal political dynamics rather than the defence of our nation, but generally we do support the retention of the minimum independent nuclear deterrent, and we look forward to an informed debate about its renewal.
The right hon. Gentleman has spoken at some length and with some eloquence about the uncertainties that the face defence of the UK, but has he considered the uncertainties that would face the defence of the UK were there to be an independent Scotland—not least for Scotland, but for all the rest of the United Kingdom? Our reputation and our capability are well recognised; how far does he think these would be capable of being sustained in the event that there was an independent Scotland?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a compelling argument. I look forward to being part of the discussion during the referendum campaign. I have only two more points to make: the first is about finance but the other is about Scotland, which will allow me to respond to that intervention in more detail.
The Secretary of State mentioned the £38 billion figure, but that is Ministers’ response to every single issue. They use a catch-all Conservative assertion as a fact and so attempt to escape their responsibility, but in its report on the SDSR the Defence Committee stated:
“We were disappointed by the MoD’s response to our requests for a breakdown of the MoD’s financial commitments, including details of the components of its estimate of a £38 billion gap in the defence programme”.
When the previous Secretary of State gave evidence to the Committee, he was asked to provide that information, but it has still not received it. He said that he would provide it, but when challenged he said:
“Offhand, I couldn’t give an actual figure, but I will get it for the Committee.”
“Ministers have committed to making a public statement” on the MOD’s spending gap. They have not made it. We look forward to the promised information being made available not only to the Defence Committee and the House, but to the forces, their families and the country. Until Ministers provide it, there will be an enormous gap in the Government’s explanation for their decisions.
Finally, let me respond to the point about Scotland made by Mrs Moon, who unintentionally but inelegantly described Scotland as “our back door”. For many of us it is home and we want never to see a Royal Navy battlegroup off the coast of Scotland, except perhaps as it sails from there to foreign shores; but while there are real worries about the Government’s defence policy on the Opposition Benches and across the country, those are dwarfed by the worries about the defence plans of another Government on these isles—the Scottish Government.
Although I criticise the rushed nature of the UK Government’s defence review, I make the opposite criticism of the Scottish National party Government’s approach. Their party has been around since 1943—
My hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on RAF Leuchars, as has the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife. It is remarkable that SNP Members have toured that part of Scotland promising to keep open three bases, but now describe the Government’s policy as a blueprint for the defence of an independent Scotland.
The SNP has been around since 1934 and has been in power in the Scottish Government for five years, but SNP Ministers have not even done the most remedial of thinking. Scotland currently sits at the heart of one of the most successful union of nations anywhere on earth. The UK has a seat at the United Nations Security Council, an invaluable transatlantic bond and a vital role in the EU, NATO and the Commonwealth. A collection of people from four different countries serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces have achieved great things together in the past and will, I am certain, do so in the future as well. The SNP wishes to turn the defence debate into a referendum about the location of Trident, as if moving it a few miles across the border would make Scotland inherently safer. SNP Members may be hiding today, but they cannot hide from the truth that their policies are incoherent and will take Scotland out of the RAF, the Royal Navy and the British Army, as well as having an irreversible impact on shipbuilding on the Clyde and Rosyth. Amid all the argument about the single question to be asked in the referendum, the debate must be about all of the answers that the SNP refuses to provide.
Where the Government are doing the right thing in the national interest, whether it is Afghanistan, Libya or defence reform, we will continue enthusiastically to support them. Therefore, today, I enthusiastically thank the Chair of the Select Committee and all its members for their forensic work in scrutinising the previous and the current Governments on their work on defence, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for enabling today’s debate.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. I should declare my interest as a Member for a constituency facing the loss of an historic headquarters, and a resident of a city facing the loss of an additional two barracks. I have been calling on the Ministry of Defence to rethink their proposals. I made the case for a future for Craigiehall to the Secretary of State for Scotland in November, and my contribution today restates that call.
The SNP may, now at least, be happy with the basing plans for Scotland, especially given their absence today, but I am not. The plan put forward is to replace
Dreghorn, Redford and Craigiehall, the three historic Edinburgh bases, with a new purpose built super-barracks for a multi-role brigade at Kirknewton, a command headquarters to be incorporated into the new formation headquarters at Leuchars, and an expansion of Glencorse barracks near Penicuik.
The basis for the Ministry’s proposal is financial—the sell-off of land for prime residential development to produce attractive capital receipts. A super-barracks will, I am told, be more cost-effective in the long term, saving taxpayers’ money and boosting Treasury funds. It is an understandable and laudable aim, but I am extremely dubious about whether the plan has been properly prepared, or is capable of delivering the savings envisaged.
To date, I have asked almost 100 parliamentary questions to try to understand the financial reasoning behind the decision. Not one answer has given any details of likely costs or possible capital receipts from disposal of the Edinburgh estate. Instead, time and again I am told, “It’s too early,” or “Comprehensive planning is under way,” or “The information is not held in the format requested.” The Minister was
“not able to provide a cost estimate”—[Hansard, 5 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 91W.]
for the building of the new barracks at Kirknewton. Running costs for the base seem equally unclear. He wrote:
“it is not possible to confirm budgetary requirements or allocations.”—[Hansard, 9 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 844W.]
How, then, is it possible to do a comparison with the costs of the undoubted modernisation work needed at Dreghorn and Redford? No audit seems to have been carried out to establish the modernisation costs.
The story is not much better on capital receipts. I asked the Ministry what value it had placed on Craigiehall. The answer indicates that no recent valuation of this or the other sites had been carried out. The proposed capital receipts were, I believe, based on valuations done in 2007, when the property boom was at its height. A further report was commissioned and carried out in March last year by GVA Grimleys, but despite tenacious attempts, there seems to be a great reticence to publish any detail from that.
If Craigiehall is to be used as a new business site, I have bad news. The industrial capacity in Newbridge and the, as yet unstarted, international hub development next to the airport are close locations that would be far more desirable. There are also development limitations cased by the listed building status of large parts of Craigiehall and also Redford barracks, which may make the sites difficult to sell. The depressive effect of all of those sites coming on to the market at the same time is likely to limit their value severely. The financial case is, as we say in Scotland, on a bit of a shooglie peg.
It is not just the financial case that is lacking in detail. On an array of important factors there is worrying ambiguity. The Minister cannot tell me what transport infrastructure is needed in and around Kirknewton to allow an Army base to function, but
“comprehensive planning work is now under way”—[Hansard, 18 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 867W.]
The reply to questions about the effects on schools, housing and health services for Army personnel is always the same: “Comprehensive planning work is now under way.” In fact, that is the reply to almost all my questions about the proposal. Surely comprehensive planning work should have taken place before the decision to close three historic bases and commit to £600 million of new spend.
The Army, too, has its concerns. I have spoken at length with the commanding officer and understand that Glencorse barracks is near capacity. There are serious concerns about the feasibility of moving the Army to a super-barracks, and about the recommendations of the review in general. There is a desire for Leuchars to remain a back-up airfield for Typhoon operations in case of adverse weather conditions in the north of Scotland. The work needed to make the base at Lossiemouth operational, and dates for the completion of that work, are unclear.
There is also strong concern among the civilian population in areas of Edinburgh where Army families are currently based. A move away by the Army would put local shops and schools in jeopardy, as roll numbers would fall significantly. Local businesses would be affected and a tight-knit community would be destroyed. The MOD has indicated that the current service family accommodation in Edinburgh will be kept and used for personnel based at Kirknewton, but it is difficult to see how that will work in practice. I attended a road show about the proposals, at the invitation of the Army Families Federation. The families have been given very limited details about their proposed resettlement, and the uncertainty is understandably causing a great deal of stress.
Particularly worrying is the period between 2014, when Redford and Dreghorn will close, and 2017, when Kirknewton is likely to become operational. The units currently based in Redford and Dreghorn are light infantry and, as such, not the type that would form part of a multi-role brigade, so at some point they will be relocated and other units will need to move in, but it is not clear which base they would operate from.
As I have said, the proposal is also significant for my constituency. The closure of Craigiehall confirmed that, despite a 3,500 increase in Army numbers and a major restructuring exercise currently under way, Scotland will lose its command headquarters, although a welcome senior Army presence will be kept to provide representation and communication with the Scottish Government and others; a two-star officer, to be known as General Officer Scotland, will be based in Scotland with a small support team. Nevertheless, replacing the divisional headquarters with a single support command headquarters will reduce the opportunity for the Army to engage with high-level regional and local partners in Scotland.
The closure of Craigiehall HQ would also have a significant impact on post reductions, which would affect civilians currently employed. In Edinburgh West, 103 civilian roles would be lost in addition to 89 military posts, which would mean the loss of experienced and skilled staff at a time when two further HQs are planned to move into Scotland to Leuchars and Kirknewton. I believe that there are clear efficiency savings to be made in co-locating headquarters at Craigiehall. It would not only work at a command and cost level, but save the experience and skills of those already at Craigiehall.
I think that the current capacity review will reveal that many aspects of the present proposals are simply undeliverable, and that Craigiehall might be best placed for a multiple HQ base. If the case is financial, accurate and up-to-date figures are needed to demonstrate its cost-effectiveness. When accurate figures are available, and not before, a decision can be made on the future of the Army estate in Edinburgh, taking into account all the issues. I urge the Ministry to think again.
Defence debates in this House are best when Members stick to national security, rather than party political knockabout. I respect the Secretary of State, who I think is a very capable Minister, and wish him well in his new post—but, like my right hon. Friend Mr Murphy, I regret the party political tone of some of his remarks, and feel that I should briefly respond.
I have been a Member for almost 20 years, and during that time, under Conservative Governments the defence budget has been cut as a proportion of national income, and under Labour Governments it has increased. Under the Major Government, between 1991-92—when I entered the House—and 1997-98, the share of national income, or GDP, spent on defence fell from 4% to 2.5%; under the Blair-Brown Government it rose from 2.5% to 2.7%. In a parliamentary question to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury last week, following the second tranche of redundancies, I asked what proportion of national income is spent on defence, and was told that it is still 2.7%. But the Chief Secretary continued:
“It is impossible to state exactly what percentage of GDP or gross national income will be spent in future years…However, I expect the percentage to remain above the 2% NATO target.”—[Hansard, 25 January 2012; Vol. 539, c. 240W.]
In other words, it will fall, and fall quite significantly.
On those figures, does the hon. Gentleman not accept, however, that the international situation was changeable? We had the end of the cold war and the widespread demand for a peace dividend during the period that he referred to under the Major Government. We then had 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan during the period that he referred to as the “Blair-Brown” years, whereas we are now out of Iraq and will shortly pull out of Afghanistan. He cannot look at the issue in isolation.
The hon. Gentleman makes some fair comments, but the Government have not established that the level of risk facing the country is declining, so they have not made the case in defence and security terms for the reduction in expenditure that they are making.
The United States, the UK, France, Greece and Albania are the only NATO members that spend at or above 2% of their GDP on defence; the other 23 of the 28 NATO allies spend less. The Libya campaign showed that current European spending on defence is not sufficient to conduct an effective military operation against a poorly armed regime distracted by a civilian uprising in a sparsely populated country with only 6 million inhabitants. Within weeks of the start of military operations, European countries were running out of precision-guided missiles and needed to turn to the United States to provide them. We also needed to turn to the United States to provide surveillance aircraft to identify targets and to provide air-to-air refuelling.
All 28 NATO member states voted for the Libya campaign, but less than half participated in it and fewer than one third contributed to strike operations. In June 2011, in a speech in Brussels, the outgoing United States Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said that
“many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they cannot. The military capabilities simply aren't there.”
That led Mr Gates, just before he left office, to question the future of NATO, and in the same speech he said:
“If current trends in the decline of European defence capabilities are not halted and reversed, future US political leaders…may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”
Robert Gates is not a maverick. He served as Defence Secretary under the Bush presidency and under Obama, and in that speech he articulated views that are frequently expressed by members of the United States Congress and other US speakers at meetings of the NATO Parliament Assembly, which I attend along with Sir Menzies Campbell, who leads our delegation. Indeed, a report adopted by the economics and security committee at our most recent meeting in October 2011 stated:
“If anything, Secretary Gates was being diplomatic. Europe’s defence posture has grown woefully weak…It is time for Europe to get serious about this issue.”
In November, in a speech to the Australian Parliament, President Obama declared that the United States was a Pacific power, and said that maintaining a military presence in the Asia-Pacific region was a top priority and would not be affected by United States defence cuts—a point that he re-emphasised earlier this month in a speech at the Pentagon about the US comprehensive defence review.
Those statements from our American allies make it clear to me that we in Europe need to do more than we are currently doing. Although we stay above the NATO target of 2% of GDP spending on defence, our defence cuts in the UK make it harder for us to persuade our European allies of the need for them to do their bit and get their spending up to that target.
In President Obama’s speech at the Pentagon he said:
“the size and the structure of our military and defense budgets have to be driven by a strategy, not the other way around.”
The UK Government need to operate on the same basis. I therefore believe that the defence cuts that the Government have announced should be contingent on the successful implementation, on a Europe-wide basis, of a strategy to increase defence expenditure and make better use of the resources that we already have by eliminating waste and duplication.
The UK-France defence and security co-operation treaty is a step in the right direction. It will allow the shared deployment of aircraft and aircraft carriers and air-to-air refuelling capabilities, and I am sure that as a result capabilities will be provided more cost-effectively than if we did such things alone. The nascent Nordic defence co-operation is another example. But we clearly need more shared assets in Europe. Why are we not buying strategic airlift on a joint basis with allies, as NATO did with the airborne warning and control system, or AWACS—although the UK, of course, did not join that initiative? Why do we not do the same with air-to-air refuelling?
Most of all, we need better co-operation in our defence industries. The armed forces in Europe have more service personnel than the United States, but we are way behind in terms of defence budgets, investment and capabilities.
One way to resolve the problem of sharing capacity would be to have an agreement with Luxembourg, a land-locked country that has no coastline but two maritime patrol aircraft. Perhaps we could agree to share its maritime patrol capability, as we have none.
My hon. Friend has made her point well. I would like us not only to make bilateral agreements with other countries but, far more, to look strategically across Europe at how we should restructure our defence industries to eliminate duplication and produce what we need—common equipment on a common basis. We should acquire major capital items of equipment that will be shared in NATO operations on a common basis.
In the few seconds that I have left, I would like to say a word or two about the local implications of the defence cuts for my constituency and the rest of Yorkshire. The latest figure that I have for the number of regular military personnel based in Yorkshire and the Humber is 14,730; for North Yorkshire the figure is 13,310, and in my constituency of York it is 880. The figures date from 2009, before the general election. If between now and 2015 those figures reduced in proportion with the overall reduction in the numbers of our armed forces—that is, by 8.5% or 9%—one might expect force reductions of about 1,300 across our region, of whom 1,200 would be in North Yorkshire and 70, perhaps, in York itself.
On the day last week when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Robathan, made his written ministerial statement about the second tranche of redundancies, I tabled a number of parliamentary questions asking for these regional numbers at the time of the general election, in December 2011, and in 2015. At business questions last week I asked whether the Leader of the House could make sure that I got answers before this debate. I received a letter from the Minister with responsibility for defence personnel, but it did not contain the figures. I hope that those figures will be provided to me as soon as possible.
I believe that the world is a more dangerous place than it has ever been during my time in Parliament. I believe that it is a more dangerous place than it was during the cold war. That was a more stable situation. We have heard about the resurgent and more authoritarian Russia. China is increasingly muscling its way into various parts of the world. Iran will soon be a nuclear power. The Arab spring might throw up more problems than solutions.
As a maritime nation, the Royal Navy always has played and always will play an essential part in defending our freedoms. I do not believe that the Royal Navy is a leftover from the cold war or a replay of second world war convoy systems. It is an essential part of our defence. I am extremely worried about what is happening to the Royal Navy. It will soon be the weakest it has been since the mid-19th century. In 1982, the Royal Navy was only just capable of retaking the Falklands. I have a list of the appalling casualties that we suffered and the number of our ships that were sunk. We just managed it.
Since 1997, our armed forces have been cut by 12% and 24,000 people have been made unemployed. Since 1975, the number of cruisers, destroyers and frigates has been cut by a staggering two thirds. The fleet of minesweepers, which, along with the Americans, will be vital in keeping oil flowing through the strait of Hormuz if Iran makes any moves there, has been cut from 40 vessels in 1975 to 15 today. Those are worrying figures.
We are constantly told that we need larger ships and that we do not need so many. I am not suggesting that we can make direct comparisons with the past or that we should look back to the Royal Navy of 1809, which had a fighting strength of 773 vessels. I remember standing on the deck of a vast American aircraft carrier when I was a member of the Defence Committee and the captain saying, “The ocean is a very large place and I can hide my aircraft carrier.” However, we are faced with enormous problems of piracy and one cannot solve the problems of maritime protection by having just 19 major vessels in the Royal Navy.
Let us consider the threats that we face. I am not saying that they will necessarily come to anything, but they are there and they are real. Let us compare our strength with that of Argentina. We have seven destroyers and it has five. That is not an overwhelming predominance for the Royal Navy. We have a similar number of aircraft carriers, namely none.
The importance of aircraft carriers, with their carrier-borne air defence for the fleet and carrier-borne strike capacity, is that one is able to operate away from the home nation. If we fought another Falklands war, it would be all too close to Argentina’s home bases and thousands of miles from ours.
That is precisely the point that I was going to make next. If there were a war with Iran or Argentina, we would not be fighting it in the channel. In the case of Argentina, we would be fighting it thousands of miles from any shore-based defence systems. I therefore do not believe that the figures alone give an accurate basis from which we can draw comfort.
It is important to get this matter right in the context of the Falklands, given the activity in Buenos Aires. I accept entirely my hon. Friend’s point about the number of platforms. However, does he accept that the capability of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force is immense compared with that of Argentina? In many respects, our potential ability to project force is much greater than it was in 1982 for that reason.
I accept some of what my hon. Friend says. However, I pray in aid the recent United Kingdom National Defence Association report, “Inconvenient Truths”, which was written by former defence chiefs. It said:
“Our assessment is that current force levels are inadequate to hold off even a small-size invasion”.
Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward wrote in the Daily Mail:
“The truth is we couldn't defend anything further than the other side of the Channel”.
Air Commodore Andrew Lambert was quoted in The Guardian as saying that the
“British public is not aware how thin the ice is…or how bad things could get” and that the Falkland Islands are
“ripe for the picking.”
I am not saying that I want this to happen or that it will happen, but I am afraid that we in this House must occasionally sound warnings—that is our duty.
My hon. Friend raises concerns that are widespread around the country, particularly in the light of the sabre-rattling by Argentina. However, all the advice that we have received says that the Argentines have neither the capability nor the intention to repeat the folly of 1982 and that the military deterrent we have in place is fully up to the task. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that, in this 30th anniversary year, all of us, as Ministers, are much seized of the matter.
I am grateful to the Minister. We pay tribute to him and to his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence for the sterling work that they do and the way in which they have defended the defence budget.
The Secretary of State said that part of our strategic defence is to have a balanced budget. We all understand that. However, he is using precisely the arguments that were used time and again in the 1930s when people warned of our military weakness and successive Chancellors of the Exchequer argued that we were well defended, rubbished the figures that were being given to them about our military weakness, and said that the most important thing was that the country had a balanced budget.
We do not blame our right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers and the Department of State for this. We know that they are fighting their corner; the previous Secretary of State put up a tremendous fight. However, there must be some rebalancing. As my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot said, we are now spending more on winter fuel allowance than on the entire Foreign Office budget. We must have a reordering of strategic defence capabilities, because there is nothing more important than defence. In 1980, the Army had 160,000 soldiers. That number is set to fall to 100,000, and the Government have announced that they want the total strength of the Army to go down to 84,000 by 2020. The Army will have been cut by 12% since 1997. Air Force personnel are being cut from 90,000 to 40,000. Those figures are deeply worrying.
The previous Government said that 25,000 soldiers, 8,000 sailors and 17,000 airmen were surplus to requirements precisely at the moment when we were fighting two major wars. Sir Richard Dannatt, the former head of the Army, has said that we are facing a situation whereby the Army is massively overstretched and many soldiers are having only one year between operations, with much of that time spent away from home. We must appreciate that we live in an increasingly dangerous world. We must, as a House, be prepared to make tough and difficult decisions and be determined to reorder our priorities and say that our defence forces are essential for all our futures.
“From midnight to dawn, I lay on my bed, consumed by emotions of sorrow and fear. There seemed one strong young figure standing up against long, dismal, drawling tides of drift and surrender, of wrong measurements and feeble impulses. Now he was gone. I watched the daylight slowly creep in through the windows and saw before me in mental gaze the vision of Death.”
I am not quite sure how to follow that quotation, so I shall confine myself to saying how moving remarks those were.
I have to confess that I had not intended to speak today, but Members will understand why, in the circumstances, I thought I should stress the importance that my party continues to attach to retaining and renewing the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent.
I say at the outset that the nuclear deterrent should primarily and ultimately be a matter of national and global security, not of employment. If we could genuinely be confident that the UK unilaterally disarming would make the world safer for future generations of UK citizens, and would make the almost unimaginable horror and destruction of nuclear war less likely, that should of course come ahead even of the thousands of jobs that renewing the deterrent would support in my constituency and the many thousands more that it would support across the country in the supply chain. However, my simple point is that unilaterally disarming would do no such thing.
If we were to take the view that deciding now not to renew would make the UK safer, we would have to be able to make decisions about the world as we thought it would look in 30 or 40 years’ time. We would also have to believe that the unilateral gesture would pave the way for a change in behaviour by other regimes. On the latter point, disarming would show a fundamental misunderstanding of the motivation of other regimes and groups that seek, or may in the future seek, nuclear capability. They do that to increase their capacity for aggression, not primarily because they fear the UK’s independent deterrent. On the former point, the pace of change has been so great in the past decade that we simply cannot possibly say with confidence that a deterrent will not be needed decades hence.
My hon. Friend is demonstrating that he is probably the most knowledgeable Member on the issue of the deterrent. [Interruption.] I can see that Dr Lewis will get me afterwards.
Has my hon. Friend made any assessment of the Liberal Democrats’ current review of the deterrent and what the pitfalls might be?
That is a very important point with which I shall deal at some length in a moment. Suffice it to say for the moment that it is not simply the Liberal Democrats’ review; it is the Government’s review. They have commissioned it. The Conservative Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Peter Luff, looks like he is in two minds about it, but his own party’s former Defence Secretary sanctioned and announced it. Dr Fox, was clearly not booted out because of that particular misdemeanour.
We have to ask whether it is right for the UK to maintain its independent deterrent. It strikes me as strange that it is often the very people who rail against the hegemony of the United States of America in world affairs who are prepared to sit quietly under its nuclear umbrella and suggest that the UK should not take responsibility for its own defence. I do not include my right hon. Friend Mr Brown in that comment. I am glad to see him back in his place for my speech—I think.
We should redouble our efforts to tackle the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I am proud that the previous Labour Government were explicit in setting the ultimate target of zero nuclear weapons—of a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons—but we should not accept the argument that renewal is an act of proliferation. It is not. In fact, non-renewal would be an act of unilateral disarmament. It is right that our party has left those days behind.
Given the magnitude of destruction that the use of nuclear weapons would inflict, nuclear weapons are rightly an uncomfortable issue for all hon. Members and the country, but they are a deterrent. Our holding of nuclear capability is designed to make a nuclear war less not more likely. So far, that has been successful.
To slightly corrupt the saying, if we wish to avoid war, we should prepare for it and have the means to stop it. I fully support what the hon. Gentleman says about deterrence.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right—he put it far more succinctly than I did and I am grateful to him for doing so.
I want to stress in the concluding part of my speech that the current Administration are creating a level of risk around the deterrent. That should be a matter of concern to Members on both sides of the House. As an aside, I hope the Minister who winds up could address the matter that was raised this week—
Oh, there are no wind-ups. Perhaps the Minister could find time to intervene in the short time remaining to make something clear. There are significant cuts to the MOD police. Do they mean that there are plans to reduce the MOD police presence at Faslane or Coulport? Would the Minister like to intervene?
On the risk that has been created around renewal, the alternatives to Trident review, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East referred, will be led by the Minister for the Armed Forces—it is a shame he cannot be here for the debate. Essentially, the review uses Government resources actively to explore the idea of adapting Astute class submarines for nuclear capability that falls far short of being a deterrent. That could be a cause of increased proliferation and could increase the risk of confusion. If a cruise missile is launched from a submarine at a point of war and the aggressor nation does not know whether it is nuclear or conventionally tipped, the prospects of escalation and horrible consequences increase. The Government have put that in train and we await the review.
In conclusion, the delay in the proposed in-service date of the successor to the deterrent is—it must be stressed—driven not by national security or primarily industrial concerns, but by a political fudge to delay the vote until the next Parliament. That creates increased costs for taxpayers because the overall cost of renewing our deterrent will increase. In addition, it risks stretching the life of the current Vanguard class submarine to the limit of safe operation. Pressure on the delivery timetable of the successor has been increased by putting political deals above the national interest.
If I may be forgiven, I shall not dwell on the welcome recommitment made by John Woodcock to the independent nuclear deterrent, which my hon. Friend Dr Lewis will have very much welcomed, if not Mr Brown—who, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear, none the less looked perfectly benign during his speech. Rather, I would like to focus on more general topics.
I was very struck, and impressed, by the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. He has been dealt an extraordinarily difficult hand, in the sense that he came into government, discovered a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget and was then required by our right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make defence’s contribution towards balancing the books. However, the purpose of today’s debate is not to consider the great national issues of balancing the books and dealing with the deficit left to us by the previous Government. That is a matter for other times and other people, in a higher position than mine. Rather, our position in this debate ought to be that which was exemplified by my hon. Friend Mr Leigh: to consider whether what we are currently doing is the right thing for the defence of the realm. If it is not, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister and others at a higher pay grade than me will have to explain why they are doing the wrong thing for the defence of the realm. However, we in this debate should cast to one side economic constraints—I hope that I am not being naive or difficult in doing that—and instead focus on what we should be doing for the defence of the realm.
I had the good fortune of being asked to serve on our policy review group before the last election. I was the MP on the group, which was chaired by the noble Baroness Neville-Jones and produced this weighty document, “An Unquiet World: Submission to the Shadow Cabinet”, on which our manifesto was subsequently based. She says on page 8:
“Capability…needs to be reassessed. An incoming Conservative government should conduct a Defence Review not with the aim of inflicting further cuts, but of ensuring that our armed forces have been asked to do the right job, are properly equipped and trained and are employed on the right terms and conditions.”
Elsewhere in the report she says:
“Defence Reviews tend to strike dread into the hearts of those involved or affected,” because of the likelihood of cuts, although this is
“not a necessary outcome and not one this Policy Group would wish to see.”
In other words, the policy group on which I served, and which informed the manifesto of my party, took the view that there should be a defence review, but that it should not necessarily involve defence cuts.
The reality, of course, is what we have seen since, which the Secretary of State laid out plainly in his speech. Indeed, it rather reminded me of a speech by a chairman of a multinational company explaining to shareholders that things were not all that great and that he would have to make some cuts to the company, but that he very much hoped that dividends would once again start to be paid in the years to come. It was an accountant’s speech, rather than a defence speech. I do not blame him for that: that is his job. None the less, I have the great luxury of being a Back Bencher and being the chairman of the all-party group on the armed forces. I therefore feel it right to speak up for the armed forces, even if that were to upset those on my own Front Bench, which is not something that I would ever seek to do, as I know my hon. Friend the Minister would agree.
The first thing to say is that the only certainty in the defence world is uncertainty. We never know what is going to happen next. Who would have predicted the Falklands? Who would have predicted Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait? Who would have predicted 9/11 or 7/7? Who would have thought that we would simultaneously be fighting two wars, as we were recently in Afghanistan and Iraq? Who would have predicted Libya, Kosovo, the Balkans or Sierra Leone? None of them was even remotely predictable—nor, of course, was the second world war or the first world war, which was sparked off by the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Unpredictability is the absolutely highest certainty in defence.
Against that background of uncertainty, let us think about what we are facing today. Who knows what Iran will do? We could see further activity from the Iranians within weeks—there is a threat to block the straits of Hormuz. Israel is threatening pre-emptive—nuclear, potentially—action against them. The whole Palestinian question remains unanswered, and Syria is in turmoil. We have no idea what is going to happen in Egypt, despite the lifting of the state of emergency, and Pakistan is on the brink of collapse. We do not really know what is going on in Libya; there is certainly a bit of a vacuum there. The situation in Afghanistan is uncertain, and Iraq is close to meltdown. We are living in an incredibly dangerous and uncertain world, and we should be preparing our defences for that uncertainty.
So what are we actually doing? Hugh Bayley was right to say that Labour Governments tend to spend more on defence than Conservative ones; that is historically accurate. I very much regret to say that my great party is announcing an Army that will be the smallest since the Crimean war. Some define an army as a body of 100,000 soldiers. It is therefore arguable, depending on how one uses the word, that in the near future, Great Britain will no longer have an army; it will have only a defence force. As a Back Bencher who does not labour under the great considerations of state, I am able to say to the House that that would be a disgraceful situation, given the uncertainty that we are facing. The Royal Air Force is being cut in half; the Navy is being emasculated. It is my view that this country no longer has the capability to do the things that we have always done.
Why should that be the case? I want to quote a previous Prime Minister, who shall remain nameless. He said to me, “I went to see the teachers, and they told me to get lost. I went to see the doctors and nurses, and they told me to get lost. Then I went to see the generals. They saluted, turned to the right and marched off, saying, ‘Whatever you say, Prime Minister. I will happily carry that out.’” That is precisely what is happening now. Whatever task is put before our armed forces, they will find a way to do it—they are a can-do organisation—but should we be asking them to do it?
In the 15 years that I have been in this place, we have talked, in these dusty Thursday afternoon debates, about overstretch and about the fact that the armed forces were unable to carry out their duties. We blamed the Labour Government for all that, but I now find myself speaking from the Government Back Benches and making precisely the same arguments as those I have made over the past 15 years. I do not believe, given the cuts that we are now facing, that we will be able to carry out our moral duty to lead the world and to intervene for good around the world. We are hampering ourselves in that regard.
For that reason, I believe that defence spending and budgets should be separate from those of schools and hospitals and from other parts of the national budget. We have a moral duty to do certain things in the world, and we should not allow our economic situation to prevent us from doing them. I regret to have to say that I am at odds with my own party on this great subject. We should find a way to maintain our defence spending at a level at which we, as a nation, can punch above our weight.
It is an absolute pleasure to take part in the debate, and I commend our Select Committee Chairman, Mr Arbuthnot, for his work on securing it. It is also an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Wiltshire
(Mr Gray). I found myself agreeing with pretty much everything that he said, although I would suggest that many people did see the second world war coming. That was his only example that perhaps fell down slightly.
What I find amazing about the Defence Committee’s work is not only the bipartisanship under which it operates under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire but the breadth of knowledge of its members. We have seen that illustrated again today in the contributions from the right hon. Gentleman, from my hon. Friend Mrs Moon and from others. We produced a report following our forensic investigation into the strategic defence and security review, and our conclusions were clear and damning. We concluded that the SDSR was a Treasury-driven budget settlement that would have dreadful consequences for the defence of the realm; it would be dreadful for the morale of service personnel, and for UK manufacturing.
The decision on carrier strike capability was rushed and bizarre. On the question of the air frame, it is perfectly reasonable for the Government to consider whether the F35-B was the correct choice in the context of Future Force 2020. After all, the United States had placed the B variant on probation, and there were technical concerns about the lift. My understanding is that, at that time, only the United Kingdom and the United States had signed up to take an order. It is also valid to argue that we should consider the question of interoperability with our allies, as well as the value for money of the air frame to be chosen. Those are all reasonable elements that a sensible Government should examine.
Unfortunately, the Government did not bother to take the time to understand the consequences of the decision to switch variants. For example, the F-35C cannot land on the French carrier, thus defeating the argument of interoperability, particularly given the Anglo-French alliance. The cost of the F-35—B and C—is still not known, and that is a concern shared by the Defence Committee and our counterparts in the United States Congress, the Pentagon, the Canadians, the Australians and every other country that is purchasing either the F-35B or C.
Lastly, many of us do not have confidence that, most crucially, the F-35C will be able to land on the Queen Elizabeth class carrier. It would be a good idea if it were able to come down safely to our own carrier, although perhaps I am a bit of a traditionalist.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Admiral Sir Trevor Soar, Commander-in-Chief, Fleet, said in a speech to industrialists in the US that, due to the US defence cuts, the chance of us being able to buy the joint strike fighter are reducing, as it will not be delivered on time? As alternatives, we will have to look at the F-18 from the Americans and the Rafale from the French.
My hon. Friend is right. The Times paints a disturbing picture today. We on the Defence Committee and the wider defence community have for some time had serious concerns about the capability of Lockheed Martin to fulfil the aspirations set out. When the Minister appeared before the Defence Committee, it was disturbing that he adopted a relatively blasé approach to the problem, in direct contradiction to the postures of Secretary Gates, who has already been name-checked, and Secretary Panetta, who have been turning the screws on Lockheed Martin. As the decision has been rushed, we might have to go back and reverse it, and go to the F-35B, which would be not only embarrassing but a vast waste of money. We have only two other options: as my hon. Friend says, the F-18 Super Hornet, a proven air frame, of which the Australians have just ordered additional quantities, and for which Secretary Panetta has announced an additional order, or the French variant, which, to be fair, would at least solve the Charles de Gaulle issue.
On the carriers themselves, it is no secret that I have absolute scorn for the decision that was taken to take the Invincible class out of service. In fact, despite the claim of a minority on the Government Benches that the Libyan operation justifies the decision, the reverse is true, as it demonstrates absolutely the need for carrier capability throughout the decade.
The Minister shakes his head. Perhaps it would help him if I were to quote the commander of the Italian navy, Rear Admiral Treu, who said:
“Libya is really showing that these aircraft” the Harrier—
“and their carrier are needed. They are five minutes from the operational zone, which reduces fuel consumption and wear and tear. With less reliance on in-flight refuelling, it is easier to do dynamic tasking and shift operation, and they cost less to operate than Tornados and Eurofighters”.
I have the greatest respect for the Minister and I know he cares passionately about the future of aviation. He has been a strong voice in the Government—dare I say, one of the few strong voices for the defence industry in the Government—but what does he know that our First Sea Lord, our commanders in the field and our allies do not?
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind tribute, although I am not sure whether it will be career enhancing. Nevertheless I will take it in the spirit in which it was given. Of course carriers would have been advantageous, but they were not necessary in the circumstances of Libya. The Government are going ahead with the Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales carriers precisely because we understand the need for carrier strike. We had endless debates about that in the SDSR and we came to that conclusion, which is the right one in my view. In Libya, however, we did not need carriers; HMS Ocean did a great job for the Army Air Corps Apaches.
I am most grateful to the Minister. He is obviously very clever, because he has led me straight on to my next point, which is about the replacement for the Invincible class, the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier. He perhaps forgot to mention that, even some time after 2020, when we eventually get a functioning aircraft carrier, it will only be part-time. We will only be able to operate it for perhaps 150 days of the year, so we must be really hopeful that those who seek to attack us only do it on the five or six months a year when we are able to respond. It reminds me of Asterix the Gaul and the scene where he comes to Britain and the British have gone home at 5 o’clock to have their tea. That is pretty much the kind of part-time navy that we will have if the Minister gets his way.
I was hoping to resist the temptation to intervene, but I want to back up my hon. Friend the Minister and put in perspective the hon. Gentleman’s argument. He is trying to get into the tactics of how a battle is operated. What does he want to fly off these aircraft carriers? I am afraid his Government got rid of the Sea Harriers, so he would not be able to use the Storm Shadow, the Brimstone or any of the guns, because the Harriers did not exist—[ Interruption. ]
I am going to continue with my speech, because it is my time that I am sacrificing. The hon. Gentleman tries to make it a false choice, as he always does, but he was at the heart of the decision making. Let us not forget that he was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the former Secretary of State. It was his bright idea, I suspect, to get rid of the carrier, because the other Ministers are all far too clever to do that.
The choice between Typhoon, Tornado and Harrier is a false one. I have never accepted and the Defence Committee has never accepted the false choice made by the current Government, following the Treasury-driven cuts. We will see price gouging and there will be a significant rise in the cost of the Queen Elizabeth class carrier, not because of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance—I have some fantastic workers in my constituency, whom the Ministers and others have been to see, and they are delivering in Plymouth, in the north-east, on the Clyde and over at Birkenhead—but because of the rushed decision. We will have to buy cats and traps off-the-shelf from the Americans at a price-gouged cost of up to £2 billion because due diligence was not done on whether it would work. The prices are going up because of the short-term decisions. We have no idea how we will refuel the aircraft because of the decision to switch from the short take off, vertical landing—or STOVL—variant to carriers and that will also involve significant costs.
In the last minute of my time, I want briefly to talk about Scotland. The Scottish National party is not here today because its Members have gone into hiding. The SNP defence policy unravelled last week within hours of its being unveiled. Sheer anger was felt by communities around Scotland at the betrayal by that party, which, after years of claiming that Scotland did not receive what it called its fair share of spending, has admitted that it would spend even less on defence. After campaigning, as the SNP claimed, to save RAF Leuchars, it has announced that it would close RAF Leuchars and RAF Kinloss. In a separate Scotland, there would be no Rosyth dockyard and no Clyde shipbuilding. Companies would be pulling out of Scotland. There are also serious concerns for the rest of the United Kingdom. How would we deliver the deterrent? How would we secure the high north? How would the military be put together?
I hope that one of the Committees of the House will find an opportunity in the months ahead to scrutinise those very important issues.
I declare my interest as a member of the reserve forces.
I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on introducing this important debate and my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot and his Committee on their timely report, published this week. I read it with great interest and if I have any criticism of it I would have to start with the fact that it perhaps does not sufficiently recognise two rigorous and well-regarded studies, the Levene report and Bernard Gray’s report, which set the scene for many of the points that it raises. In May 2010, of course, the coalition Government inherited the extremely difficult task of bringing some order to a chaotic defence budget.
The Gray report was leaked to the electorate before the general election, so voters such as those in my constituency, which has a large defence interest, had the benefit of seeing it, as did I. The previous Government might well have tried to delay the publication of the report because the word “grotesque” reflected some of the real horrors in Defence Equipment and Support that were unearthed in the dying days of Labour’s 13-year stewardship. Bernard Gray told us that the MOD was running a “substantially overheated equipment programme” and that the sclerotic Department was hampering our ability to conduct difficult current operations. He went on to say:
“The problems, and the sums of money involved, have almost lost their power to shock, so endemic is the issue.”
The hon. Gentleman will also remember that Bernard Gray was a special adviser to his party. In that context it is quite important to note that the report was produced by a supporter not of the Conservative party but of his party.
The gap between the programme and the budget in May 2010 was a truly grotesque £38 billion. Also grotesque is the disarray over how to deal with the crisis among those who masterminded it. We heard examples of that today from the shadow Defence Secretary. He says he supports only £5 billion of Government cuts, but the shadow Chancellor says that the Labour party would keep all the remedial spending reductions that the Government are making. The figure of £5 billion is interesting because the shadow Defence Secretary also said today that it would be invidious in advance of a general election to try to work out what the requirement would be in personnel and equipment. It is therefore difficult to work out how he came up with the £5 billion figure, even assuming it is correct. The isolation of the Opposition is increasingly apparent as even the United States reins in its defence spending to deal not with an incoherent defence budget but with a crippling federal budget deficit.
Well, the rate will decline—of course it will.
We gained some insight into how the disconnect between programmes and the ability to pay for them arose last summer when Lord Levene delivered his verdict on the MOD. His revelations dovetailed disquietingly well with Gray’s. He found a “bloated top-level defence board” supervising a
“department with overly bureaucratic management structures, dominated by committees leading to indecisiveness and a lack of responsibility.”
Last year, the armed forces covenant was written into law for the first time, as the Prime Minister said it would be. The covenant is not just about the compact between troops and the public. It also concerns the deal between troops and the high command. Those in charge betray the covenant if they allow the kind of shoddy, top-level management evidenced by both Gray and Levene. However, we still have nearly 500 one-star officers and above—a whole battalion of senior officers on packages well in excess of £100,000. Defence Medical Services is a good case in point. To oversee the care of a patient population less than half the size of Wiltshire we require one three-star, five two-star and 15 one-star officers who serve not as doctors, dentists or nurses but as administrators. Our top medic in Afghanistan is not among them—he is just a colonel. I commend the Government for the remedial measures announced before Christmas to reduce the number of starred appointments, both uniformed and civilian.
More generally, I note that although there here have been and will continue to be compulsory redundancies, the package is so reasonable that there has been disappointment among many of those not selected, as there was during previous rounds. From experience, I bear testament to that.
It is of course reasonable to flex personnel from one trade to another—a contention, I think, of paragraphs 67 to 70 of this week’s Defence Committee report—but the majority of pinch-point trades are so specific by rank or extent of retraining necessary that it would actually be quite difficult to do so. Flexible though our young people are, we simply cannot ask an infantryman to become an Intelligence Corps linguist, a pharmacist at the rank of captain or a Cat. A nuclear watchkeeper.
In our collective defence, NATO remains paramount. However, I share widespread concern that we are moving towards a two-tier alliance, with some players benefiting from the cover but not paying the premium. At next week’s meeting of Defence Ministers in Brussels, will the Defence Secretary continue to press our allies to meet their proper financial responsibilities? Present at the meeting will be those who press for an increasing EU defence identity as part of the security and defence policy. Naturally, that has nothing to do with defence, which only the UK and France come close to funding properly.
The latest turn of the screw comes from a European Parliament resolution of
SAFE is a beguiling but deeply ironic acronym. Under SAFE, alarmingly, British servicemen would owe allegiance to the supranational European Union. One of its cheerleaders, the German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, told the Munich security conference in February 2010:
“The long-term goal is the establishment of a European army under full parliamentary control.”
Of course, that has nothing to do with improving our collective security; instead, it draws from a hubristic, maladroit pan-European political project that has brought us to the brink of economic catastrophe. The immediate concern about SAFE is that it would quite deliberately remove the capability of the two European nation states still able to act independently to project force worldwide on their own, or with partners of their choosing, in pursuit of the national interest.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is somewhat ironic that those calling for a European army and united European defence are the very people who refuse to pay up for it in their own country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It may not be by chance that the Germans are chief among those who wish to shelter under a European defence force, because Germany, of all our allies and friends, is the country one can most easily identify as a major economy that does not pay its way in terms of our collective security, which it so obviously enjoys. When the Minister is in Brussels, I very much hope that he will do everything he can to put pressure on the Germans in particular to make a fuller contribution to our collective defence; but it has to be through NATO, not through the European Union. The lesson of the past few years and the difficulty with the European Union in respect of our economic position—the greatest existential threat the UK faces at the moment—is that we cannot rely on Europe for our security. Our cornerstone has always been NATO and it will continue to be.
I thank the Minister. Recent activity in the south Atlantic has shown us that the threat from a Government playing to a national gallery has to be addressed.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have informed the office of Bob Blackman that I intend to raise this point of order. This morning at business questions, the hon. Gentleman told the House that Ken Livingstone intends to overturn the ban on drinking alcohol on public transport in London. That is simply untrue; Ken Livingstone will not overturn the ban on drinking alcohol on public transport. I wonder, Mr Deputy Speaker, whether you have had any indication whatsoever that the hon. Member for Harrow East intends to come to the Chamber to correct the record.
I thank the hon. Lady for notice of her point of order, and for contacting the Member’s office. Right hon. and hon. Members are responsible for their own comments but should make every effort to ensure that they are accurate, and I am absolutely certain that the attentive Whip on the Treasury Bench will bring the point of order to the Member’s attention.
The greatest damage to our nation over the past 10 years has not been done by the enemy: it has been done by ourselves. And it has not been done, contrary to what we often believe, by what we have not done. It is not the result of the money we failed to raise, the equipment we failed to purchase or the actions we failed to take. The damage that we have inflicted on ourselves comes from our decisions to get involved in theatres such as Iraq, and Helmand in Afghanistan.
The gap, the fundamental problem, with the SDSR—it was true of John Nott’s review in 1982 and Lord Robertson’s review in 1998 and it is true of our review today—is a gap of strategy. It is a gap of thought. We are spending over £30 billion a year on a military without developing the policy and strategic capability to decide where we are prepared to be involved, and what, fundamentally, our national interests should be. Our national interest is dependent, above all, on two things: an understanding of what our priorities are and how to match our resources to those priorities, and an understanding of our limits—what we cannot do.
What is striking about Lord Robertson’s report is that there he is, in 1998, making confident statements about Britain’s future and the risks it faces—confident statements about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism—but the proof of the pudding was in the eating. We then launched ourselves into Iraq and Helmand, and in doing so took on issues that did not match our national interest.
What is the solution to that problem? The solution, first, is to understand that our model of policy making is at fault. The military, rightly, have a very traditional view of policy making. They imagine that politicians define the national interest, the Foreign Office creates the policy framework and the generals advise and then implement the policy—perhaps giving operational advice on how to implement that strategy. The reality is, of course, quite different. The world has changed. We need to recognise that; the military need to recognise that; the SDSR needs recognise that. The reality is that although in constitutional theory it is the politicians who make the decision and the Foreign Office that provides the policy framework, in practice the strength, the authority and the charisma of the senior military is higher today than it has been at any time in British or American history.
To see that, one needs to look only at the experience of President Obama dealing with General McChrystal in 2009. What, in effect, happened is that McChrystal issued a report in 2009, saying he needs 40,000 more troops. The President of the United States attempted to respond. He went into a nine-week consultation process, at the end of which, entirely predictably, he could do only exactly what his General requested, but a little bit less—give him 35,000 instead of 40,000. And yet the assessment was disastrous. In the small print, General McChrystal says, “I need 40,000 troops but my strategy will never work unless the Afghan Government sort their act out. And by the way, I, General McChrystal, am not responsible for sorting out the Afghan Government; that will be done by somebody else. It will be done by the State Department. It will be done by USAID.” Yet nobody appears to be able in the system to challenge him. Why not? Although theoretically the politicians have the decisive ability and the policy is owned by someone else, nobody is going to face down a man with a row of medals on his chest who has served six years on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and who says, “This is what I need.” No Democrat President and, I would suggest, no politician in Britain today would have the authority and confidence to disagree with such a man.
What is the solution to that problem? It is that we spend more money and invest far more in a policy capacity whose primary function is to keep us out of wars—to make it more difficult for us to engage in disastrous and costly adventures of the sort we have seen in the past decade. That means, above all, investing in the Foreign Office, which needs to remember that its function is fundamentally policy and politics. It is about understanding exactly what is happening in a particular country, so that if a Prime Minister were to suggest, for example, that he wished to invade Iraq, we would not have the situation we had last time in which not a single senior serving diplomat in the Foreign Office in London disagreed in any way with the Prime Minister’s statement. That happened because we did not know anything; we had not invested in knowing anything. We did not have diplomats on the ground and our intelligence assets were very limited.
The military imagine, quite rightly, that they exist in a context in which other people will disagree with them. They feel embattled and that they have to challenge civilians—that they have to thump the table and demand things. They assume that somehow Prime Ministers or diplomats will push back against them, but that push-back does not happen. We could help not only by having more political focus and more diplomats and embassies focused precisely on these issues, but by insisting that every batch of young diplomats has at least one or two members of the foreign service who are posted to the military for one or two years at the beginning of their careers, not posted to staff college at the age of 40. They should be sent on the equivalent of a gap-year commission or national service, so that we begin to redevelop what we had instinctively in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, which is civilians who understand both the strengths and the weaknesses of the military.
The military in the meantime need to understand that that context does not yet exist and that they cannot expect the Foreign Office to have the confidence or the resources to push back against them. General McChrystal, to return to the less controversial ground of the United States, should be producing reports saying not, “I need 40,000 troops to win,” but, “Unless somebody sorts out the Afghan Government, and I see no evidence that anybody’s going to do that, there’s no point giving me 40,000 troops because I’m not going to be able to win.”
In other words, in the absence of a real civilian check, the military are going to have to provide that check themselves.
Why is that relevant to the strategic defence review? Without that form of analysis and intelligence and policy work, we will not have a definition of our national interest. Without a definition of our national interest, we cannot have a strategy. Without a strategy, there is no point having a strategic defence review.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, to whom I listened with great interest because he has such vast experience in these matters.
Before I had the honour to be elected to this House, I was involved with others in setting up a business in Sierra Leone. We were able to do that only because the British Army had been involved in bringing stability and peace to that country, and I give credit to those in the previous Government who made the decision to get involved, and to all those who took part in the operation. It is clear that the conditions prevailing in Sierra Leone today were made possible only by British action.
In setting up a business in that country, it was great to be able to offer jobs to former child soldiers, who could then, instead of terrorising their neighbourhoods, earn a living. Is not one of the great benefits that the British armed forces are able to bring, as a result of the intervention in Sierra Leone, that experience of training that enables a country to live at peace, and enables people who were involved in murder to start to earn a living and look after their families?
I want to concentrate my remarks on the connection of our armed forces with their local communities—with the towns, cities and counties in which they are based. Despite the major changes that the SDSR has brought about, and will continue to bring about, these connections must be maintained and strengthened. Never was that brought home to me more clearly than in two recent homecoming parades through my town of Stafford by the Queen’s Royal Lancers and the 3rd Mercians, the Staffords, on their return from their tours of Afghanistan in the last 12 months or so. Both those regiments have strong connections with Staffordshire, and many people from the county and the city of Stoke-on-Trent serve in them. They paraded through many other towns in the area—I see my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant nodding in agreement. The people of Stafford turned out in great numbers for those parades, and showed just how much they respect the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our armed forces.
There are many ways to strengthen the bonds with communities, and I want to touch on just three. The first is to integrate local bases more into the community—while respecting, of course, security considerations. In Stafford, we are fortunate to be the home of 22 Signal Regiment and part of the tactical supply wing of the Royal Air Force, and we eagerly anticipate the coming of two more signal regiments from Germany from 2015. The people of Stafford recognise the great benefits that that will bring to our town: first, the coming of more servicemen and women and their families, who will receive a very warm welcome; secondly, the expansion of schools to meet the needs of their children; and thirdly, the prospect that those skilled men and women will wish to stay in the area when they retire from the armed forces and contribute to our emerging ICT industry and others. There are other opportunities for joint working too: shared sports facilities, advanced skills training, housing and health. We must never forget that the prime duty of our armed forces is the security of the United Kingdom, but no small part of the stability of the UK is the fact that our armed forces are seen as part of the communities that they serve.
Secondly, there is the role of our reserve forces, and I pay tribute to the number of right hon. and hon. Members of this House who serve, many of whom are here today. I also pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot and his team for the vital work that they have done in the Future Reserves 2020 study. He deserves great credit for that.
The increase in the proportion of our reserve strength to 30% of the total is a significant change, but as the review recognises, it will simply not be possible without both modernisation and funding. That is why I welcome the Government’s commitment to better integration with the regular force and increased funding, which I had understood was £1.5 billion, but I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State mention a figure of £1.8 billion in his speech.
Does my hon. Friend agree that not only are our reserve forces head to head cheaper than members of the regular armed forces, which is important in the current environment, but also that other countries have far more reserves as a proportion of their total defence capacity?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as always. I believe that in the United States it is at least 30%, if not 35%, yet here it is less than 20%, so we are well under the average, even compared with fine armed forces such as those of our NATO allies in the United States and elsewhere.
But as the review points out, we must use the specialist skills that our reserve forces have. In the proposed rationalisation of the defence estate, we must ensure that we do not to lose the close connection between the reserves and the communities from which they come. The Government’s response to the review points out that connection as one of the benefits of increasing the size of the reserves. One way to do that is for the Ministry of Defence to work closely with local councils and councillors throughout the changes that are being made, so that they are kept fully informed.
Finally, I wish to say a few words about the cadets. I have been fortunate enough since my election to spend some time with the Army and RAF cadets in my constituency and my county. Last month I joined Robert Flello at the winter camp of the Staffordshire and West Midlands North Army Cadet Force at Swynnerton in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr Cash. What impressed me most was the commitment of the 500 or so adult volunteers, the full-time staff and the young people. It was a bitterly cold and icy weekend, but the full programme went ahead when other organisations might well have cancelled. When I spoke with the young people from Wolverhampton, Walsall, Stoke-on-Trent, Cannock—as I am sure the Minister knows—and Stafford, they said that the ACF gave them purpose and opportunities that they would not otherwise have considered or had the chance to take up.
We must never underestimate the value of the cadets. Last year they jointly celebrated their 150th anniversary, and their popularity is as great as it has ever been, with some 130,000 cadets in 3,200 units across the UK—no doubt in every constituency—and 25,000 adult volunteers giving up many hours of precious free time each week to help young people develop skills and make the most of their lives. I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to do everything possible to support the cadet forces. Their work is very much part of the big society, and shares the values of the national citizenship service by bringing together young people from all walks of life and all backgrounds.
Whether it is through the regular forces or the reserves, the bonds between our armed forces and the communities from which they come or in which they are based must not be underestimated. These bonds, along with the courage and commitment of our armed forces, are the cornerstones of the respect in which they are held. Our cadet forces have a different but equally valuable role: offering our young people opportunities to learn and work together that they would not otherwise have.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot on initiating the debate, and the Backbench Business Committee on choosing it as today’s topic. I was particularly pleased that my right hon. Friend started the debate by emphasising the unpredictability of future conflicts, a point re-emphasised in the strongest possible terms by my hon. Friend Mr Gray. Having listened to the Secretary of State for Defence today, I believe that what he is trying to do is create a balanced budget without sacrificing the aim of having the balanced forces that we need. That is a necessary approach, and we should resist the temptation to say that we ought to sacrifice particular capabilities forever, simply because we cannot conceive at this moment of going to war, or entering some lesser conflict, unless we are in coalition with allies.
I was impressed by some of the remarks made by Mrs Moon, who pointed out the gaps in capability resulting from the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4. In a later intervention she referred to the problems relating to the loss of fixed-wing aircraft carrier aircraft capability. If we acknowledge the certainty that we will be unable to predict the vast majority of cases in which we shall need to send our armed forces to war, and couple that with a restricted budget, which means that we will often have to choose either what is commonly and derogatorily called salami-slicing, or abandoning certain capabilities permanently, I believe that the salami-slicing approach, unpleasant though it is, is broadly the correct one—because we do not know when, where, against whom or how we will have to go to war. We cannot predict which of the vast range of military capabilities that we currently have we will need to use. Therefore, in straitened economic circumstances when we cannot afford to spend as much on defence as we would like to, and as indeed we feel in our hearts we ought to, we must nevertheless preserve what are called “nucleus” forces, which give us the potential when the need arises to expand on the capabilities that we have retained, even though at any given time those capabilities have seemed to be inadequate.
In that connection, if Ministers are working within an economic envelope—that is not the best terminology to use, but it has been used today so I shall continue with it—in times of peace, we can all understand that, but, whenever we end up in a serious armed conflict, those economic considerations are always relegated to second place, and Ministers simply have to put aside considerations of affordability in favour of the absolute necessity of taking the measures which that conflict situation requires them to take.
It is now just over 30 years since my hon. Friend Mr Leigh, a gentleman called Councillor Tony Kerpel, a former chief of staff to a former chairman of the Conservative party, and I set up a coalition. It was not quite the sort of coalition that we have today, which, as hon. Members may know, is so close to my heart; it was the Coalition for Peace Through Security, and its purpose was to fight for the changeover from Polaris to the first generation of Trident and for the deployment of cruise missiles in Britain so that eventually we would be able to negotiate a deal, which we did in 1987, to get rid of intermediate nuclear forces on both sides of the iron curtain in Europe.
I am therefore very happy to reassure Thomas Docherty, in his absence, that I do not feel at all proprietorial about the arguments in favour of the nuclear deterrent. I am absolutely delighted when people such as John Woodcock, who I know had not intended to speak today, rise to their feet and defend it with such vigour.
I was pleased, but I shall look very closely at Hansard tomorrow to see exactly what the shadow Secretary of State said when I asked him to clarify and confirm his party’s commitment to the renewal of Trident, and in particular to the successor generation of submarines. I invite my hon. Friend the Minister, given that the Secretary of State did not refer to it, to clarify our own position on that very subject.
Prompted by my hon. Friend, I am delighted to say, as he will know, that in the SDSR and in our Trident value-for-money review the Government committed to renewing the independent nuclear deterrent: submarine-based, continuously at sea, patrolling. That programme is being taken forward. Initial gate was in May last year, and I assure him that all the work is continuing and in progress. If I may, I also take this opportunity to salute my hon. Friend, my hon. Friend Mr Leigh, and Tony Kerpel on the then coalition, because I supported it at the time and am delighted to be in government supporting it now.
I thank the Minister for those very generous comments, but we are very short of time, so I am now going to truncate my remarks.
I shall say just a brief word about the masterly exposition by my hon. Friend Rory Stewart. He always grips the House with his expositions, but the trouble is that I do not always find that I can fully endorse their contents, even though I am fascinated by the elegance and fluency with which he advances them. I share his view, and always have, that the micro-management of the country of Afghanistan is a mistake on the part of the NATO powers—but, whatever happens in America, I find it a little difficult to recognise the idea of generals in this country being somewhat out of control, and pursuing a military agenda with the Foreign Office trailing in their wake. My only point, which I will be happy to discuss with my hon. Friend afterwards, is that when the archives about the decision to go into Helmand are opened, we will probably find that that decision was ultimately taken—and, I suspect, mainly driven—by politicians rather than by generals or diplomats. I may be wrong; history will have to decide.
It is always a great pleasure to follow my coalitionist hon. Friend Dr Lewis. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee on organising the debate. I also congratulate the Secretary of State, not only on taking his place today but on making a speech last December at the Royal United Services Institute about the importance of sustained armed forces. That was very powerful.
Rather counter-intuitively, I also congratulate the shadow Secretary of State on his rather temperate speech. Although he is not here, I advise him in all candour not to be too kind and friendly to the Government, because hungry hounds are snapping at his heels. As he admitted himself, it is unwise to incur the wrath of the shadow Chancellor.
I want to focus on one particular aspect of the strategic defence and security review. We have heard from colleagues across the House about the importance of the continuous at sea nuclear deterrent. We have also had a tour d’horizon of the 1930s, the foreign service and boots on the ground in Afghanistan. I hope that when Ministers go back to the MOD they will also reflect on the importance within the SDSR of energy security.
The SDSR and our energy supply are intimately connected. A decade ago Britain was self-sufficient in energy; in just eight, nine or 10 years’ time, 80% of our energy will be imported. The same thing is happening around the world. China, Malaysia and India have a massive appetite for energy. China consumes 12% of the world’s energy—a 25% increase in the past 10 years.
That means that scarce resources, which we tend to find in the most unstable and unreliable regions and regimes in the world, are becoming scarcer. Petro powers such as Russia recognise that; they are prepared to use their energy resources as the provisional wing of their diplomatic and military capability. Russia had an argument with the Ukraine a year or two ago, so Russia reduced the energy supply to that country. That meant that the energy supply to parts of Europe was reduced by a third. That situation has a significant impact on our strategic partners in Europe, and we should make sure that such considerations are factored into our SDSR.
Terrorists also recognise the importance of energy. Look at the strait of Hormuz: every day—today, tomorrow and for the rest of this year—14 supertankers carrying 17 million barrels of oil, which is 20% of the world’s daily supply and 35% of the ongoing seagoing supply, go through the strait. That is a massive tempting target for terrorists. I hope that the MOD recognises the importance of protecting those transport routes and diversifying oil supply so that those tempting targets do not dislocate the energy supply of the world. The fuel that goes through the strait of Hormuz goes largely to the east, to India and China—countries that are absolutely essential to the restitution of the economy of the world. It is important that that particular part of the world, and other choke points, are properly defended. That should be factored into our SDSR.
Lastly, let us think about refining capacity. As Albert Owen said during Energy questions today, outside Saudi Arabia there is precious little extra refining capacity. That presents another tempting target for terrorists. Osama bin Laden said that refineries represent the hinges on which the economy of the world hangs. I trust that the Minister will reflect on that and make sure that in our SDSR the protection of refineries and the development of extra refining capacity are on our agenda.
Yesterday, at the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend Charles Hendry said something that struck many Members powerfully. He said that the Government would not compromise on the protection of our energy security. I hope that Ministers in the Ministry of Defence will recognise the importance of what he said, and complement it. They must be sure that the structures that we built after the second world war and refined in the cold war to protect ourselves and our energy supply are still fit for purpose in the hot politics of the 21st century. As we have heard from colleagues from across the Chamber today, our strategic defence now has two competing and potentially conflicting demands: to deal with our old opponents such as Russia, and to deal with the new formless and stateless enemies such as al-Qaeda. I hope that when they consider the SDSR and energy policy, the Secretary of State and his team will ensure that our approaches to those two issues complement each other and are not in conflict.
This debate feels a little like déjà vu for me, because my maiden speech was about the future of the strategic defence and security review. I fully understand the budgetary constraints that the Ministry of Defence faces. Although I said in my maiden speech that we needed to control public expenditure, I also argued that we needed to ensure that there was enough money in the defence budget to deliver the requirements that we had.
I remind the House that if that does not happen, we could find ourselves in the same position as the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when it suddenly ran out of money and was unable to deliver the defence capability that it espoused.
As we heard in the last debate, 50% of our trade is with the EU. I remind hon. Members that the EU is not doing incredibly well at the moment as far as growth is concerned. I therefore think that we need to look to other countries, such as China, Russia and India, where there are potential markets. To do that, we have to ensure that we have decent trade routes and that they remain open.
As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, I am delighted to be able to speak up for the Royal Navy and 3 Commando Brigade, both of which are based in my constituency. I thank Ministers for committing the Government to ensuring that Plymouth remains a principal naval strategic port. That is very important.
Keeping our trade routes open is important for the import and export of goods and will be fundamental for growth. As an island nation, we are dependent on sea routes. It is incredibly important to have a strong Navy with good frigates and submarines, and aircraft carriers when they come forward. I pay tribute to the Royal Navy and 3 Commando Brigade in my constituency. They have worked incredibly hard to ensure that we have that security. We must only look at the piracy situation to see how well that is going.
Plymouth is a global centre for marine science, engineering and research. The Royal Navy is a key part of that. It is important that Plymouth maintains its global reputation for that. As many of my hon. Friends will know, this year we are commemorating the death of Captain Scott in the Antarctic, which took place 100 years ago. I am grateful that there has been a great deal of interest in that subject. We need to ensure that Plymouth remains the home of the Type 23 frigates and that when the decision is eventually is made, we have our fair share of the Type 26s when they become available.
We have heard suggestions that there may be problems north of the border up in Scotland. It would be helpful if the Minister spent a little time telling us what alternatives we would have should the Scottish Executive and the Scottish people seek independence. He can rest assured that should the Scots be in the process of thinking that they may not want the nuclear deterrent or nuclear submarines, we in Plymouth are ready to pick up the baton and would be happy to open negotiations to try to ensure that we have them.
I thank the Minister.
I was somewhat dismayed earlier this week when I heard the news about the Defence Committee’s report and found out how many people had left the military and the civil service. Somewhere along the line, we have to ensure that people who have served in the military and picked up good and worthwhile skills are able to use them in employment elsewhere. When my father, who served in the Navy as a professional sailor, having gone to Dartmouth at the age of 14, left as a signalman, he was able to go and get a job as head of outside broadcasting at Rediffusion Television. He was member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, and he did not have to take exams, or anything like that, in order to prove himself. In those days, it was possible to transfer and use such skills. If our military are to get the best jobs that they possibly can, they will need to use their training and backgrounds. If we are able to deliver on that and to make them feel valued because of the work that they have done, we will be in a much stronger position.
I am keen to ensure that we in Plymouth are in a position to look after the defence of our country so that when Drake’s drum eventually begins to beat—although I hope it never happens—we can answer the call.
The strategic defence and security review is having a significant long-term impact on the UK’s defence posture and on our ability to deter aggression and to shape the global strategic environment to reflect UK national interests, and yet we still aspire to a global role. The Government argue that they have established an adaptable posture for UK defences, but the loss of whole capabilities such as carrier strike and maritime reconnaissance, and the paring back of virtually everything else, will leave the UK able to mount only limited operations of limited scale. After Afghanistan, numbers in the British Army will be further cut to 87,000, or perhaps even 84,000. Even the brigade-plus we currently deploy in Helmand—a fighting force of just 1,500 men—will be impossible to sustain other than for short durations. Libya was a success, and that reflected luck and political daring on the part of our political leaders, as well as the extraordinary inventiveness and resilience of our armed forces personnel. However, that does not prove that the SDSR is a success.
The question is what should be done now. As the United States has just announced a new, leaner defence policy, leaving us in Europe more exposed, the world is not becoming safer. Clearly, without money, we must start thinking. I was grateful to hear my hon. Friend Rory Stewart extol the virtues of strategic thinking. To date, the fundamental failures at the Ministry of Defence have been intellectual, not technical, and changing the intellectual dimension does not need to cost a lot or require new institutions. The MOD needs to demonstrate new strategy and new operational concepts. There has been no real attempt yet to change what the MOD does. Trying to do the same as before on half the budget will fail. Less of the same will not work, because we no longer deploy critical mass. Nor can we solve the problem merely by doing things better.
We need a “Hammond review”, quietly to start to build capacity and to think about how to do things differently at low cost. That approach is alien to MOD culture and the defence industries, and it requires new people and new lead contractors. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should create a new, competent, imaginative, trustworthy team with real technical expertise—not consultants but dedicated people with collective responsibility, continuity and a real stake in seeing the problems solved. The civil service cannot do that in the traditional way, which underlines the weakness of putting it into a dominant position on the Defence Board, as my hon. Friend Mr Leigh pointed out.
The Chief of the Defence Staff should build the new team for the Secretary of State, but he would still need to monitor it closely. It needs external sources of ideas and expertise, and it must explore how the MOD can be enabled to adapt and evolve using its own resources so that it can generate and regenerate the forms of power that the UK, and indeed Europe, need in this rapidly changing world. That requires a recreation of the country’s competitive stance, just as the US’s competitive stance ensures its technological and industrial dominance. The Secretary of State should involve others from Whitehall and Parliament, from the City and commerce, and from other like-minded defence ministries and industries. We cannot rely wholly on analysis by US organisations such as RAND.
There are similar problems in our defence industry. How much industrial research and development capacity has been lost in the past 15 years? Does anybody know? With such a small budget, it no longer makes sense to have prime contractors. The more we use them, the less adaptable and the less able to reduce costs we will be. Reliance on them has proved no substitute for the MOD as an intelligent customer. The UK has always been good at small, and we should exploit that advantage by harnessing the networks of small businesses that are truly innovative and inventive but currently find it impossible to get their ideas into the MOD and the armed forces.
The new equipment programme must reflect what we need and can afford, which will depend on the capacity to generate what we need when it is needed. The MOD faces huge challenges, and the reconstitution and regeneration of the previously extant force is no longer an option. We have used up our force and cannot replace it. The only viable option is a new concept of responsiveness, and it is time to think bravely and boldly. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State put it in his recent speech to the Atlantic Council:
“Necessity drives innovation—and it breaks down barriers…With budgets so tight, Allies need to revisit approaches and ideas that might previously have seemed politically unacceptable.”
That must apply at home as well as abroad. I was encouraged by the tone of his speech today, and I hope that the MOD is working towards those goals.
I start by declaring my interest as a member of the reserve forces.
“a full spectrum defence power, I would answer that literally by saying yes, because I think if you look…across the piece, you take a Navy that has got hunter-killer submarines, that has a nuclear deterrent that we are renewing, that has two of the most modern and up-to-date aircraft carriers coming down the track; if you look at our Air Force, that has got the Typhoon, one of the most capable and successful aircraft that anyone has anywhere in the world”.
“Prime Minister, everyone knows what we’ve got.”
Indeed we do, and we know what we have not got, too. “Coming down the track” means “not here yet”. I am reassured by the excellent work on the Type 26 of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend Peter Luff, who is responsible for procurement, and by the fact that the Prime Minister speaks enthusiastically about the carriers, but by his own definition of full spectrum capability Britain currently, although unavoidably and understandably, comes up short.
We inherited a catastrophic mess at the MOD when we came into government—I am sorry that we do not have many Opposition Members still in the Chamber to hear me say that. Tough decisions had to be made to clean up that mess, leading to the capability gap and the challenging task of regenerating that capability. We must succeed in doing that, but I am increasingly concerned that we risk failure.
If Britain wants to live up to her billing as a leading nation, we must perform like one. The world still looks to Britain for leadership—as in the recent action in Libya—and it is incumbent on us to be ready to meet those calls in our own national interest. The Royal Navy gives us global reach. It allows us to be present anywhere in the world within 12 miles off any coast with impunity. It keeps food in our supermarkets and the fuel flowing so we can distribute and cook it. Our island nation depends on the Navy for its very survival, an obvious point not often recognised by Departments of State or parliamentarians—present company excepted.
Recognition of that fact does not require one to hark back to the days when Britain’s carrier fleet numbered 55 ships, but it means we need to increase the size of the current surface fleet with the carrier strike and the Type 26 combat ship. It requires us also to ensure that those platforms are properly supplied, so that they can be at their most flexible.
We must stop hollowing out capability. I told the MOD permanent secretary at the Defence Committee that some ships were sent to Operation Ellamy and elsewhere with dangerously hollowed-out capacity. HMS Westminster had only 10% of her ordnance, or, to put it another way, only two shots in the barrel. In response, the permanent secretary spoke of “layered defence” and
“other capabilities that we had in terms of submarines…and …aircraft”.
She also said that it was
“absolutely an operational decision on whether it is safe” to send Westminster.
“Layered defence” is all very well, but I wonder whether the Westminster’s 190 crew would not have felt more secure if they had the means to defend themselves rather than relying on others. It might have been an “operational decision”, but would we not put the people making such decisions in a far more comfortable position if they knew that ships had a more appropriate complement of missiles? I anticipate that the MOD would answer that missile numbers are secret, but they are not. Anyone— friend or foe—with a moderately priced pair of binoculars and the inclination to look could have discovered how many Harpoon missiles were on Westminster.
The MOD must develop a mechanism properly to plan, acquire and monitor ordnance stocks. No such mechanism exists. As I have raised that point in the Committee, with Ministers and on the Floor of the House, I would like to see evidence that it is being addressed.
I would also like greater recognition of our dependence on carrier strike. As the Foreign Secretary mentioned earlier this week with regard to HMS Argyll’s passage through the strait of Hormuz, we currently rely on our allies—in that instance in the form of the USS Abraham Lincoln. It is apparent, therefore, that when we say we do not need carrier strike for the next decade, we mean we need it but hope to use someone else’s.
That might be all very well when our interests align with those of our allies, but what about when they do not? The Prime Minister has rightly taken a robust line on Argentine pretensions over the sovereignty of the Falklands. The US Administration takes quite a different view, regarding the UK administration of the islands as “de facto” and taking “no position regarding sovereignty”. We are encouraged to work things out with Argentina “through normal diplomatic channels”. If it came to it, one suspects that requests for carrier cover would fall on deaf ears.
Equally, although one must recognise that while flying sorties from Norfolk for a time was the only way to halt Gaddafi’s murderous advances in Libya, it was expensive. Had the Ark Royal not been decommissioned, it is unthinkable that she would not have been sent on Ellamy. Had we flown sorties from a carrier in the Mediterranean rather than from an airfield in East Anglia, they would have been more frequent and more responsive, and the need to return to base without dropping a bomb would have been less of a waste of time and money.
I raise those issues not to chastise the Government for the SDSR—they had to close the gap in the defence budget—but to show our dependence on carrier strike force. The Prime Minister has said that carriers are necessary for a nation to have full military capability, which means every day of every week, all year round. Accepting the need for carriers is to accept that we must have both Queen Elizabeth class ships in operation—at minimum, one on, one off.
Does my hon. Friend recall that the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, referred recently to the Falkland Islands as “the Malvinas”, therefore implicitly giving a nod in the direction of Argentina? My hon. Friend is right that we could in no shape or form depend on the Americans if there were any threat against the Falklands. Were they taken, without a carrier, we could never take them back.
If someone had an argument about the sovereignty of an eastern state, I am quite sure we would have a much more robust response from our nearest ally.
The cost and specification of the new carriers has been much derided. One estimate is that they could be as much as £3.1 billion more expensive than planned.
I have heard many an “amusing” conversation in this place about the decks being too short for aircraft to take-off and the possibility of sailors being burnt to a crisp by aircraft engines, along with other such Bird and Fortune material. We laugh, while blindly heading for a greater folly: spending such a sum, only to deny ourselves the capability that it should have brought. If we end up with just one operational carrier, we will have wasted £5 billion over the initial estimates, yet for months of every year we will be without cover. If our enemies strike during an off-period, the British people will ask what that hefty final bill has actually achieved. Thanks to the last Government, £3 billion has been needlessly spent on carrier strike force. Under this Government, let us not have £7 billion pointlessly spent.
I am grateful to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker. Like others, I declare my interest as a member of the Territorial Army. There seem to be enough of us here to form a small platoon, which would perhaps be interesting, although such a platoon would come only from this side of the Chamber. Indeed, there is a noticeable absence of support for today’s debate from the Opposition Benches—[ Interruption ]—other than from Mr MacShane, who has just walked into the Chamber.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt, as well as my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, who, with his eloquent speech, raised the standard of this debate—we were getting into the weeds a little bit, talking about the tactics of the SDSR rather than the strategy. We were starting to talk about the individual bits of kit that we enjoy, like or are in love with—we are always quick to quote a retired general or admiral saying, “This is exactly what we need”—rather than stepping back and asking what the strategy is and where we fit in the bigger picture. Fundamentally, the SDSR is about how we protect our people, our allies, our economy and our infrastructure—indeed, our way of life—from the potential risks that we face. It is about how, on occasions working with our allies, we apply the instruments of power to influence and shape the global environment, and how potential tactical threats affect us.
The shadow Secretary of State did not want to get partisan when I intervened on him, but it is important to reflect on what happened over the last decade. Not only did the previous Government not have an SDSR, which was bad time management, but not having one affected our military’s ability to perform. During that decade we saw the September 11 attacks, we were involved in enormous campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we had the July 2005 bombings. The type of threat changed, compared with the cold war stance that we were used to. There were huge changes in operational tactics too, with the introduction of drone warfare, advances in missile systems and stealth technology—ways to introduce force multipliers that did not exist before. The conduct of war also changed, with an emphasis on stabilisation operations as much as war fighting, as illustrated in Iraq and Afghanistan. The kinetic phases of those campaigns were over very quickly, but the lack of an unconditional surrender meant that we then got into protracted stabilisation and peacekeeping operations.
I was saddened to visit Sandhurst not long ago and find that it had only just introduced courses in CIMIC—civil-military co-operation—which are required to enable the military to liaise and work with civilian counterparts, NGOs and the Department for International Development in those other operations, which start in the aftermath of the war fighting. That is what we now need to get good at; that is what was missing in Afghanistan and Iraq. Had the Labour Government held a defence review, those issues would have been identified. However, they did not, and we failed to take the opportunity to fundamentally modernise our armed forces. I think the Chilcot inquiry will reflect that. It will show that our armed forces found themselves in two campaigns with the wrong numbers and the wrong equipment, and without a clear strategy.
I firmly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border about our ability to work more cohesively with other Departments. We need to be able to work with DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that our strategy—the purpose of sending our military into danger—is absolutely crystal clear. It is clear from General Petraeus’s book on counter-insurgency that it is not enough simply to defeat the enemy; we now have to win over the hearts and minds of the locals—the friends that we are trying to support.
The triangle consisting of security at the top, then governance, followed by development and reconstruction has still not been developed. In Afghanistan, the security aspects took far too long to get right. Huge questions still arise as to why we ended up in Helmand province anyway. Those of us who know the history of that country will be aware of the treaty of Gandamak and the battle of Kandahar. Events such as those tell us that we are not particularly welcome in that patch of Afghanistan, given the history there. There might have been other places in which we could have been more strategically helpful. Lessons have been learned from those engagements and put into practice in Libya, where there has been a far more coherent effort, not only within our own Departments but in regard to whom we work with, including our NATO allies.
Labour missed a massive opportunity to understand what exactly our military are expected to do. Our armed forces were placed in danger and given kit that was out of date. I mentioned Snatch Land Rovers in an intervention. Too often at that time, other bits of kit were thrown at the military for testing, to see whether they would work. They included vehicles such as the Jackal, the Cougar, the Vector and the Ridgeback. Eventually, the Mastiff came along and proved to be the most suitable for use in those operations. Things should not have had to work in that way, however. A security strategy could have helped in that context.
Procurement errors have been made. The Nimrod has been mentioned many times in the debate. The contract for its development was signed in 1996, and it was due for delivery in 2003, yet not one aircraft ever received a certificate of airworthiness. The Sea Harriers have been cut, which means that there is now no chance of us ever putting a carrier in. The existing Harriers do not have guns; they do not have the Mauser weapon systems.
They cannot carry the Brimstone or the Storm Shadow, yet those missiles were critical to the success of the action in Libya.
We get stuck with certain favourite bits of kit. The Apache is now in a new dimension. It travels at two thirds the speed of the Harrier and fires the Hellfire missile, which is just as potent as any of our other weapons. We hear that the Falklands are under threat. We have an aircraft carrier there, so the base already exists, and it has the Typhoon and the Tornado. The Argentines spend only £3 billion on their defence budget, compared with our £30 billion. I believe that we should place the question of Argentina in a separate context in relation to the SDSR. It is a distraction from where we are going.
Finally, I should like to congratulate the Defence team on what it is doing. I think that we are finally progressing—
I am speaking on behalf of my constituents, but I am also speaking on behalf of the many who are serving in our armed forces who cannot speak for themselves. As has already been mentioned today, George Washington once said:
“In time of peace, prepare for war.”
I feel that that quote is rather pertinent, as we scrutinise the progress of the strategic defence and security review. There is no doubt that a review was needed, but the decisions that flowed from it have left our country exposed and weakened, militarily and politically—the two go hand in hand. How can we possibly advance our peaceful cause, and protect our interests around the world, if we do not have sufficient muscle to flex, and ultimately to use, when things go wrong, as history shows they do. Yes, Labour left us with a £38 billion black hole. Yes, the Ministry of Defence was bloated. Yes, the armed forces are top heavy and need rebalancing, and yes, procurement was out of control. Regrettably, however, the Treasury’s will has prevailed over that of the military.
There is to be a loss of personnel. The Army is to lose 7,000, and the Royal Air Force and the Navy 5,000 each, with a further 4,000 soldiers to go. That is a tragedy. In regard to our front-line troops being protected from the cuts, we have been told that no one who is in receipt of the operational allowance, preparing for deployment, on post-deployment leave or recovering from injury will face compulsory redundancy. Although that has been followed to the letter, we know that, in some cases, compulsory redundancies have followed the end of post-deployment leave almost immediately. I should also like to comment on the fact that some troops who are currently preparing for deployment know that they are on the list for voluntary redundancy. How odd that must be for them, fighting for their redundancy money. I wonder what that does for morale on the battlefield.
I would also like to touch on plans to change the ratio of regulars to reserves from 80:20 to about 70:30. The reserves, who include many esteemed colleagues in the House, do a wonderful job, and I pay due respect to them, but I believe, as do others, that the thinking behind the proposal is seriously flawed. When budgets are tight, the integrity of the armed services must be maintained by the regulars. We simply do not have the money to spend on the reserves, as they do in America. Reserves are harder to recruit and retain, and expensive to train. If thousands of troops return from Germany, where will we train our armed services? Even now the reserves in my constituency of South Dorset have a nightmare trying to find places to train because the regulars get there first. Senior officers have told me that they would rather have more regulars for the same amount of money.
I turn to the ongoing redundancies. With nearly 3 million people out of work, is it wise to throw experienced and highly valued servicemen and women out into the cold and potentially on to the welfare state? It simply cannot be. I genuinely believe that those who have not served in the uniformed branch of our country, and that applies to most people in the House and, dare I say, all the Cabinet—that is not a personal assault on them—simply do not understand its value. Quite apart from the wonderful job all those in uniform do, they are standard bearers for our local communities and contributors in many walks of life, especially when they return to civilian life. Having served, they give back so much.
Much mention has been made of the gaping hole, up to 2020 or thereabouts, that will exist in our defence strategy. Not until then, we are told, will we have two new aircraft carriers, supposedly, the planes to fly off them—as we have heard, we are not sure which planes they will be, whether they will be able to land or take off, or whether they can deliver the necessary armaments—the new fleet of Astute class submarines and six state-of-the-art Type 45 destroyers. I will believe it all when I see it.
In the meantime, the storm clouds are gathering—this is not some dramatic statement; they are. The following is not an exhaustive list. There is Iran. There is the Arab spring, as I and many others believe, turning wintry. Even our recent triumph in Libya looks shaky. There is Nigeria and Yemen. There is the Falklands. There is Russia—unpredictable. There is China—empire building. North Korea remains a sinister enigma. In Europe—our allies—the German chancellor warns that “half a century of peace in Europe” could end if the euro collapses. Here at home—let us not forget good old Britain—Irish terrorism still erupts sporadically. On the mainland, we considered deploying troops on our streets to counter riots.
What do we do? We disarm. But the truth is defence spending must rise, not fall. It was 5% when I served, and it is now about 2.5%, as we have heard, and the NATO minimum is 2%. It is our solemn duty in the House to protect our island, safeguard our dependent territories, and meet our NATO commitments. The money must be found, and it can be. We squander millions on overseas aid—I accept that charity must go abroad, but not to the extent it does. There is our massive contribution to the EU, and when we renegotiate—and we will—we will get back billions, which we can then spend on things that this nation needs. There are the many quangos that were going to be burned on the bonfire. Then there is the vast welfare state. The list goes on.
Defence is a matter of priorities. I accept that, economically, Departments must make cuts, but will our enemies look at this country and refrain from aggressive action because we face austere times and cut our defence capability? History shows that that is when our enemies will strike.
As the newest member of the Defence Committee, I congratulate the Chairman, my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot, on setting the scene for this excellent debate. I also endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend Mr Gray.
In opposition, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats criticised the Government because our armed forces were under strength and overstretched. I regret to say that the coalition Government are making a bad situation even worse. The morale of Her Majesty’s armed forces is not as good as it should be and among the reasons for that low morale are poor conditions.
I commend the previous Government, for example, for what they did with the new Merville barracks in the Colchester constituency, but I condemn them for their failure to upgrade the family accommodation sufficiently in 13 years. Even today, one can see it with single soldier’s accommodation. When the Defence Committee went to Catterick, we were shown level 4—perhaps it is called category 4—accommodation, which reminded me very much of what we used to see in “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” when the work force decided to decorate the place. The Army in Catterick got in paint and paint brushes and allowed the soldiers to determine their colour scheme in the various bits of the barrack block. The colour variations included interesting combinations and the quality of the workmanship was variable. I do not think that that is the right way to treat our brave soldiers, nor is it right that soldiers’ families should continue to live in accommodation that is not what we would expect in civilian life.
We know that the size of the Army will go down and we have been told today that the numbers will be the lowest since the Crimea. The statistic I had was that they were the lowest since the Boer war, Baden-Powell and Mafeking. Whatever that number is, it is too small for us to have a role on the world stage. We have commitments. The Falkland Islands have been mentioned and I should like to endorse those who have pointed out that it is fortress Falklands now and that things are completely different from 30 years ago. I do not think we should get over-anxious. We obviously need to be alert, but we should not think that the Falklands in 2012 are as they were in 1982.
I pay tribute, as others have, to the Territorials and reservists. Without them, we could not do what we do. Without the 10% of the British Army that is not British, it could not do what it does. We should pay tribute, in particular, to those people from the Commonwealth nations who serve in Her Majesty’s three armed forces.
Let us also praise those who provide leadership for the air, sea and army cadets. I am delighted to say that we have all three units in the garrison town of Colchester.
I want to conclude, as others wish to speak, on the subject of the future of the Ministry of Defence police. There are some 3,600 MDP officers and their headquarters are in Essex, in Wethersfield. Despite their highly trained and specialised nature, the role of Ministry of Defence police is often not well understood by decision makers and the wider general public. Indeed, under the previous Government, I went to the MOD to make a special plea on behalf of the Ministry of Defence police in the garrison town of Colchester and I could not get people to understand the important role they played. As a result, the number of MDPs in my constituency has gone from 30 to three. With the best will in the world, the Essex constabulary cannot plug the gap left by the loss of 27 Ministry of Defence police officers. The MDP is facing major cuts to its budget and numbers as part of the strategic defence and security review, with a potentially disastrous impact on national security. The Ministry of Defence must reconsider and I hope that the Defence Committee will help the Ministry of Defence realise that cutting the MOD police is not the brightest of the ideas that it is considering.
As a member of the Defence Committee, I welcome this opportunity to contribute to the debate. Defence reform is a complex matter and it is not easy, in a few minutes, to encapsulate coherently and completely in an incisive contribution how one would move things forward. I say that to mitigate the disappointment when I sit down and to reflect how difficult it is to reform a Department that has so much complexity hard-wired into its fabric. Much analysis and many reports on this issue have been undertaken over the years and I do not want to use my time now to revisit controversial decisions on whether, if or when we will have an aircraft carrier or aircraft carriers, or on the number of senior posts that will be rationalised, or on how those decisions were taken. Neither do I want to examine the different reasons armed forces personnel face a greater likelihood of compulsory redundancy than their civil service counterparts.
The three points I wish to raise today concern culture, accountability and the measurement of outcomes. Regardless of what decisions are made about programmes and the size and shape of the three services, it is in those three areas that lasting, effective and meaningful reform will be achieved. Many people will probably raise their eyebrows at the mention of culture and think it is a soft and peripheral concern. They might think that the culture of the armed forces is well defined and focused, so let me explain what I mean.
I have no doubt whatever that the sense of discipline, service and mutual dependency is fully developed within the culture of the armed services, as is that brave willingness to risk life and limb for country. However, I am increasingly of the view, through all my different interactions with the armed services in the two years I have been in the House, that although in operational terms there is no doubt about how well the different services work together, when it comes to taking decisions in the interests of UK defence at the strategic and policy level, individuals display an undue dependency on their own service, department or section and the affinities that go with them. Often, I feel that decisions on fundamental matters of reform are made on the basis of the relative political skills of the senior individuals involved. Until a culture exists that rewards and prizes fully at all levels the good of UK defence above other ingrained imperatives, lasting and successful reform will not happen. We cannot continue to pay lip service to jointery from a structural and organisational chart perspective but make no real investment in the mechanics of decision making within the MOD.
The second issue I want to address is accountability. The Defence Committee’s report of just this week says that
“the MoD could not provide adequate audit evidence for over £5.2 billion worth of certain inventory and capital spares.”
Indeed, but what would happen in a business if such inventory could not be accounted for so that for the fifth year the financial director had to qualify the accounts? My gallant Defence Committee colleague, my hon. Friend Bob Stewart, recently told me he had once been severely reprimanded for an unaccounted rifle. That was only a generation ago, yet today £125 million-worth of Bowman radios are still unaccounted for.
Many Members will raise their eyebrows, because the issue has been highlighted so many times in different reports, but poor accountability for decisions and outcomes and for the use of public money needs to be addressed. Accountability needs to be hard-wired in the MOD, not just at the highest level but at every level, otherwise reform will not be successful.
The final issue I want to examine is measuring outcomes. As a member of the Select Committee, I draw attention to our recent report, which notes that we were told that
“88 per cent progress had been made to a stable and secure Afghanistan.”
It is a promising statistic, but when we examined it further we were told that
“the performance was not 88 per cent against a full range of indicators of what is happening in Afghanistan, for example on the quality of governance, the economy and security.”
In that case, what is the point of such a statistic in the MOD’s annual report and accounts? We can debate at length the different aspects of decision making and allocation of resources, but until we have proper accountability and measurement of outcomes we cannot have real change in future outcomes and conduct in our MOD. We need to change the culture. We need real accountability, with consequences. We need to measure outcomes so that effective decision making can be built on well into the future.
I want to talk about what might be the most important thing: morale. As we all know, Napoleon called morale the sacred flame—the thing that matters more than anything else. He said that morale is to the physical as three is to one. When I was a captain, I used to teach leadership at Sandhurst and I could not quite understand what he meant. Ten years later, when I was a British military commander in Bosnia, people would ask me—Serbs, Croats or Muslims—how many men I had under my command. I would reply, “Lots. How many do you think?” They said, “Between 3,000 and 4,000.” I had 800. Morale made the difference.
High morale is definitely a force multiplier. It is not quantifiable statistically, but we can feel it. My experience is clear. When we go into a unit, we can feel what morale is like from the way people talk, stand and behave. Let us be clear: the British armed forces have the highest morale in the world on operations. Anyone who has visited our troops in Afghanistan can see that. Wherever British soldiers go in the world, their morale is high on operations. I am worried about what happens when they are not on operations.
In all the years I have been involved with the Army, and it goes back a long time—1967—I have never seen such low morale among personnel when they are not on operations. There is a difference. On operations they come up to the plate; they are fantastic. They are everything one would always expect. It is the British way of doing it. But off operations—boom! Down they go.
Obviously, the SDSR has an impact, because there is massive uncertainty on job security and life for the future. There is a pay freeze, and rising inflation has made life very difficult for the junior ranks. Some service personnel are involved in change programmes. They see an increase in work load and fewer resources being given to them. Obviously, barracks and the accommodation are not great. The Welsh Guards in Cavalry barracks are looking forward to having a hot shower when they go to Afghanistan—and they are in west London.
I hope last night’s Evening Standard is wrong that anyone above the rank of sergeant is going to lose his or her London weighting, because if that is the case a sergeant will get a 4.5% pay cut in London, when he or she has no choice over where they are deployed. Do we take a pay cut? Do we lose our London weighting? Do civil servants lose their London weighting? It is not fair.
Many people, of course, serve away from home for a long time, and the tour interval for some people is now down to about a year. Families do not like it, clearly, and they put pressure on soldiers. The biggest contributory factor to low morale is the fact that our armed forces are taking such a cut in personnel.
Leadership is essential. Leadership in the Ministry of Defence is about heart as much as statistics. Soldiers need to know they matter and are cared for by the people who look after them. Military commanders should look downwards first before they look upwards. I am slightly worried because I seem to think—I hope I am wrong, but perhaps I am not—that too many generals are trying to be political or be civil servants rather than looking down at their soldiers.
I will end, because I know we are short of time, by concluding on morale. If we want to be the best—to use the Army’s phrase, “Be the best”—we must get morale right. It is not right at the moment, particularly when our soldiers, sailors and airmen are not serving in the field. Addressing morale is the top priority of everyone in the Ministry of Defence, from the Secretary of State downwards. It is very important that everyone in a position of power and influence puts their heart and soul into getting that vital aspect as good as it can be. Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker.
With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will simply do a brief analysis of what has emerged from a really good and effective debate.
Mr Brown talked about nuclear deterrence. Personally, I give his arguments rather more credence than most of his own party do, because he was thoughtful and highly intelligent, as one would expect from him, about the nuclear deterrent; but John Woodcock later made some comments about the nuclear deterrent, echoed by my hon. Friend Dr Lewis, which I think carried the day in the persuasiveness of the arguments. Nevertheless, I thought that the way in which the right hon. Gentleman spoke was very sympathetic and most persuasive.
My hon. and gallant Friend Mr Brazier showed what he brings to the House of Commons Defence Committee. He brings a passion, an understanding and a degree of detailed knowledge of figures that is sometimes quite intimidating, but is enormously valuable. He will hold the feet of the Defence Committee to the fire, and as a result we will do our best to hold the Ministry of Defence’s feet to the fire.
Mrs Moon, as always, drew our attention to important matters, such as the maritime patrol aircraft—a key issue—and the various ways in which its absence will cause huge difficulties for this country. We on the Defence Committee know that it was perhaps the most difficult issue for the Government to confront in the strategic defence and security review, but when the hon. Lady told the House that we could be sharing Luxembourg’s maritime patrol capability, that brought home quite what a pass we have come to.
I want defend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has been accused of partisanship. I am not entirely sure that he was attacking the Labour party; I think he was mostly attacking the previous Prime Minister, and in that many might join him. In fact, many Labour Members might join him, judging by the many conversations I have had with former Secretaries of State for Defence bemoaning the way Ministry of Defence budgets were treated.
I hope that at some stage my right hon. Friend will be able to provide me or the Committee with a written answer on why the stabilisation unit, which is not part of the combat forces in Afghanistan, is expected to be withdrawn by the end of 2014. It seems to me that it has a role to play after that.
Having defended my right hon. Friend, I shall attack the shadow Secretary of State for Defence in a way that I have attacked him before by suggesting that he runs the real risk of becoming leader of the Labour party. I know that that does him no good, but I have always thought it. He was described today as temperate, and rightly so in my view.
Mike Crockart made a powerful case on the bases and barracks in and around his constituency, which will go down extremely well in Scotland, I am sure. Hugh Bayley offered a world view of defence and of the strengths and weaknesses of Europe. I entirely agree with his comments, apart from one with which I have a little difficulty. I agree with him that Europe has to step up to the plate a great deal more than it has done recently, but in response to his suggestion that the cuts we make in this country should be contingent on other countries improving their defences, I have to say that he might have to wait a very long time before that happens, although I hope I am wrong about that.
It was wonderful to listen to my hon. Friend Mr Leigh. At last I have found someone who is even more gloomy than I —[ Laughter. ] I will long remember his final quotation and try to use it myself. On the point he made in his speech, Argentina should be in no doubt that we will not let the Falkland Islands go, and if the Falkland Islands were by any chance to be retaken by Argentina, we would take them back.
My hon. and gallant Friend Mr Gray demonstrated in his speech why he is the chairman of the all-party group on the armed forces. He made an excellent defence of defence budgets and the armed forces in general. Thomas Docherty made a powerful contribution, as he always does, to today’s debate and raised the question of whether we should have one carrier or two. I think it essential that we have two carriers, properly configured.
I am not at all surprised that I agreed with everything that my hon. and gallant Friend Dr Murrison said. I think the whole House values his experience as a reservist. I am not all surprised either that I disagreed with a lot of what my hon. and gallant Friend Rory Stewart said, but he said it with such strength, clarity and passion that, as has been noted, he kept the whole House gripped. He also made us think, and what a valuable thing that is for a debate such as this.
My hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy talked about very important issues, echoing many that have been made about maintaining the cohesion of the armed forces—
Motion lapsed (