It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Members for Witney (Robert Courts) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), who has had to leave us, on introducing the debate and being tireless campaigners on the issue for a number of years. It is appropriate that we are having the debate in Armed Forces Week, in which we are getting many opportunities to talk about the impact of our military.
The hon. Member for Witney highlighted in great detail the importance of the combat air strategy. As he stressed, the benefits of the aerospace sector to our economy cannot be overstated, and he gave us some important figures that are worth repeating. He said that the sector has accounted for 87% of defence exports over the past 10 years and that the UK combat air sector has an annual turnover of more than £6 billion. That supports 18,000 jobs directly, and there is of course a multiplier effect in the local economy and tax revenues. All recent combat air programmes in the UK have delivered significant returns on Government investment.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North highlighted the number of people already working on Tempest and the number that we expect to see working on that programme over the next few years. It was great news when, as part of the combat air strategy, the former Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced the launch of Tempest last year, along with £2 billion of funding to develop the technologies necessary for the UK to lead the development of a next-generation combat air system. I hope to see a positive outcome for those plans in the comprehensive spending review this year, and subsequently in the first major programme approval gate at the end of 2020.
There are issues surrounding funding. Anne-Marie Trevelyan talked about the feast or famine approach to spending, and Dr Lewis talked about how, as soon as we start one programme, we should consider the next. That drumbeat of planning and procurement is so important. We should not be scrabbling about for money when funding our defence. We need to commit to a much longer funding stream, to ensure proper planning of the spending within the Department.
Frankly, we are seeing too much of a siloed approach to spending, not just in Defence but in many Government Departments. I will briefly highlight the fleet solid supply ships, which we are talking about building outwith the UK. Given the economic impact of building in our own shipyards, it is ludicrous to consider countries such as South Korea, with its state funding of bids. It will fund those bids because it understands the tax revenues and economic multipliers. We need a far less siloed approach.
It should also remain a priority that any exports take into account where the equipment will be used. I am looking for some clarity on that, especially in the light of the recent Court of Appeal ruling, which found that the Government
“made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so”.
There is no justification for exporting arms to countries that repeatedly and flagrantly violate international humanitarian law.
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
The partnerships and collaborations involved in the combat air strategy will play an essential part in determining the UK’s place on the international stage in the immediate future. It is therefore essential that our defence policy remains in step with our European allies and our closest neighbours. I was pleased that a number of hon. Members made reference to that this afternoon.
The combat air strategy recognises the UK’s
“unique network of capability collaborations” and pledges to
“work quickly and openly with allies to build on or establish new partnerships to deliver future requirements.”
It is important that the Government make good on those intentions and follow through on the proposals for the combat air acquisition programme as an international collaborative programme with the UK as a prime partner.
Our interests must remain aligned with our European partners—our closest neighbours—even after Brexit. That is not just because of defence interests. It is also because, through building such collaborations and alliances, our research is far richer and far better. Being able to draw upon skills from across Europe means that we end up with a product that is far better than it would be if we were simply working on our own.
The hon. Member for Witney talked about the skills required for the Tempest programme and the importance of involving schools. As a former teacher, I agree 100%. We need to be in schools, and not just at secondary level. We need to be in primary schools. We need to be working with young people to make them aware of the sector and to help them to see the opportunities that the sector offers. In particular, we need to be trying to tap into a resource that we are not using enough: the females. We need to be targeting girls so that the aerospace sector has a far more balanced workforce. That is not important just because we want to see diversity and people getting on. It is important because different types of people bring different types of ideas and will look at things in different ways. We must do that.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned space. I had not actually considered the space implications, but she is quite right. As our understanding of space and our development of space vehicles increases, we need to consider how that is going to play out. I was very pleased when last year the Government committed £2 million to the development of a space port on the A’ Mhòine peninsula in Sutherland. There are real opportunities, not just in terms of our forays into space but also in terms of building up a skills hub around that.
Of course, any strategy will succeed only if it receives the full backing of those expected to carry it out. The strength of our armed forces absolutely relies upon the strength of our personnel. Frankly, as I said yesterday—I think the Minister was there for that debate—we need to do more to improve the welfare and treatment of our personnel, not just in the RAF but across all the armed forces. The Minister will know that the SNP has been pushing for an armed forces representative body that would allow them a proper say in how personnel are treated and their welfare, and would feed into Government policy. It would not allow for strike action—we can have a federation that does not allow that—but would allow us to consult and bring on board the personnel.
Our defence capability and longevity must be strengthened by proper investment and proper ambition. It was great to see the combat air strategy launched, but it should not need the hon. Members for Witney and for Stoke-on-Trent North to be pushing in order to move it forward. It should already be part of the Government’s programmes. There is a strong overlap in defence when we look at our European Union allies and the UK. Whatever happens in the coming months, we must ensure that nothing is done that would put that collaboration in jeopardy.