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5.33 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). His speech was typical of the high quality and breadth of knowledge that have characterised the debate. The hon. Gentleman clearly had much more to say, and I thank him for his courtesy in stopping when he did and allowing other hon. Members to contribute.

I shall not attempt to emulate the breadth of approach of the hon. Member for New Forest, East, as I intend to focus on one aspect of defence policy—the possible privatisation of the defence fire service. That would threaten the military ethos which, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) noted, is so strong and valuable.

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As many hon. Members have said in this debate, politicians of all hues were quick, after 11 September, to praise the public-spiritedness, self-sacrifice and the ethos of brotherhood and sisterhood of the New York fire service. It is less well known that 100 members of the UK defence fire service volunteered on the day of the disaster to go to New York to help out, if required.

As far as I am aware, there is no threat to privatise the New York fire service, but there is a real threat to privatise our defence fire service. I became aware of that when a constituent of mine, a firefighter at RAF Church Fenton, came to see me last summer. In his hand he held a sheet of paper on which he told me a senior politician was quoted as saying that that was a privatisation too far.

I speculated as to who that senior politician might have been. Several of the contributors to this debate might have made such a remark; I thought that it might have been a Liberal Democrat Member. However, in fact it was the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), the Leader of the Opposition, who had said that it was a privatisation too far. I respectfully say to my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister of State for Defence that if it is a privatisation too far for the Conservative party, we need to pause for thought.

How did that situation come about? Three thousand fire service and associated personnel support the armed forces at their bases. The associated staff carry out tasks such as refuelling, or are employed as vehicle technicians and so on. They work at about 100 bases, not only in this country but worldwide. All their jobs are at stake.

On 20 September last year, with impeccable timing, the Ministry of Defence—with no announcement to the House—invited tenders from three preferred bidders for that support work. The contracts could last from between 15 and 20 years and would ultimately be worth up to £4 billion.

During an Adjournment debate, the Minister of State assured me that no decision had been made and that the tender documents are not due to be returned until the end of this month. Apparently, no decision will be made until the end of the year. That is why I was rather surprised to read in RAF News a few weeks ago an advertisement headed "Career Opportunities in Airfield Support". It stated:

The advertisement noted that work was expected to start in early 2004. The closing date for expressions of interest has already passed: it was Friday 25 January.

Clearly, a great deal of forward planning is being carried out by one of the bidders. That company must think that it is in with a good chance of obtaining the contract.

I thought that perhaps the work force were recalcitrant and had been threatening the efficiency or even the security and safety of our armed forces. However, history reveals that the opposite is true. The defence fire service was reviewed for the first time in recent years in the mid-1980s. The Transport and General Workers Union

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co-operated with the MOD at that time—although it was probably not easy to do that then—and agreed on a common solution: the creation of a single defence fire service for all our armed forces.

That solution was accepted by the trade unions and the MOD, but it was not implemented; there was resistance from some of the defence fire service chiefs. The single service was created in name, but it had three separate managements. There were some common features such as training. The inefficiencies and duplications of effort continued, and in 1995 the then Government began to investigate whether there might be private sector interest. The Labour Government have let that process continue.

It is time to call a halt. We should consider what the trade unions have offered recently. In true stakeholder fashion—something of which new Labour should be proud—they are co-operating with defence service staff. Under the chairmanship of Wing Commander Bob Waldegrave—no less—they have come up with the "Defence Fire Study 2000". That is an in-house project and shows how the service can cut costs by 20 per cent. As there is limited time for the debate, I shall not go into detail. The project has been agreed by the military, the MOD and the TGWU.

It is a real tragedy in terms of best value that the project cannot be implemented at present because of the parallel process of tendering. Public money is being wasted because "Defence Fire Study 2000" is not being implemented. There seems to be a doubt that the public service comparator established by the study will ever be used directly with the private sector, as three elements have been put out to tender.

The first element is procurement—no one would argue about that. The second is the defence fire service and the third is the associated services. It looks as though they will all be lumped together and that our brave firefighters in the defence fire service may not have the chance to compare their work directly with the fire service support that would be provided by the private sector.

The military ethos and the public service ethos are closely allied. The security—the very lives—of our RAF pilots and many others depends on the sense of military ethos or of public service ethos of many of the people who serve in the defence fire service and associated services. It depends on their being prepared to go that extra mile to put aside their own interests. Even as a constituency MP, one is aware that the defence fire service has been prepared to contribute repeatedly to meeting the wider needs of the community—to fill in the gaps of our hard-pressed county fire services. In last year's floods in North Yorkshire, the defence fire service was there time and again. It has been deployed 100 times in the past two years, to places such as Kosovo.

I quote one defence fire service firefighter, Darren Gribben, who recently returned from several months' service in Kosovo:

That military ethos applies not only to pilots, but to our defence fire service staff, and I do not believe that it would apply in the same way if they were merely working for a boss who was a contractor to the Ministry of Defence, or perhaps a subcontractor to a contractor.

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That issue goes to the heart of the great debate about the proper role of the public and the private sectors. If we are prepared to privatise the defence fire service, what are we not prepared to privatise? Are we prepared one day to privatise our fire service generally? That is a fear of the Fire Brigades Union.

On this issue, the Ministry of Defence is playing with fire. It should kick the proposals into touch and accept the 20 per cent. efficiency savings that are on offer from our firefighters.

5.41 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this debate on a wide range of defence issues. We have discovered a certain amount of common ground on some issues, but a lot less in other areas.

To start with the common ground, all hon. Members who have spoken have expressed our gratitude to the members of the armed forces for the astonishing work that they do on our behalf, not least in the recent operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone and—particularly perhaps—Afghanistan.

Several hon. Members have expressed concern about the Government's plans for the Territorial Army and a desire to ensure that the Territorial Army retains a flexible role; that it is able to support our troops in a variety of ways; and that it does not simply become a home guard that is relegated to lower-level and domestic duties.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), supported by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), expressed concern about the dangers of ending up with a two-tier system in our armed forces, in which some units are regularly used for high-level and high-priority activities while other regiments are left on lower-level duties. That would be a great pity, especially as all units in our armed forces are trained to an extremely high level.

We found less common ground on other issues. The Chinook crash was discussed eloquently by several hon. Members with great experience in the matter, and I do not want to cover that ground in detail. I would only say that the fact that Members with as much experience as the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) have very considerable concerns about this matter, adding their voices to the questions raised by the House of Lords report, suggests to Liberal Democrat Members that it is time to have the matter independently reviewed so that we may get as close as possible to the truth of what happened in that tragic accident.

The second issue on which there has perhaps been less agreement is funding, which was discussed by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex and by the Chairman of Select Committee on Defence, the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). I fear that the Chairman set a high hurdle for his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in terms of the up and coming spending round when he said that he thought that the Secretary of State should seek to achieve an increase of half a percentage point in the share of national income that goes into defence; that would involve an increase of £4 to £5 billion a year. If the Chairman of the Defence Committee is setting that hurdle for the Secretary of State, he may be disappointed by the outcome of the spending review. There will be a great deal of competition for resources, especially as

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funding for health, education and transport is growing above the rate of inflation. That puts pressure on many other sectors, including defence and social security, to grow at less than the growth rate of the economy so that not too much upward pressure is placed on the tax burden.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex was closer to the likely outcome when he referred to an increase of £500 million a year over and above inflation. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, that would be a 2 per cent. real increase each year. The Secretary of State will need to deploy a robust set of arguments in the face of Treasury scepticism if he is to gain the share of the cake that defence should be allocated. Not all his arguments should lean too heavily on the events of 11 September, however. As the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) said, the nature of those events was such that they would not necessarily have been prevented by additional expenditure on the armed forces. It is significant that the attack took place in the country that dedicates the largest share of gross domestic product to national defence. The nature of the threats that we now face might be better dealt with by expenditure that is targeted into intelligence, for instance, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) suggested.

If there is an argument for increasing expenditure on the armed forces which goes beyond the pay and cost pressures, it is the low share of GDP that Europe invests in defence compared with the US, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex explained. Although many Conservative Members expressed a strong solidarity with America, I am pleased that some of them share the concern that we should not be too dependent on it or expect it to do all our work for us. That is one argument that the Secretary of State should deploy.

Another argument is that although there is no great need for defence expenditure to respond to the specific events of 11 September, they highlight what is important. We need to take out insurance against a series of risks. If the events of 11 September tell us anything, it is that there is a huge uncertainty about the risks that we face. Our armed forces need to be flexible enough to respond to those different risks, many of which we cannot anticipate now. We need to be aware of the fact that the military responds to the latest war and the latest risks, but we need to consider our ability to respond to new risks.

Despite the Secretary of State's best efforts, if he does not obtain the full funding that he requires from the Chancellor, he will have to consider what hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford, said about how we deploy the existing budget between competing uses. With today's news of the increase in the cost of Eurofighter, I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he can reduce some of those cost pressures and their effect on other aspects of the defence budget, including procurement. Are the Government thinking of reducing the number of Eurofighters that we purchase to reduce some of the pressure on the defence budget, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford suggested?

I agree with what the hon. Member for Halifax said about having a wider debate on national missile defence. Many of my hon. Friends who would in no way associate themselves with the arguments for unilateral nuclear disarmament in the early 1980s are none the less concerned about the NMD programme and the value for money that we may or may not derive from it. Inevitably, if we decide to go along with that programme, there will

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be a very significant impact on our defence budget and costs, as other hon. Members have suggested. If only for that reason, we ought to have an early opportunity to debate in detail the pros and cons of becoming involved in this very important initiative with which President Bush wishes to proceed, and which will have major implications for US defence expenditure.

I wish to keep my comments as brief as possible because I am aware of the pressure of time. I wish the Secretary of State good luck, especially in the next week or so, in his battles with the Treasury over the comprehensive spending review, whose outcome will be crucial to all the issues that we have debated today. I hope that the resources that the right hon. Gentleman is able to secure will allow our armed forces to continue to do the really superb work that they have done in recent years and to complete their role not only in securing the British national defence interest but in engaging in humanitarian operations such as those in Sierra Leone, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford said, have had such a dramatic effect on the quality of life and security of people in countries beyond our own.

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