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Last week, Plymouth again woke to find stories in the media predicting doom and gloom for its defence sector. This time, they concerned the future base-porting arrangements for our 11 frigates. I understand that tomorrow’s local papers contain further doom and gloom with the predicted move away from Plymouth of our submarines. There is a group of people who seem to
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thrive on talking Plymouth down and the rest of us are not always as vocal as we should be—or as supported by the MOD—in setting out how much Devonport remains at the heart of the MOD and, in particular, the naval service. There is considerable—and understandable —apprehension in the city as we wait for clarity, and that is set against the local backdrop of a 300-year-old relationship with the Navy and a national outlook of very challenging economic circumstances.

I know that Ministers have visited Plymouth, including my right hon. Friend who opened the debate—he is not in his place at the moment—and the Secretary of State. On more than one occasion my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has come to speak to the strategy group that I set up three years ago and now chair. He has also been generous in ensuring that if he cannot be present, he sends a senior civil servant to almost all our meetings to help to guide our thinking. We have also discussed this subject at length in numerous debates and many uncertainties have already been clarified on the record.

The Minister has previously stated—and repeated at the strategy group meeting earlier this year—that there will be no changes to base-porting arrangements for the next five years. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary can confirm when he winds up that that guarantee still stands. Our unique and unsupplantable role as the only location capable of refitting and refuelling nuclear submarines remains, and was recently demonstrated by the signing of the refit contract for HMS Vigilant by the Secretary of State when he visited my constituency.

The Defence Estates review earmarked Devonport to become the centre of excellence for all deep maintenance—the long, complex refits and overhauls of ship and submarines that are lucrative in terms of money and jobs. Devonport will therefore remain home to the Navy’s three large amphibious vessels, together with the relocation of Royal Marine landing craft to create an amphibious warfare cluster. Given the nature of the threats we currently face, and the uncertainty surrounding the threats that may emerge in the future, that is an exciting area of capability at the heart of the defence of our country in the 21st century.

We also remain the headquarters of Flag Officer Sea Training—a world-class establishment for the Royal Navy and other navies, bringing as many as 50 Royal Navy and foreign warships to Plymouth every year. We are successfully diversifying into other defence markets, notably the production of Jackal armoured vehicles, the relevance of which colleagues and I have seen demonstrated in our visits to Afghanistan. I hope that we will hear an announcement on further orders for those vehicles in the very near future, including variants of the initial model.

As the MOD struggles to make financial ends meet, I recommend that the Minister remembers certain points in relation to the maritime change programme, which has reached a crucial stage. Devonport dockyard and naval base—and the wider city of Plymouth—have assets and skills that are unique and indispensable. The people of Plymouth and Devonport show a depth of support for defence and the armed forces that is an unrivalled asset in itself and it would be extremely foolish to undermine it. We saw that on Friday when Plymouth people turned out in their thousands to welcome our commandos, especially 29 Commando, home. The
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Minister, who wrote a recognition report, would surely have been very impressed. There was a service of thanksgiving and a medal ceremony, and the returning troops were greeted with great warmth, dignity and respect for their service over the past six months on deployment in Afghanistan.

As the maintenance work on submarines and frigates reduces, we have played, and continue to be willing to play, a role in the end-of-life submarine disposal, but in return we expect and deserve the clear and continued support of the Ministry of Defence and a mutually beneficial relationship with the Royal Navy. The Minister and his colleagues have to understand that that willingness comes at a price. That price is that we remain a naval base that is not a pinned-on extra, but the naval base and dockyard that provides the centre of gravity for the Navy.

Supposedly, we live in the days of joined-up government in which—given that all things are equal between the dockyards in terms of quality of assets and of skills—the Treasury and the Government will expect the MOD to look to wider issues. The issue in which the Treasury and the Government will be interested in above all else is whether they will be handed a hospital pass when it comes to picking up the cost of shrinking the naval bases, which will be higher and more challenging than it need be if Devonport experiences greater shrinkage than the other naval bases. What we do in Devonport provides value for money, and it relies on men and women who are highly skilled—the equivalent of the proverbial rocket scientists—which is something that any sensible Government should value. That is not just because Devonport’s facilities, assets and skills base are also flexible and future-proof—two terms that the Minister will have heard applied to warships, but that are equally true of the people that built, maintain and man them—but because Plymouth’s prosperity has for the best part of several centuries depended on the dockyard and naval base.

The lamentable do nothing approach towards the dockyard of the Tories from the 1980s and 1990s, and the subsequent dole queues and run-down, are remembered with great fear. In those days, the dockyard employed some 17,000 people. We are now down to 3,500 or 4,000, and that is roughly where it should stay. We need clarity. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State confirmed today some of what he had said to us before, but it is time to get a grip on these issues and give us the clarity we deserve.

I said in a debate such as this in February 2004 that we were confident that what we had to offer at our naval base provided value for money. We did not want the opportunity that the review offered to be fudged. Nor should the decision be open to challenge. We want fairness, not favour, and I hope that that is what we will hear soon in clear announcements about the maritime change programme and the way ahead for Devonport.

6.39 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): We have just heard an excellent example of why the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) is such a valued and valuable member of the Defence
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Committee, although I would quibble a little with her suggestion that we did nothing for Plymouth in the 1990s. I remember spending at least £1 billion there and visiting on several occasions when I was a Defence Minister, because it was so important to entrench Plymouth’s role as the future base of our submarines. Although I would quibble with that part of what she said, I agree with almost everything else. I want to follow the structure of some of her comments.

I want in particular to refer to the Select Committee on Defence’s report about defence equipment, which we produced on 26 February. It was, I think, the most damning report that the Defence Committee has produced in this Parliament, and I shall come back to it in a few minutes.

Let me begin by saying that it is not all bad news. I hope that I do not breach a confidence in saying that about a month ago, along with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and a number of colleagues from this House and the other place, I was at a function that was addressed by somebody who plays an important part in auditing the accounts of the Ministry of Defence. He drew attention to the way in which the Ministry of Defence, in some ways, is streets ahead of other Government Departments, in this country and in others, in respect of procurement. He said—I think he was right—that some of the best procurements in this country and the Department mirror the best practices in the private sector.

He also pointed out that this is a field of great difficulty. If we compare the difficulty of the national health service’s rolling out across the country a computer system that can communicate with itself, or of doing the same for the many police forces in this country, with the fact that the Ministry of Defence has had to do that with the Bowman communications system, which also has to be stuck in the back of a Land Rover and driven around battlefields in Afghanistan while being jammed and shot at, we begin to understand the complexity of the operation for the Ministry of Defence. Bowman, too, has had its difficulties—I remember them only too well—but it is turning into a real success story.

The Minister for the Armed Forces commented on the issue of fighting today’s wars or tomorrow’s wars, and said that in fighting today’s wars we do not want irreparably to damage our ability to fight tomorrow’s wars, wherever they may be. He is right, but Professor Hew Strachan, who is highly regarded in this field, has written articles and made speeches to suggest that on the current budget we cannot do both: we cannot afford to fight today’s wars and tomorrow’s wars, and we have to make a choice. My concern is that because of the Government’s current strategy, we might be failing to make that choice and failing to fight properly today’s wars and to prepare for future wars. That would be the worst of all worlds.

The Minister moved on to talk of the fleet of urgent operational requirements—I am bearing in mind Mr. Deputy Speaker’s strictures about not using acronyms —and the number of military and armoured vehicles that are being bought under the urgent operational requirements system. Many people have already raised the difficulty that urgent operational requirements are beginning to cause.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton was right to say that the Defence Committee drew attention to the success of the UOR system and programme, but
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nevertheless it produces in the Ministry of Defence a huge range of vehicles that make it much more expensive and difficult logistically to maintain and repair. I visited in my constituency recently one of the military schools that is training mechanics to repair those vehicles, and they are finding it extremely difficult because they have to learn how to repair so many vehicles.

The UOR system produces casualties and, frankly, I think that the FRES programme is one such casualty. It concerns the future rapid equipment—[Hon. Members: “Effects.”] Yes, effects system. We are all beginning to forget what the future aspect of the acronym was meant to mean, but it has now become completely absurd. It certainly was not rapid, it was not particularly for the future, it has not been very effective and to describe it as a system would be ridiculous. In our report, we described it as a fiasco. Now we hear that the Scout variant of the FRES programme is to have priority. I do not think that anybody will have very much confidence in the notion that the initial gate will be in 10 months’ time.

As a brand, FRES is meaningless. The Army has never decided what it wants and seems to be attempting to fight the battles of the last century in providing equipment that is mostly aimed at Russian hordes advancing across the German plains. The Government have shilly-shallied throughout the programme and one of the main requirements of the vehicle is that it should fit into an aircraft, the A400M, which, like FRES, looks unlikely ever to exist. The programme is a complete fiasco and it ought to be dropped. To suggest that the Scout variant of whatever it is should be part of a FRES programme would belittle whatever vehicle might come out of that process.

I am clearly getting into the subject of our equipment report of 2009. We were very concerned across the range. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton mentioned the defence industrial strategy, and that was a good example of one of the concerns that we raised. When the chief of defence matériel appeared before us, he said:

Less than a month later, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), came in front of us and said:

Of course, it is true that, as industry has told us, there is no point in having a document that is not backed up by money. It is also true that while the Government are delaying as many decisions as they can until after the general election—I was going to say “as they respectably can”, but I think that we are past that point—there is no point in an updated strategy that nobody would believe. We should never have reached this point, however. The purpose of the entire defence industrial strategy was clarity, and that is what we lack and what the defence industry of this country lacks. I am afraid that I think that this is another fiasco.

Some mention has been made during this debate of aircraft carriers. My main concern about the aircraft carriers is that at the time of the strategic defence review, when a much larger surface fleet and a larger submarine fleet were introduced, the carriers fitted well
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into the overall balance of our armed forces. Since then, we have been fighting some serious wars. Money has been sucked from the Navy so that the proposed new balance of our forces is wholly skewed. The question now arises of whether the Navy is actually viable. There is certainly a real question about whether the tiny surface fleet that we will have will be able to maintain the sort of presence around the world that this trading maritime country needs and wants. I thought that the strategic defence review, which, when I was a Minister, I wrongly categorised as being a method of putting off decisions, was a very good document, but it is now time to do it again.

Mr. Soames: My right hon. Friend is doing himself down, because although at the time when he and I were Ministers together we should have had a defence review, it was not possible to have a defence review at the fag end of an existing Government. It had to be conducted by a new Government. The pity of the last defence review, which was in many ways excellent, was that it was neither properly measured against a foreign policy baseline nor properly funded.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I want particularly to comment on the fact that it was not properly funded. Like the defence industrial strategy, the intention was that it should be properly funded—the Ministry of Defence believed that it would be—but somehow the Treasury got at it. I have quoted my hon. Friend on many occasions on which he has said that the Treasury was working for the Russians. It is a joke, of course—and it is a good joke—but the fact remains that the Treasury has to keep a hold on the purse strings. I wish, however, that it would do so on the basis of visiting the armed forces when they are deployed abroad rather more frequently, as that would give it the knowledge with which to make important decisions in the interests of this country.

I ought to conclude, because I want to end with the most important point that the Defence Committee made in its equipment report. It relates to defence research and development. The Committee said:

That was not originally our comment—it was the Government’s comment, made in the defence industrial strategy. However, one of the witnesses—the chief executive of the Society of British Aerospace Companies—told us that defence research spending was being cut by 7 per cent. this year. The Minister for the Armed Forces told us that

Yes, indeed. If the Government are right that the military advantage achieved at any one time depends on the R and D investment made over the previous 25 years, it should be the very highest priority, and clearly higher than the priority that the Minister gives it. Any other approach would be to let our forces down. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) correctly said that there is no more important decision that we can make than to send our armed forces to fight for their country. If we do not make the right decisions on defence research and technology now, 25 years down the line it will be our children and grandchildren who pay the price.

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6.53 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): This is an important debate, and I shall follow the Chairman of the Select Committee by taking up some of the points that he made, perhaps going into a little more detail on one or two of them. Yesterday in Chorley, a huge event—the Falklands remembrance service—took place. The veterans who came along were talking about kit, and what it was like in the Falklands: they lost a great deal of kit, and it did not suit the requirements at the time. We have to learn from what happened in the Falklands.

Linda Gilroy: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech. Has he, too, heard that at one point they were about to run out of ammunition for the equipment?

Mr. Hoyle: That is absolutely correct. Some of our so-called allies would not even supply the equipment and ammunition that we needed, so we must learn from those mistakes. It was right to celebrate those who gave their lives in the Falklands, and those who were seriously injured there and took part in yesterday’s parade. I pay tribute to the Chorley branch of the Royal British Legion for organising that annual event: we ought not to forget those people who served us so well in the Falklands.

It is about the best kit, and the kit that we need. It is important, whatever the requirement, whether for helicopters or the new armoured vehicles, that we get the kit into theatre as quickly as possible. We cannot expect those people to risk their lives without the best kit. Part of that kit is the camouflage uniform, which is being made in China, of all places. Unfortunately, the cut and sew contract that we put out to tender was won by a company in Northern Ireland under the pretence that it was going to create jobs. The moment that it won the contract, it moved it to a state-run factory in China. We may hear—and I hope that we do not—that that is about best value, fairness and European competition rules. It has absolutely nothing to do with European procurement rules: the uniform is produced at a state-run factory in China, so there is unfair competition. It is not good for our troops, as there are problems with those uniforms. The camouflage is unique to the British Army, and we should ensure that it is best-print quality. The infrared aspects of that uniform should be correct, but I have to tell the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), that the uniform does not meet requirements. I believe that it is substandard—it is not good enough, and he needs to look at it now.

The cut and sew contract is coming up for renewal, and I hope that my hon. Friend will make the right decision and ensure that the uniform is made and printed in this country. My constituency has previously done that work, and it is doing the work for most armed forces around the world. In fact, we are supplying the Afghan army with uniforms. The contract was not put out to tender, because we know what a good job that company in my constituency does, so we gave it straight to the company. I hope that my hon. Friend will rethink the situation. We believe in the Warwick agreement—he will have heard about it—and supporting British jobs, which means procurement in this country.

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