Speech delivered by Minister for the Armed Forces at the House of Commons on Thursday 4 November 2010.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Nick Harvey): This has been an excellent debate-interesting and wide-ranging-which is no surprise, as the House contains many Members who are well informed, interested and passionate about defence and national security; while many Members’ constituents will be affected by the decisions in the strategic defence and security review.
The SDSR is underpinned by the new national security strategy, which presents a picture of Britain’s place in the world and a full assessment of the challenges we face and the opportunities available to us. It is the first-ever national security strategy that really decides priorities for action and feeds directly into decisions about resources. It was the force driver for the decisions we have made.
Let me echo the Secretary of State by reinforcing the idea of how difficult this has been, particularly in the Ministry of Defence. We have been acutely aware of the human impact of the decisions we are making-not only on jobs and livelihoods, but on the emotional attachment that people have to certain aspects of defence. Our decision have had to be objective and unsentimental, and based on the military advice we have received. We simply have not had the luxury of self-indulgence or populism. The fiscal deficit is an issue of national security. Without regaining economic strength, we will be unable to sustain in the long term the capabilities required, including military capabilities, to keep our citizens safe and maintain our influence on the world stage. Every Department has had to make a contribution to deficit reduction, and the Ministry of Defence has been no exception.
We still have to live within our means as the deficit is addressed, which means also tackling the unfunded liability in the Defence budget. So the decisions we have had to make have been necessarily tough and finely balanced, and it means smaller armed forces as we make the transition to the future force structure set out for 2020 and beyond.
Before I turn to the specific issues raised in the debate today, let me say this: the decisions we have made are coherent and consistent and will provide us with the capabilities we require for the future. The campaign in Afghanistan has been protected; nothing has been done to compromise success there.
It was a pleasure to welcome the new shadow Defence Secretary to his Front-Bench role. I thought he made a very fair speech. He welcomed the five-yearly SDSRs for the future and he specifically acknowledged the up arrows on certain capabilities for the future, including in cyber-security. He referred, as did some other right hon. and hon. Members, to written parliamentary questions, showing that many of the details that will flow from the strategic defence and security review have yet to be worked out. I make no apology for that. It is essential that the House should understand the difference between a strategic review and a detailed plan. The SDSR has established a strategic aim-point and it is absolutely right to take more time working out, bit by bit, the details of what this will mean for each and every different aspect of defence.
We heard an excellent speech from the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames). He was quite right to say-I am grateful to him for doing so-that we have had to make cuts that we would not have wished to make. That, unfortunately, is the true scale not only of the financial backcloth to the SDSR, but of the legacy left by the last Government. He made some interesting points about reserves, calling for a fundamental reappraisal of the way in which we use them. He rightly pointed to the much wider use of reservists made in the United States. The US certainly uses them on a far greater scale, and as a consequence they are much cheaper than the regular forces there. One of the difficulties that we must tackle is that our current model for reservists makes them extraordinarily expensive. We will have to find a better and more effective way of using them in the future.
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that the SDSR was just the start of transformation. He mentioned the permanent secretary’s inaugural speech. I am sure that when she spoke of the next planning round, she was expecting it to be not the sole means by which reform would be pushed forward, but simply one among many. I also had a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Ministry of Defence being centralised, and about problems with accountability and vested interests. I entirely agree with his view that we need a more purple approach.
The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), very fairly acknowledged the financial backcloth, and said that he thought the review amounted to a fair stab. However, I entirely disagree with his suggestion that the 2015 timeline for exit from Afghanistan was somehow party political, or had something to do with the dynamics of the coalition. It was an entirely sensible and rational end point to specify, in the light not of only President Obama’s stated plans but of President Karzai’s intention to achieve full transition of security powers by the next presidential election.
There are many different audiences when remarks of that kind are made. It is essential for public opinion in ISAF countries to understand, to some extent, the length of the engagement, for the armed forces to understand it, and for the people of Afghanistan to know how long those forces intend to be there. They do not want foreigners in their country for ever. If the political process that Members in all parts of the House want to see in Afghanistan, along with the military effort, is ever to gain any momentum or reach any conclusion, it is vital for President Karzai and others to understand some sort of time scale as well. It seems to me that to state, as the Prime Minister did, that by 2015 our troops would no longer be involved in a combat role on the ground was eminently sensible. It does not mean that all our troops will be out by then, or that there will not be an ongoing role for them; it simply means that the combat role will not continue beyond that point.
Mr Ainsworth: May I ask the Minister whether the Prime Minister consulted either him or the Defence Secretary before he made that statement? If those were the reasons, he would have done so.
Nick Harvey: I cannot say that I had any conversations with the Prime Minister, but discussions between the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister are the confidential discussions that they would be expected to have. We are not going to be drawn into that sort of discussion at the Dispatch Box. The Prime Minister made a statement with which we are comfortable, and which we are making every effort to enact.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the 2% NATO figure. Let me make absolutely clear to him that throughout the spending period that we have outlined today, we will remain above NATO’s 2% figure without resorting to the sort of things that NATO includes in its figure, such as military pensions. The defence contribution towards cyber will certainly count towards that, but the efforts on cyber are cross-governmental. In that sense, I am including only the defence contribution. The right hon. Gentleman made some good points about force generation; those issues will be examined in depth in the coming months.
We also heard from the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who made criticisms of the process that we had heard before, but thought that the outcome was OK. He asked what “extended readiness” meant when applied to the second carrier. Let me make perfectly clear to him that no decision has been made to sell it. Further decisions on what we will do with it can be made several years from now, and will depend on what the security considerations are at the time.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), who speaks for the Democratic Unionists, rightly paid tribute to the work of the armed forces in Northern Ireland over a period of years. He also warned us of the increasing security threat. I do not want to get drawn into saying anything more about that, but let me simply say that it is fully acknowledged. He also made points about the regional footprint of our armed forces throughout the United Kingdom. For military purposes, we are very keen for the footprint of defence to be felt throughout the UK.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) said that the Navy was being left very thin-I forget the precise word that he used. We understand that we are undertaking risk now, but we hope very much that that will enable us to make our way to having a bigger and stronger Navy in the future. We are also retaining the ability to reconstitute, if that will be significant or helpful.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) wanted to know more about the future details. Detail will emerge in the next few months as we work through the key points. He and a couple of other Members asked about St Athan. The Metrix project for St Athan failed. Unfortunately, it did not come up with a viable business plan within the deadlines that had been laid down and the finance could not be found, although a fair stab had been made. I entirely accept that the financial markets are very different now from what they looked like when Metrix made its bid and embarked on the programme; the world is different today. However, we have to face the unfortunate reality that it failed.
The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) rightly said that the military covenant needs formalising. That will happen in the next few months. He also spoke about mental health-a topic about which he has acquired considerable knowledge. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and several other Members raised the Nimrod issue. The Secretary of State has offered to hold further discussions with the Opposition Front-Bench team on how we intend to bridge that capability gap.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) spoke of the need for a national strategic assessment centre. That is an interesting idea worthy of further consideration. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) asked about the troops coming home from Germany. I simply cannot agree that that should have been worked out in every last particular before the intention to do it was ever declared, but he did make the good point that people will want to understand what is going to happen, when it will happen and in what order. We will do our best to address that in the coming months. An Opposition Front-Bench Member made the specific claim that we had not discussed that with the German Government, so let me make this perfectly clear: the Federal Government have supported the British military presence in Germany for more than 50 years-it has been a symbol of our steadfast friendship with Germany-and the Prime Minister discussed this matter with Chancellor Merkel during the course of the SDSR.
Mr Kevan Jones rose-
Nick Harvey: I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, as time is running out and he left me rather short. On the issue of the troops in Germany, proper letters will be written when we come to make specific moves.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) asked about Yemen. The equipment he inquired about is being procured at the moment, and we are working closely with the Yemeni Government with the aim of providing that equipment by the end of the year.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) wanted to know whether we had had discussions with the French or the Americans about their potential use of a carrier fitted with “cats and traps”. Yes, of course we have; we have had lengthy discussions with both of them. He also asked whether the second carrier would have “cats and traps” fitted. We can decide that at any point in the future; we have left ourselves the flexibility to do that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) rightly spoke up for the brave men and women from the Colchester garrison who are going to Afghanistan. He champions their cause well, and we all wish them well in their endeavours. Other Members made constituency points on behalf of Marham and Portsmouth, and I will do my best to keep in touch with them about the developments in their areas.
The SDSR has been a difficult process, but I think people that will recognise that it is the start of the transformation of our defence, not the last word. I look forward to many further debates in the House as the details of what it will mean for every different aspect of defence is worked out in the coming months.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of the Strategic Defence and Security Review.