There have been 18 exchanges between Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Ministry of Defence
|Mon 21st October 2019||Oral Answers to Questions||28 interactions (844 words)|
|Mon 8th July 2019||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (61 words)|
|Thu 27th June 2019||Combat Air Strategy (Westminster Hall)||3 interactions (2,173 words)|
|Wed 26th June 2019||Armed Forces Day||3 interactions (132 words)|
|Mon 20th May 2019||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (130 words)|
|Wed 10th April 2019||Continuous At-Sea Deterrent||7 interactions (1,489 words)|
|Mon 25th March 2019||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (91 words)|
|Mon 18th February 2019||Oral Answers to Questions||7 interactions (96 words)|
|Mon 18th February 2019||Defence||13 interactions (1,404 words)|
|Tue 5th February 2019||RAF Scampton and the Red Arrows (Westminster Hall)||3 interactions (56 words)|
|Mon 14th January 2019||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (49 words)|
|Tue 18th December 2018||Modernising Defence Programme||3 interactions (60 words)|
|Thu 22nd November 2018||Armed Forces Covenant||9 interactions (1,484 words)|
|Tue 20th November 2018||UK Sovereign Capability (Westminster Hall)||3 interactions (72 words)|
|Thu 15th November 2018||Veterans Strategy||7 interactions (2,908 words)|
|Mon 22nd October 2018||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (49 words)|
|Tue 16th October 2018||Closures of RAF Scampton and RAF Linton-on-Ouse (Westminster Hall)||13 interactions (970 words)|
|Thu 23rd November 2017||Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917 (Westminster Hall)||3 interactions (2 words)|
6. What recent assessment he has made of the quality of service provided under contracts outsourced by his Department. 
Latest figures show that the Army is currently more than 9% under strength, and that the full-time trade trained strength is now well below the Government’s stated target. It beggars belief that Capita still holds the contract for recruitment. Have the Government just given up trying to hold Capita to account?
I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to her new post, which is very well deserved. She is a graduate of the armed forces parliamentary scheme—that is where she learned everything—so I am glad that she is now at the Dispatch Box. I very much welcome the fact that the new Type 31s are to be built in Rosyth, which should be a very good contract indeed, but what evidence can she bring forward that the contract will be delivered on time and within budget?
For the benefit of those observing our proceedings, so that they are intelligible, it ought to be explained that the hon. Gentleman is what might be described as the overlord, or the Gandalf figure, who oversees the armed forces parliamentary scheme.
I welcome the new Minister to her post. A report in the Financial Times today demonstrates that botched public sector outsourcing contracts wasted more than £14 billion-worth of taxpayers’ money just in the last three years, with the MOD found to be the biggest culprit, accounting for £4 billion-worth of the extra cost. At a time when our defences are badly in need of investment after nine years of Tory cuts, does the Minister accept that this Government’s ideological obsession with outsourcing is failing our armed forces and the taxpayer alike?
19. Capita’s record of success in engaging with potential recruits has been particularly bad, as we see with the bureaucratic aspects of the recruitment process and the difficulty with the call centres. Does the Minister think that this is the appropriate way to go forward if we are serious about getting more folk into the armed forces? 
7. What steps he is taking to support the UK defence industry. 
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14. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Trade on potential defence exports after the UK leaves the EU. 
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment. I know that she is a fervent champion of the tremendous exporters that we have in the defence sector. She will know that they often face non-tariff barriers when they export to the United States. Can she reassure me that she will be championing their cause and ensuring that those non-tariff barriers are broken down when we have a new trade deal?
The 13 old nuclear submarines tied up alongside Devonport provide a really important case not only for generating jobs in Devonport but for exporting skills and technology around the world. Will the Minister put forward a strategy for how we are going to recycle those old nuclear submarines within the next year?
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
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T2. Will the relevant Minister meet me as a matter of urgency to discuss the interminable delay in agreeing a lease for the Eastriggs site of MOD Longtown? This delay is causing a threat to important investment and job creation in my constituency. 
Will the Secretary of State commit to publishing his Department’s analysis of leaving the European Union as far as forfeiting our rights and responsibilities under article 42.7 of the Lisbon treaty is concerned?
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T10. We heard earlier about Capita’s failures in Army recruitment and Carillion’s failures in Army accommodation. Is it not time to review the costly procurement process, under which the Government just last month signed a £1.6 billion contract to decommission Sellafield with Morgan Sindall Group, which was responsible for the Faslane leisure centre super-mess? 
T5. In London, some veterans are eligible for free travel under the veterans concessionary travel scheme, but Greater Manchester’s veterans do not have the benefit of year-round free travel on public transport. Transport is a devolved matter, and our veterans should be afforded gold-standard treatment on our transport network after years of service. What discussions has the Minister had with the Mayor of Greater Manchester? 
When those who have served in uniform depart for civilian street it is very important that they are aware of the benefits for which they may or may not be eligible. Our transition programme now includes making sure that we improve the understanding of what armed forces personnel veterans can receive. I am pleased to say that the Secretary of State is working with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make very clear that universal credit is available for those who are eligible.
I am aware that my hon. Friend has done a huge amount of work on this important matter, not least by lobbying me many times. She will be aware that the armed forces covenant is growing—we now have almost 4,000 signatories—but it is important that if somebody signs the covenant it meets their expectations. If it fails or falls foul of that, we need a system to recognise that. She raises a very interesting idea. I have spoken to the Secretary of State about it and we would be delighted to meet her to discuss it further.
I am not sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) has ever spoken on defence industrial strategy—well, she has now—but it would be very helpful if I had a clone so that I could be in both Chambers at once today. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for highlighting that point.
Tempest has 1,000 people and £2 billion already invested and committed, both from the sector and from the Government. Moving forward, that will lead to potentially 22,000 jobs in the wider supply chain. When we talk about sovereign skills and investing in UK plc, that is exactly what we mean.
As the hon. Member for Witney highlighted, we asked for a strategy, not a platform. We asked how the Government would look at our combat air strategy in the round, and what the defence aerospace plan was for the next 30 years. I am delighted with what we have—but, as ever, Minister, it is not enough. We have seen recently how difficult it is to train new pilots and how long the waiting times are. In no small part, that is because of the delay in replacing the Hawk training platform.
The Hawk has done our country a huge service for many years and is still flown by the Red Arrows—although I think they could do with an upgrade, too. However, the Hawk is probably coming to the end of its natural life, and there are competitors that have positioned themselves, even to provide training for the F-35. We need to talk about what replacement aircraft we will need for the F-35 and what Tempest will finally look like. We need to talk about all this in the round, not just for a single platform.
The very talented men and women at Brough need some guarantees about their future. They need to know—as does the whole wider supply chain, not just BAE Systems—what we are talking about for the sector’s future, so I have specific questions for the Minister about plans for a training platform. What conversations is he having with the wider industry about what we will do to develop a new platform? If we are not going to do that, are we really talking about buying something off the shelf? That will be no good for sovereign skills as we seek to leave the European Union.
My other question to the Minister is about Brexit—sorry, I mean Tempest, although I have many questions about Brexit. There are currently four significant players involved in the design process. We have a huge opportunity with Tempest that we have not had before, because it is a blank piece of paper. Our weapons systems can be built into the platform, not added to it; the way the ejector seats operate can be included at the beginning, rather than the end; and the way we refuel can also be included at the development of the new platform. As we saw with the Rafale, not only does adding an in-air refuelling system make the product ugly, but—not that I am partisan—it adds challenges to stealth capability and the ability to be located on radar. We have an opportunity to do this all at the beginning, so we should be talking not just about the four companies, but about how we work with our small and medium-sized enterprises and the extraordinary companies driving change, and how they can access the programme with the four main partners.
With the Select Committee on Defence—our Chair, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is in his place—I had the privilege of visiting the Paris air show last week, as did the Minister. We saw the opportunities available for UK plc, and we also saw where our international allies are looking to fill gaps in areas that we are not ready to participate in. Can the Minister share with us what conversations he is having with our international allies about working collaboratively?
We are leaving the European Union, I hope, at the end of the year, but that does not mean that we are leaving the continent of Europe. Continuing to work with our allies to develop a platform over which we can be in more control than we have been with the F-35 gives us the opportunity to build our security and financial relationships with allies by which we are currently challenged. Will the Minister inform us what we are doing?
It is a great thing to be able to talk about defence, work on a cross-party basis with so many colleagues, and continue to work with the hon. Member for Witney on the issue. We are grateful for what has happened so far—we just want more.
It is a pleasure to make a brief contribution to this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. All three previous speakers have shown absolute mastery of the detail, which I cannot hope to match in this context, so I intend to draw out some of the broader issues and seize a particular current opportunity: the forthcoming election of a new leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister.
Occasionally in politics, a window of opportunity opens, usually when aspiring leaders of the nation wish to generate support from those whom they presume to lead. We on the Select Committee on Defence met on Tuesday and decided that we would write to both of the final candidates in the leadership election. I have in front of me the text of the similar letters sent to each, picking up on the Foreign Secretary’s bid for the support of defence-minded MPs. In those letters, we spell out the fact that the Defence Committee, whose members represent four different parties, has for several years been absolutely united about the fact that we need to be spending more on defence.
In particular, the Committee believes that we ought to have as our target figure not the bare 2% of GDP that we currently just about manage to spend, but a figure approaching 3% of GDP, the proportion of gross domestic product that used to be spent by the United Kingdom—not during the cold war, when that figure was 4.5% to 5%, but as late as the mid-1990s, several years after the cold war had come to an end.
The complexity of weapons systems in any of the dimensions that we might care to identify—land, sea, air, cyber-space, or space itself—is increasing. If we do not have an adequate financial base for defence, it is difficult to see how any of those projects can hope to be brought to fruition. That applies as much to what from this moment onwards I will call “the Tempest strategy” as it does to every other system.
In a few moments, I will come back to the terms of the letter that I sent. However. I want to emphasise what my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) has just said by noting that as these advanced weapons systems get more complex, their numbers get fewer, and they have to be planned longer and longer in advance. Needless to say, they also cost a great deal more. I am a little more familiar with the cycle involving warships than I am with aircraft, but we can see the same pattern. For example, there are two types of submarines: nuclear-powered attack submarines and ballistic missile submarines. No sooner have we completed the construction of a class of one of those vessels than we have to construct a class of the other.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention and more importantly, I thank his father for his service.
Not only have we had the opportunity to celebrate our D-day veterans, but next year, we as a country will be able to enjoy VE-day. This gives the whole country the opportunity to thank everybody who served then, who serves and who will serve, as well as their families and everybody involved. It annoys many of us that we focus on our veterans’ community only on Remembrance weekend and that we are able to ignore them for the rest of the year. We should not. They need our support day in, day out, because let us be honest: they earned it. Many of us in this Chamber believe that we act in public service every day, but the hours that we are away from our families and that we commit to our constituents are nothing compared with what we ask our armed services to do for us in every corner of the planet, without hesitation. If they dare to say, “No,” they are no longer in the armed forces. We thank them and their families, which is why I am adamant that this House should become a covenant employer, as should every Department. They should not just be covered by the Government saying, “But the Government signed up to the covenant.” Every employer in this country should turn that into a reality.
I could not agree with the hon. Lady more, as I do on most, if not all, issues. One thing that we miss with those who are currently serving is the burden that is placed on their families, who have to deal with not only the tax burden and costs associated with moving up and down the country, but whether they have the right qualifications—if a teacher is suddenly deployed to Lossiemouth, for example, they might not be able to teach. If a member of our serving personnel gets a traffic ticket, their family has to sort it out if they have been deployed. The responsibility for all the small, day-to-day things of living fall on the families who are left behind, male or female, which is why we need to make the covenant real.
My concern about the covenant is that so many people say that they support it but do not know what it means. My wonderful city became a signatory to the covenant five years ago, but none of the people who signed it still holds the post that they held then. Unfortunately, my city has decided that its version of supporting the covenant is resending an RBL email once a quarter. That is not delivering the covenant—yet there are many places that do even worse. We have to make the covenant real. We need an ombudsman—I know that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) supports that—and we need to ensure that the covenant means something to everybody.
Among those who do not understand what the covenant is are those who would be its beneficiaries. They do not know how or when to access help, and do not come to us and ask for it. One of the issues in this House is that too many of our teams do not know how much support is out there for serving personnel. That is why the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and I organised an event in this place two weeks ago, so that our staff could meet people from veterans charities to learn how to get support for our constituents who are veterans when they need it. There are two questions that all of us should ask our constituents when they come to us for help: “Have you ever served in the armed forces?” and “Are you a member of a trade union or trade body?”. We can help them in a way that no one else can if we know those two pieces of information. We have to make sure that they can get the right support, from places as diverse as the charity SSAFA, Veterans UK and even the right part of the NHS. Obviously, in all our constituencies, there are many small veterans charities that can also assist.
I appreciate that many other people wish to speak, but I want to point out that this week is the centenary of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, a wonderful charity that has supported hundreds of thousands of people across the country over the last century. It has chosen to launch a wonderful campaign this week to mark its centenary. It is asking the wider community to identify RAF veterans, because it believes that more than 100,000 RAF veterans are not getting the support that they need, warrant or could do with. It is asking all of us to put those veterans back on the radar, which is appropriate for the RAF. I have today tabled an early-day motion on the subject; I hope that everybody in the Chamber will sign it.
There is nothing more important than ensuring that the people who serve, and served, our country get support from everyone in this place. I thank everybody for their support today.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind comments. It was a pleasure to meet a number of businesses in his constituency. We have been engaging a lot with the small and medium-sized enterprise supply chain. In fact, on 9 May, I held a roundtable with small businesses in north Wales, and they felt very optimistic about the future. Through our equipment plan, we are actively engaging with the supply chain to ensure that the opportunities in each of our projects will maximise the input that they can have.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She will be aware that Sir John Parker is currently doing a review of his initial report. International competition is also about encouraging UK industry and UK shipyards to be as competitive as possible, so that they can not only maximise the opportunities that UK defence offers, but take advantage of competition around the globe, too.
I am now going to come on to the economic case. It ought to be the case, for sure—and on this I am sure we do agree with others—that the Government carry out a threat analysis and, subsequent to that, get what they need to meet that threat and to keep people safe. But we do not believe, quite simply, that Trident complements that effort. The total cost of Trident, from design through to life support, ran into many, many billions of pounds—estimated by some to be as high as £200 billion. We know for sure that the current renewal project is already woefully out of control. Indeed, over £1 billion of the £10 billion contingency that was set aside by the Ministry of Defence has already been tapped into, and of the extra £1 billion announced by the Chancellor, £400 million is exclusively for the nuclear renewal project. The most recent House of Commons Library figures tell us that the £2.2 billion per year spent on maintaining the deterrent is roughly equivalent to £42 million each week. That is about the same as we spend on income support, statutory maternity pay, carer’s allowance or winter fuel payments.
All of that represents a drain on conventional defence, which has always been the priority of the SNP. This is at a time when the Department has enormous funding gaps in its equipment plan, estimated by the National Audit Office to be well over £10 billion, and big gaps in the funding of the defence estate, which is draining money as though it were going out of fashion. It is at a time when the Ministry of Defence continues with the bizarre fetish of privatising and outsourcing things that do not need to be privatised or outsourced: the defence fire and rescue service, the war pension scheme, the armed forces compensation scheme and even the medals office. Those things must remain in the hands of the MOD in their entirety. In the armed forces, it is not uncommon for serving members to have to buy substitute kit because the money is not there to get it through the Department’s budget.
Far from enhancing our national security and providing the necessary capability to keep us safe, Trident is a drain on conventional defence, particularly as the Government keep it as part of the overall defence budget, to the point that it diminishes our conventional defence and security posture, which is in need of proper investment and oversight.
To make one last point, it can be concluded that this country is now an irresponsible nuclear power. The timing of this debate could not be more breathtaking if the Government had tried. We sit here today to mark 50 years as a maritime nuclear power, but just last week the National Audit Office told us that hundreds of millions of pounds are being wasted by the Government on storing obsolete nuclear submarines and their utter failure to decommission them properly and responsibly. The independent NAO—this is not me—has said that it puts the UK’s reputation as a responsible nuclear power at risk.
The MOD has not decommissioned a single submarine successfully since 1980, twice as many are currently in storage as are in service, nine still contain radioactive fuel, seven have been in storage for longer than they were in service and no submarines have been defuelled in the last 15 years. It is a total failure, and the liability costs estimated by the Secretary of State’s own Department run to £7.5 billion. We can be sure, as night follows day, that that figure will get higher. The auditors said that the MOD did not have a fully developed plan to dispose of operational Vanguard and Astute submarines or its future Dreadnought-class vessels, which have different nuclear reactors.
Here the House sits with the iron-clad consensus that we must renew a nuclear submarine programme that the Government do not even have plans to decommission in the future, even though the National Audit Office has just outlined what a costly farce that has become. This cannot just be shrugged off as though it is business as usual. The public expect us to get to the bottom of it. I ask the Secretary of State—perhaps the Minister will say when he sums up—whether he will set up a public inquiry into the farce of nuclear submarine decommissioning.
Order. I am sure the hon. Lady wants to catch my eye to speak. I do not want her to use up her speech just yet. I am bothered that, with 19 speakers, there will now be less than 10 minutes each.
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No, I will move on.
It remains the case that an astronomical financial commitment is required to pay for these weapons, and the detrimental effect that is having on the UK’s conventional capability is being overlooked. The UK is choosing to pour billions of pounds into having nuclear weapons, which is akin to a mad dad selling off the family silverware and remortgaging the family home so that he can have the Aston Martin he has always fantasised about when all the family needs is a Ford Mondeo. That is the situation we are in.
We are here today to mark 50 years of the United Kingdom’s continuous at-sea deterrent. The world has changed beyond recognition over those 50 years, and all the old certainties of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s have moved on. The threats we face today are more complex and far more nuanced than they have ever been, yet we are being asked to believe that the solution remains the same: a nuclear-armed submarine patrolling the seas 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. It is not the case.
Finally, this is one issue on which the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament, the SNP, the Labour party in Scotland, the Greens, the TUC, the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church are all agreed. We oppose nuclear weapons and having them foisted upon us, because Scotland knows that there is absolutely no moral, economic or military case for the United Kingdom possessing nuclear weapons.
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan). I am grateful to her for how she entered into what I think should be the spirit of this debate, by giving us such a vivid account of a submariner’s life underneath the waves and of their families. It was a particularly nice touch that she was dressed as a submariner for the occasion. It is also extraordinary and almost unbelievable that she herself is practically exactly the same age as the practice of continuous at-sea deterrence.
I am glad that she struck that tone, because the SNP spokesman, whom I respect and really quite like, which will probably be to his detriment, suggested that it was misguided of the House to take this time to honour the service and the sacrifice principally of the submariners, but also of their families and many others, in maintaining this policy of continuous at-sea deterrence. This is not the House slapping itself on the back; this is the House paying tribute to this extraordinary service. It does not matter whether one agrees with the policy of nuclear deterrence, it is right that we all say thank you to everyone who has served.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the personal interest that he takes in this issue. He is absolutely right: people need signposts so that they know where to go. We are working far more closely with NHS England and the devolved Administrations to understand where the complex treatment services are, and to ensure that when people make the transition, they are handed across to the civilian agency that will look after them.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done on this issue as chair of the APPG. I should be more than delighted to meet her. It is important that we carry out the necessary scrutiny and are seen to be doing so, and that we do what is best for our veterans.
As I touched on in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), most of our defence procurement and most opportunities in the defence industry are not through the European Union. We will continue to work with the European Union to have access to programmes. That is not only important for UK business; if the European Union wants to succeed in developing a defence sector, it needs countries such as Britain and the United States to be able to participate in these schemes.
The high north is an important part of the development of our strategy. At the weekend, I had the opportunity to see our Royal Marines in Norway and what they are doing to support the Norwegian armed forces. We will be deploying our P-8s in 2020, along with Norway and the United States, to deal with the increased threat that we face from Russian submarines in the north Atlantic.
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I feel this is a monthly exchange between the hon. Gentleman and me. All I can do is refer him to the answers I gave earlier in this session. The visible signs of progress are now there for all to see.
As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, when we make major announcements, including on the delivery of carrier strike, they are shared across the Government. The deployment of the Queen Elizabeth and the carrier group to the Mediterranean, the middle east and the Pacific is an important sign that Britain is a global nation and a nation that wishes to play its role in upholding our interests and, of course, our values. As we have invested so much in our global carrier forces, it is important that we put them to sea and demonstrate Britain’s global presence, our involvement and our ability to act when required.
Order. This is a fairly short debate—it needs to finish at 6.38 pm—and the Minister will want to make a short winding-up speech. If colleagues stick to about six minutes, we should get everyone in.
Space junk intrigues me. Does the hon. Lady think that a piece of nut—that big—can be identified from her constituency?
It is always a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), whose constituency is just across the border from mine.
This is a very important debate, although it may not seem so to some Members who are watching it outside the Chamber. Two members of the Defence Committee are present: its Chair, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty). He and I have similar surnames; I will leave it at that.
The Minister set out the requirements for our armed forces, although I wish he had faced the Chamber while he was making his speech; that would have made things a wee bit easier. He told us what was required for the systems of command, discipline and justice, as well as designating the remit of the services police for the jurisdiction of the powers of commanding officers and the military. On a personal level, I fundamentally get that. I have a brother who served both in Iraq and twice in Afghanistan, and I know that the husband of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) is a submariner. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, submariners constitute a section of the armed forces that is seldom mentioned. Many elements of the armed forces do not have a voice, including the medical element, which provides services on the battlefield that save lives—not just those of our own wounded, but even those of adversaries.
I will be brief, because I know that others want to speak. The Minister said that members of the armed forces were not employees. I think that, in the 21st century, that is a dreadful situation. We hear a lot about the state of housing for members of the armed forces and their families, and we hear a lot about pay, which the Minister also mentioned, but where is the voice of the armed forces when it comes to improving those elements?
We are told about the service families who do such a fantastic job—some of them recently gave evidence to the Defence Committee—but when it comes to employee rights, we need a armed forces representative body. That is what my hon. Friends, at least, believe, and indeed, during Defence questions, not only my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West but a Labour Member called for it. It would not have the ability to strike—no one would call for that—but it should be possible, in the 21st century, for members of the armed forces to be able to call themselves employees and to enter into negotiations with their employer. That is possible in many of our NATO allied armed forces systems. It is disappointing that that is not mentioned in the statutory instrument—but of course it would not be, because it is an element that has to be gone through every couple of years—but I hope that the Minister and some of his team, and perhaps Labour Members as well, will be in the Chamber on 8 March, when I will present a private Member’s Bill on the establishment of a representative body, thus making a commitment to my party’s manifesto.
I think it important that we recognise the service given by members of the armed forces. As was pointed out by both the Minister and the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), we should recognise that service not only in the context of military capability, but in the context of the assistance that they provide through peacekeeping. I often reminded myself of these words:
“Nothing is lost by peace; everything may be lost by war.”
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I think it safe to say that one thing that has been consistent since the armed forces were formed is that there have always been gripes and comments put up by those who serve, and rightly so, but we would expect them to be dealt with by chains of command and in appropriate areas. Having a separate representative body of the military would not be the best way forward, and I do not see that as the solution.
No one should feel afraid to contact their Member of Parliament in any scenario. At the end of the day, we are here to act as our constituents’ advocates and champions, and ultimately, if necessary, to do so confidentially. I am always clear that my surgeries are open.
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I have, and I do not like it.
Also inherent in this SI are provisions for enlistment, pay and the redress of complaints, and all those things at heart are J1 considerations, so I intend to restrict my short speech to the people carrying out the J1 function—the men and women who serve in our armed forces—and our responsibility and, as the Minister mentioned during his opening speech, our offer to them.
The armed forces currently face a challenge with regard to recruitment and retention. Ironically, it is a challenge that has been brought about through good news. The British economy currently has record low levels of unemployment, including record low levels of youth unemployment. It is the sad truth that it is a lot easier to recruit into the armed forces when there are few jobs available in the civilian world. Therefore, because actually unemployment is at a record low, the talented young men and women that we seek to recruit into our armed forces have other credible options.
The shadow Minister mentioned that the delay in the processing of recruitment applications through Capita has had a detrimental effect on our ability to recruit the brightest and best young people whom we need and want in our armed forces. People who are credible—people who have other employment options—are exactly the people we want to recruit and exactly the people who will be snapped up by civilian employers, who are currently competing with our armed forces to recruit them. We have a duty to improve and speed up the recruitment process—not just a duty, but a self-interest.
My hon. Friend makes an important point—one that I will touch upon briefly later in my speech—about the changing nature of conflict and the skills mix that we require from young people coming into the armed forces. We need to ensure that we are able to be a meaningful and relevant set of armed forces in the here and now, rather than think about the conflicts that we have had in the past.
I will finish this point.
We must invest heavily in the core sites where our personnel will be based. That is the focal point. As we reduce the size of all three services of our armed forces, we are building up super-garrisons where we can invest in the long term to improve the accommodation and training facilities, but that means that we must take difficult decisions to close bases.
No. We are jumping into discussing one of the assets that is based at RAF Scampton. Given the time, I might as well throw away my speech and just go for it, because I will not be able to get through the points. The RAF Red Arrows are critical to our capabilities in a number of ways. They allow our pilots to develop skillsets that they would not get in any other forums. They do much to promote Britain’s activity, soft power and so forth. They do outreach—for example, at Scampton and the Bournemouth air show. They reach out to youngsters and invigorate them to think about potentially serving in the armed forces, or at least to support and have reverence and respect for what our armed forces do.
There is no threat to the Red Arrows, but we must ask two questions. First, where can they be based? The RAF itself must make a judgment call on that operational decision.
When I look around this Chamber, I see many Members on both sides of the House who are absolute supporters of the importance of the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent and understand how vital it is to keeping Britain safe. That unites both the main parties, and will continue to do so in the long term when we deliver Dreadnought.
I cannot imagine either CASD or my hon. Friend reaching 50, and I think we should put my hon. Friend on one of the submarines as part of that celebration. The anniversary shows that our nuclear deterrent has kept Britain, and also our NATO partners, safe over 50 years.
As I have pointed out, we are seeing an increasing budget. What we are doing, as we have outlined, is investing in those capabilities to make sure that we have better availability of assets, whether that means ships, armoured vehicles, submarines or aircraft. We are also investing in stockpiles to make sure that we have the depth of stockpiles that we need in order to deal with the increasing threats around the globe.
The first is to make sure that we develop both the technologies and capabilities where we see our adversaries moving so quickly. That may be artificial intelligence or autonomous vehicles. Secondly, it is to make sure that our forces are properly ready and able to have a much better forward presence right around the globe. We want to use our armed forces as a deterrent against our adversaries so they can see that we are willing and able to act if and when it is required. Thirdly, it is to make sure that we look after the service personnel who make up our armed forces and that we put in the right investment to make sure that they are properly supported in doing the amazing job that they do in defending our country.
The armed forces covenant is an extremely important document not just because it recognises the value that armed forces personnel have in public life, but because it recognises our duty of care to servicemen and women and their families. It is that duty of care that has motivated me to address this debate on the subject of service family accommodation.
A life in the military is transient and uncertain. It means moving across the country and, in some cases, across borders. For service personnel, it means setting up a home and a life in a place, with the knowledge that they may have to repeat the process again very soon. It means them having little or no choice about their location and type of accommodation. Given this sacrifice, as well as the other sacrifices that our servicemen and women make every day, it is reasonable for all service families to expect that, wherever they are stationed, they are guaranteed a secure, affordable and comfortable home in which to live and raise their children. As a nation, to meet our obligations enshrined in the armed forces covenant, we need to do all in our power to see that this very practical and important need is met.
The armed forces covenant states that service accommodation should be
“good quality, affordable and suitably located.”
I attest that this component of the covenant not only is unmet, but has been categorically failed. In 1996, the Ministry of Defence sold off 57,400 service family homes to Annington, a subsidiary of the Japanese bank, Nomura. Annington has since been sold to private equity firm Terra Firma for a profit—thought to be in the region of £2 billion. This has caused not only a serious black hole in the MOD’s finances, but great concern among armed forces families about their financial future. The ripple effect of the decision is significant. Annington has sold off 20,000 homes over the past two decades. Many forces families who are living in those houses were told that they could not stay—even if they had the means to buy those houses—as they were contractually obliged to return them to their original state. For many, their only option was to queue in a field for hours without any guarantee over what house they would get.
The contract agreed by the Government in 1996 allowed a rent review in 2021—just three years from now. There is nothing to stop Annington from charging market rent. Although we know that the MOD would like rents to fall, Annington expects them to rise significantly from 2021. The MOD could hand back the cost, but that would be very expensive. There are very few cards to play. Annington holds the monopoly. Indeed, rents are already rising significantly and new service families are already paying 2020 rents.
In 2016, Annington put 147 houses in Hawe barracks up for auction on 25-year short leases. Councils, desperate for housing stock to reduce waiting lists, bid at an auction and an out-of-area council won. These are state entities using state funds to bid on housing stock, which was owned by the state in 1996. The profits from this have filled the pockets of a private equity firm. That is a failure and a disgrace.
The result is far-reaching. There are very few houses left for armed forces families. In my most local garrison in Catterick, there are no houses at all for new postings to move into. Planned additional housing is yet to materialise and there are strong suspicions about whether the new super-garrison will be delivered on time. When it is delivered, it will be one of only three super-garrisons in the UK. Many regiments plan to move there. Can the Minister guarantee enough housing for service families in Yorkshire even after that is delivered?
Many service families have been pushed into the private rented sector. Indeed, the future accommodation model has set out the option for the introduction of a rental allowance to allow families to rent privately. A survey carried out by the Army Families Federation, a fantastic organisation that gives a voice to service families, looked closely at this matter. There was great concern over affordability, access to schools, the difficulty in obtaining housing, the lack of time to look and the security of tenure. One of the starkest observations was the loss of the support networks and the understanding that comes from living in a military community. Some 59% said that a loss of a military community was a negative or very negative aspect of renting privately. They also cited the difficulty of establishing themselves in an existing community with the transient nature of a service family’s life.
One person who had lived outside of the military community said:
“It was difficult to integrate into an already established community, there was a feeling of detachment from the unit when my spouse was deployed. They made many efforts for which I was grateful, but the geographical distance establishes an automatic sense of isolation.”
This loss of community is happening within existing barracks, too. In a parliamentary question last year, I asked how many civilians, not including reservists or civil servants—so these are civilians unattached to the military—are subletting service family accommodation. The number for 2017-18 had more than doubled from the previous year and tripled from the year before that. The figures included sublets only and did not include the former SFAs in Army garrisons that have been taken into the private sector. This practice raises all kinds of security issues, causes a strain on resources designed and built for military life and does nothing to foster the community that is so vital to service family life.
All these problems can be traced back to that single act of selling military housing to Nomura. This sale, like much of the privatisation projects of the past few decades, was sweetened with the promise of quality and an end to the dilapidation of the past. However, the standard of these houses is far from satisfactory for many of the service personnel. Fewer than half of regular personnel are happy with their accommodation, and the Army Families Federation says that accommodation is by far the top issue reported to them by personnel.
One member of a service family, who very understandably asked not to be named, said:
“The single soldier’s accommodation facilities are dire. There are 4 men sharing rooms as standard. These have not been updated in line with new regulations about single soldiers having single rooms with en suite facilities”—
these do not even have en suite facilities—
“and it’s like a permanent sleepover that nobody wanted to go to.”
If the armed forces covenant is to be honoured, we must see to our end of the bargain. We must ensure that we have homes fit for heroes. Anyone who risks life and limb in service to this country deserves to live in the knowledge that they and their families will be taken care of and that they will have a home to come back to. Ending the scandal that has caused this crisis in military housing must be a top priority for us all.
One of the other issues is the lack of understanding when families are not in community-based schools with a lot of military families but are isolated. Schools do not necessarily understand the additional stressors and tensions in families where the father, mother, or sometimes both, is on deployment. Is there not also work to do with schools to understand the additional tensions and problems of our young children when their families are away and to help them, particularly at times of stress such as during exams, to ensure that their education does not suffer?
Before my hon. Friend moves on to veterans, let me say that she has been an amazing champion for armed forces families during her time in this place. May I add to the list of challenges for armed forces families that she has so brilliantly explained? Spousal employment, and the role the military can play in helping spouses to find employment as their other halves are being posted, are key factors in the morale of armed forces families.
PTSD Resolution is a very small charity that has an incredible impact. It does not pay anyone anything, and any money it receives it uses for treatment. It is run by Colonel Tony Gauvain, my old commanding officer, so I declare an interest, but I ask the House to please support PTSD Resolution. It does great work.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak and to follow the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), who is an admirable champion for armed forces personnel, veterans and their families. It is a privilege to have shared in a small way in the work she has done on this issue.
We will have to constrain our contributions this afternoon for reasons outside your control, Madam Deputy Speaker, and outside the Minister’s and mine. I fully appreciate the opportunity to put forward a voice for Northern Ireland at a time when we give a disproportionately higher percentage of our population to the armed forces—higher than anywhere else in this United Kingdom—but are so disproportionately poorly served by the implementation of the armed forces covenant. That is why it is important for me to contribute to the debate.
I accept fully the sincere commitment the Minister has given and is giving to the implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. It is a genuinely felt belief of mine that the Minister sincerely wishes to resolve some of the outstanding and ongoing issues about full implementation in Northern Ireland.
This is such an important issue that we included it within the confidence and supply agreement. However, when we look through this armed forces covenant report, and consider through-life support for armed forces veterans, we see on page 98 reference to the support we give veterans in England; on page 101, reference to the support we give veterans in Scotland; and on page 102, reference to the support we give veterans in Wales. Where is the page on Northern Ireland? Where is the part of this document about the support we give veterans in Northern Ireland? It is not there.
I have raised on the Floor of this House before the Border Force—or border farce—issue that has affected veterans seeking to serve their country in that regard. Anywhere else in the United Kingdom, someone can satisfy the eligibility criteria through their military service; in Northern Ireland, Border Force scrapped that proposal. It did so on the basis of an erroneous understanding of advice given by the Equality Commission. The Equality Commission merely said, “You have to justify your actions if it disproportionately impacts one side of the community or another.” Border Force—an agency of our Government, responsible to a Whitehall Department —decided not to justify why someone’s service within our armed forces should satisfy eligibility criteria. In the thrust and the vein of the armed forces covenant, that is a disgrace. Now Border Force is facing legal challenge from a former member of the armed forces who happens to come from the Roman Catholic community but is being denied the chance to serve his country because of his religion. Border Force cited protections for him and his community, yet it is using those very protections to frustrate that gentleman’s ability to serve his country. That is not okay.
On two separate occasions, for two years in a row, I have had to challenge veterans Ministers in the Defence Committee and say, “It’s great that we have armed forces champions in local government, but, our local government in Northern Ireland has no role or responsibility in housing or in health, or any of the issues through which the champion process makes a big difference.” In October 2016, I brought correspondence to the Defence Committee that stated, up-front and full-square, that the armed forces covenant does not apply in Northern Ireland. That was wrong, but it was the policy direction being set by the Minister of Health at that time, Michelle O’Neill. It was a disgrace. That is why it is crucial that when we consider the implementation of the armed forces covenant, the Minister has to consider placing a statutory duty on Departments and our public services throughout this United Kingdom. This cannot rest at the will or the whim of any Minister in charge at any given time, because to allow it to be within their grip, poisoned by their political ideology at any given time, is a true disservice to service personnel who served us so well.
The Minister has mentioned the veterans support officer who has been appointed. I know that the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association for Northern Ireland is doing tremendous work to try to navigate its way behind the scenes through the labyrinthine problems that we have in Northern Ireland. I am concerned that the funding that has been made available to them comes from LIBOR, that there is no sustainability of funding, that they are only just getting going, and that they are trying to work without full political support—the full intervention and the full weight of Government behind them. Yet they continue admirably.
I hope that in the coming months the Minister will be able to take the opportunity to think about how he profiles resource properly for veterans’ support in Northern Ireland, including extending it further. How does he recognise that we as a country still owe a duty to the significant number of service personnel who we get from the Irish Republic? The armed forces covenant does not apply at all to those in the Republic of Ireland, and why should it? Yet those veterans who have served this country and have returned to their home nation have to pay for themselves to travel into the UK to avail themselves of these services. Their service was exactly the same; the sacrifice they were prepared to make was exactly the same. We are going to have to consider that in the months to come.
These progress reports, I accept entirely, show a continual development of the covenant commitment to our service personnel. It is a continually improving picture. But until we grasp the nettle of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998—until national Government believe that we need to and should amend section 75 to include veterans as a specific classification of individuals who should be protected in equality law—we will never fully realise the commitment that we have made.
I was going to talk about war widows, but the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has admirably delivered all the points that needed to be made on that subject, save to say that the principle of the argument has been won with regard to those who have not had their pensions reinstated as a consequence of marriage. The way they are treated is a stain on how we treat the honour and the valour of their former loved ones. I hope that the Minister will turn his attention to resolving and removing that stain in the weeks to come.
In Birkenhead, as my right hon. Friend says. We also had Vosper Thornycroft in Southampton, and Harland and Wolff in Belfast, to name just a few, but today the landscape is much diminished. The Clyde is the only UK location capable of building complex warships, and even its capabilities have been significantly downsized. In 2013, when I was working in that very shipyard, more than 1,500 jobs in the shipbuilding industry were lost, and the BAE Systems shipyard in Portsmouth—formerly Vosper Thornycroft—closed.
Some 75% of shipbuilding jobs in the UK have been lost since the 1980s. That downsizing was predicated on a realisation that Britain did not have a naval fleet big enough to sustain the industrial base that existed at the time. Rather than drip-feeding orders to yards that would never be at full enough capacity to invest in world-class infrastructure, the idea was to cut our cloth accordingly, so in 2009 the then Labour Government signed a terms of business agreement with BAE Systems. The concept was to introduce a proper and rigorous strategy for shipbuilding in the UK. In return for rationalisation and transformation, the industry would be guaranteed a certain drumbeat of industrial capacity that would give it the confidence to invest in reaching the upper quartile of the world.
When I started working in the shipyards as a young graduate, one of my jobs was to study every other shipyard in the world that was building complex warships, benchmark us against them, determine what they were doing right and develop a prescription that would allow us to design a world-class shipyard in the UK. That seemed a laudable aspiration, because if we could build an infrastructure in the certainty of a pipeline of orders, we could build ships that achieved world-class performance, saving the taxpayer money. It was such a great idea that other countries followed the same model—most notably Canada, which developed its own national shipbuilding strategy and, indeed, employed the very same person from the Royal Navy who developed our strategy under the terms of business agreement.
Sadly, when I corresponded with the Minister for defence people and veterans last November, he informed me that the terms of business agreement had been extinguished in return for the signature of the Type 26 manufacture phase 1 contract. It was then superseded by the national shipbuilding strategy, which in the meantime was used as cover to significantly reduce the scope of ships that the UK had been qualified to build and that had given certainty to UK industry. The very first page of the strategy document states:
“It is only by building ships that we will once again become good at building ships”.
Well, quite. That seems like a laudable aspiration and exactly what we all want to achieve, but unfortunately the strategy itself undermines that effort, restricting the scope of orders that can go through UK shipyards by limiting the exclusivity of UK build to frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers.
The 2009 terms of business agreement made very clear the range of ships that were to be built exclusively in the UK without competition, including aircraft carriers; amphibious vessels; all forms of frigates and destroyers; mine countermeasure vessels, including all design and major subcontracted work; all minor naval vessels, including patrol ships; and complex auxiliary ships, which at the time meant the vessels for joint sea-based logistics and joint casualty treatment. That certainty would have enabled British industry to invest in world-class facilities that delivered world-class performance for UK shipyards, achieving the competitive advantage that we had so long striven for. Given that other countries are successfully employing the very same model—Canada now plans to build 15 Type 26 frigates, as opposed to Britain’s much diminished effort of just eight, if we even get them—it is self-evident that we are doing something very wrong by undermining that effort.
It seems to me that the national shipbuilding strategy, particularly the Type 31e frigate project, is a classic example of the Government misidentifying the root cause of the problem that they are trying to solve. The UK prosperity agenda and the effort to make our industry better would be much better served by providing certainty for industry to invest in being world class. That would achieve the opening gambit set out in the strategy document.
I thank the hon. Lady for that pertinent intervention, which drives home the point that I am trying to make. I am highlighting the landscape as I see it now, which is not what we want to achieve and is not optimal. That is not necessarily the fault of the Ministry of Defence, but of what Sir John Parker’s report refers to as the “total enterprise” of shipbuilding, which very much includes the Treasury as financial controller.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that case. I encourage her to write, if she has not already done so, to the armed forces and veterans Minister, whom I have certainly found to be attentive in dealing with such cases.
We all have to realise the vast change that will happen in the veterans community over the next 10, 15 and 20 years. There is a whole generation associated with the second world war—we are very low on numbers associated with the first world war—who will be dead in a few years’ time. Our veterans community will be younger and more diverse in terms of men and women and its ethnic make-up at time goes by. Any new strategy we implement has to take cognisance of those changes. The expectations of veterans and ex-forces personnel will change as well. They will expect more from the Government and more from local government. They will expect better, joined-up service delivery from local and national Government.
There are different models around the world that we can learn from, and we should not be afraid to ask some pretty big questions. For example, does it need to be the Ministry of Defence that is responsible for veterans’ services? In the United States, there is an entirely separate Government Department for veterans’ services. New Zealand has a separate Government Department. In South Korea, a veterans council is responsible for the implementation of veterans’ services and strategies. We know—let us be charitable— how stretched the Ministry of Defence is at this particular juncture, so perhaps we could be asking these types of big questions and question whether the models and the set-up we have really will serve people best in the future. We could learn from the Danish model when it comes to supporting serving members of the armed forces who go on to become veterans and ex-forces.
Most of the Members here in the Chamber regularly attend debates on defence. They will know that the Scottish National party has called for the establishment of an armed forces federation. In fact, we introduced a Bill to that effect. I know many Members do not agree with that, but I am not convinced we are serving them well at the moment. Members of the armed forces do not have a statutory body to advocate on their behalf. They really just rely on Members of Parliament. I hate to point it out, but when one looks at the numbers who are here today less than a week on from Remembrance Sunday, we have to think that perhaps Members of Parliament are not the best ones to always rely on—exceptional circumstances do exist, of course. But why can veterans not have a body, similar to the Police Federation, which has a role in statute to argue for better terms and conditions for them and their families while they are in the armed forces, when they leave the armed forces, and, as others have mentioned, for that crucial transition phase.
We need to better codify the role of the veterans champion. Sadly, about 10 minutes after the Minister got to his feet, Glasgow’s veterans champion, who was in the Gallery, had to dash off to Euston to get his train back to Glasgow. In Scotland, we have 32 veterans champions, one of whom is the husband of my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). There are 32 different people doing this across Scotland—I am not sure how many there are in the rest of the UK—and there is not any real code to say what their job is or what their responsibilities are. Someone might be in Glasgow, where we have a really active and excellent veterans champion who operates within the city council—within the local authority—but then they might cross the boundary into another local authority and find that that is not the case.
I get the feeling that part of why we do not codify this is that it will end up costing more money, but that cannot be a reason not to do so. I speak to veterans champions who are full of the best will in the world but who are not entirely sure where their role fits within the council. In Glasgow, for example, our veterans champion is not an elected member of the council, which I think is a good thing. It gives them freer rein, but in my understanding, in most local authorities they tend to be Lord Provosts—the Scottish equivalent of the town mayors that exist in England and other parts of the UK. It is absolutely a worthy role, but exactly what the role of a veterans champion is, and is not, needs to be tightened up.
I come to the issue of suicide among veterans. I agree with the Minister that we cannot allow the myth to be perpetuated of the broken warrior, as it were, but at the same time, we cannot ignore failings in the system. On the issue of suicide, it is my understanding—I think the Minister said this at the Dispatch Box and in comments to the media at the weekend—that there will be moves to start recording suicides among those who have served in the armed forces but who no longer serve.
Two weeks ago, I sent a letter to the Secretary of State for Justice and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish Government asking how this would work. My understanding of English law, limited though it is, is that this would have to happen through coroners in England—I think that coroners exist in Wales and Northern Ireland as well, but we do not have coroners in Scotland, so presumably it would fall to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service there. Where there are changes to that in England or Scotland, I hope that we can do this in a joined-up way and that we ultimately get to the place we all want to be, where we have proper figures so that we can better understand and tackle these issues.
In summing up—I am conscious that other Members want to get in—I welcome the publication of the strategy and the fact that we are having this debate in Government time. There is a debate next week on the armed forces covenant as well, and that is a good thing. It is good to see that there is now some pretty strong parliamentary impetus behind this, but I say to Members here and Ministers: let us not be beholden to any sacred cows. Let us think big. Let us be bold and let us all work together to make each of our communities the best place possible to be a veteran.
The hon. Lady is very passionately telling the story of someone she knows very well. That example is replicated across the whole of the United Kingdom, and every one of us has encountered people that that has happened to. I want to support her in making her comments, and to reassure her that everyone in the House understands exactly what she is saying.
It is a real pleasure to follow the impassioned contribution from the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), who is a huge advocate for veterans and, indeed, the Royal Marines. Commitment to and passion for those men and women serving in and leaving the world’s finest armed forces can surely be found on both sides of the House. As the Member of Parliament for the home of the Royal Navy, that is heartening for me to see.
I will keep my remarks brief this afternoon. Along with many Members of this House, I spent last week at remembrance services, selling poppies in my constituency. Needless to say, we in Portsmouth were again profoundly moved by and deeply proud of the bravery and sacrifice of service personnel past and present. Pride in our armed forces comes naturally to my city. As the home of the Royal Navy, we know personally of the remarkable courage and expertise in service of those generations that have fought for our country. That is why I am so passionate about ensuring that our Government, our public services and the economy work to support them during their service and beyond, during their transition back to civilian life. So I thank the Minster for his statement today; it was hugely helpful to hear.
This is not a party political issue. Personally, I could not care less from which party or place support for our veterans comes, so long as it is comprehensive and generous. This strategy is at least a good start—it certainly makes lighter reading than today’s withdrawal agreement. I await the results of the consultation with great interest, and I anticipate serious policy commitments. Specific and effective policy is needed because, as has been mentioned by my colleagues, the challenges facing veterans are serious and deserve a response of equal weight.
The Minister may recall from my correspondence with him my support for the armed forces covenant, and I am proud that Portsmouth City Council has recently received the gold award. Equally, however, he may recall my urging him to give some teeth to the covenant and for it to go further.
The same could be said about this strategy and the Government’s support for veterans generally. I wholeheartedly endorse each and every one of the key themes set out by the Minister’s Department. Co-ordination of services, data collection and proper recognition for our veterans—these are all things I have been campaigning for and absolutely support. However, to be realised, they require timely action from Government. That is especially true of the shocking lack of worth our veterans feel is placed in them by the wider population. According to a heart-breaking report by SSAFA, 62% feel undervalued by society. I was pleased to see that recognition of veterans was a key strand in the veterans strategy. I also greatly welcome plans to introduce an official veterans ID card, and perhaps the Minister could update the House later on progress on that.
It is clear that action to improve life for veterans does not have to be hugely costly or complex to be effective. I will confine my remarks to an issue that is not only particularly pertinent, but something whose treatment it would be simple to improve. That issue is mental health, and specifically data collection on suicide rates.
I should say from the start that we should in no way stigmatise our armed forces personnel. The majority of ex-servicemen and women adapt very well to civilian life. The skills required in the forces are unique and an extremely valuable addition to the existing talents that those in our services often hold. As the Minister and other Members of this place can attest, life in the forces can preface great success in civilian and even public life. That does not mean we can afford to lose sight of those in our armed forces who do need support and care.
The UK is almost unique in not requiring coroners to mark an individual as a veteran. As a result, only one of the 98 coroners in England and Wales does so. That is something almost all our allies do, including Canada, America and Australia, because it makes sense. This is important and useful data about and for the veteran community.
How can we possibly go about solving this issue if we do not know the scale of the problem? The Ministry of Defence currently puts the tri-services suicide rate at eight per 100,000, which is notably lower than the 15.5 per 100,000 rate that the Office for National Statistics reports among the general male population. I have no doubt that everyone in this House would welcome that state of affairs but, put simply, significant research from the Royal British Legion and my own conversations with the veteran community suggest that it does not reflect reality. The fact is that we do not know for sure, which is exactly my point.
In answer to my written question of 8 October on the plans that the MOD and the Ministry of Justice have for introducing such a recording duty on coroners, the Minister said he had had no such conversations with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. Perhaps he could say today whether he might consider introducing a coroner recording duty as part of the veterans strategy. The move would fit well with the Government’s aim, as stated in yesterday’s document, of enhancing the collection, use and analysis of data across sectors to effectively address the needs of veterans. I believe the measure would have broad support from the public and the military, including from General Sir Dave Richards. I urge the Government to listen and to capitalise on this remarkably simple but invaluable step.
I also pay tribute to the campaigning of the Portsmouth News and the Sunday People, and specifically to the dedication of Portsmouth veteran Stephen James, who has developed a fantastic peer-to-peer chat app, All Call Signs, to connect former services personnel, allowing them to support each other directly when mental health difficulties arise.
We owe services personnel far better than to turn a blind eye. Inevitably, the data itself would not help us to reduce the number of tragic incidents, but it would be invaluable in bettering our understanding of the issue, which is crucial if we are to tackle it. Again, I encourage the Minister to incorporate this commitment to veterans.
I urge the Secretary of State to follow my very good example: I visited the Huddersfield constituency, and the hon. Gentleman who represents it is a very good host, as is the university to boot. It will widen the Secretary of State’s learning and cultural experience to go there.
We do need to have a very clear national carrier strategy, because this is not just an important part of projecting power, but a key part of our national deterrence and of making sure that nations all around the globe understand that Britain has the capability to defend herself and to protect our international interests.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the closures of RAF Scampton and RAF Linton-on-Ouse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am pleased to lead this debate on a vital national and local issue—the closures of RAF Scampton and RAF Linton-on-Ouse. I will focus on Scampton, as its closure has a major impact on my constituency, but other hon. Members may wish to give a more informed assessment of the closure of RAF Linton. I apologise in advance that I will not take too many interventions, but I have quite a lot to raise before I open the debate to other hon. Members.
I am pleased to say that I have a huge amount of local support in opposing Scampton’s closure. I have the backing of the Historic Lincoln Trust, which is chaired by Lord Cormack, and I have collected more than 5,000 signatures for my petition opposing the closure. Other local groups have collected signatures on petitions, and added to the signatures I have collected, that amounts to a huge public outcry against the decision.
There is a lot of local anger in Lincoln at the Ministry of Defence’s decision. There is real concern about the future of the Red Arrows in Lincolnshire and the potential loss of many local jobs. Since the decision, I have campaigned rigorously and gathered local momentum against it. This is one of the best-supported campaigns I have ever been involved in. People have signed my petition, regardless of their age or political persuasion. Never before have I had members of the public queuing down the high street to sign a petition about which they feel such passion. So far, it has reached 5,000 signatures. We are calling, first, for the Red Arrows to stay in Lincolnshire—that is an absolute must—secondly, for the rationale behind the closure and the impact it will have on the UK’s defences to be made public, which I have tried to do; thirdly, for a thorough consultation to be undertaken with all local and national stakeholders; and, finally, for a full impact assessment of the effect that the closure will have on the local economy and workers.
This year, we are celebrating 100 years of the Royal Air Force and 100 years since Air Station Brattleby Cliff was renamed RAF Scampton. The airbase is central to Lincolnshire’s past and present identity. Scampton was home to the legendary Dambusters, and since 2000 it has housed the world-renowned Red Arrows. For 100 years, Scampton has symbolised our Royal Air Force’s proud history, and it has received a lot of praise for its role. Recently, Air Marshal Sir Michael Graydon referred to it as a “very good base”, and the strategic defence review conducted in 2010 concluded that keeping the Red Arrows at Scampton was the best way to allow them to operate. However, the Ministry of Defence ploughed on and announced that RAF Scampton was to be closed and sold off. Although the MOD made that decision, it is ultimately Government cuts that forced that step to be taken. If budgets are cut, our communities suffer. Cuts have consequences.
I will not, I am sorry. I want to go on, because I am aware that we will have votes in the House.
Locally, in bomber county, there is incredulity that the Conservatives are effectively signing the death warrant of our local RAF base and taking away our Red Arrows, especially as, like Labour Members, only a very short time ago they welcomed the RAF to London and enjoyed the fly-past by the wonderful historic planes. The decision to close RAF Scampton has been very badly managed. There has not been a local transparent consultation. Although I am the local MP, I was not informed; I found out through the local and national press coverage when I turned on BBC news in the morning.
Although the Ministry of Defence statement asserted that it would engage with local stakeholders, that has been far from the reality. I have submitted a letter requesting a meeting and a freedom of information request. I acknowledge that this is a sensitive subject, but I submitted my FOI request on 30 July—78 days, or 11 weeks, ago—and, other than two holding replies, I have not had a proper response. The last thing I want to do is publish anything that would put our country’s safety at risk, but my request relates to my petition and to the effect that the closure will have on the surrounding area and the future of the Red Arrows. Rather than withhold the information for an extended length of time, the MOD should publish the impact assessments that informed the decision for the public to see.
From the information available to me locally, I feel confident in saying that the decision is highly flawed. The Minister noted in the initial announcement that
“The disposal of the site would offer better value for money and, crucially, better military capability by relocating the units based there.”
I cannot comment on military capability, as I am not privy to the details, but I dispute the idea that it was an effective “value for money” decision.
The argument for closing RAF Scampton is that the land can be sold and used for housing. That case has been proposed twice before—in 1994 and 2000. On both occasions, the financial case was flawed. The value of the land, particularly the assumed capital receipt and the expected value of the land per hectare, was overestimated. The previous decisions, and most likely this one, were based on an unrealistic view of land values. Other MOD site disposals were used as comparisons, but variations across the country were not considered. On that basis, I asked the Minister to release the forecast pricing of the land, as it has been miscalculated twice previously.
The land in question is also very likely contaminated, and any decision must take into account the cost of land remediation to ensure that it is of the necessary standard for residential development. I have been advised locally that there is an extensive underground fuel system, which is likely to have leaked over the years, leading to hydrocarbon contamination, so a major clean-up would be required before the land could be considered suitable for residential use. The environmental factors, alongside the cost of removing RAF infrastructure, may reduce the value of the land and result in a loss if it were sold. Will the Minister explain in detail the expected savings from closing Scampton, factoring in the cost of remediation work?
It is not just the cost of the land that means that Scampton should not be closed: It is what it and the Red Arrows provide to the local economy. Not only does Scampton provide 600 jobs, which enables spending in Lincoln and thus increases productivity in the local economy—we hear a lot from the Conservative Government about jobs—but Lincolnshire has a rich military history, and Scampton epitomises that and attracts tourists. I work closely with Visit Lincoln, which has stressed to me on numerous occasions the importance of the base and the Red Arrows. The heritage centre at Scampton is housed in one of the original world war two hangars. It holds more than 1,000 artefacts and contains the original office of Guy Gibson, commanding officer of 617 Squadron—the Dambusters. The Red Arrows are world renowned. Even though they tour the world, between November and March the public can visit them at Scampton. It is an exciting opportunity to visit the impressive Arrows up close. Aviation enthusiasts travel across the UK and from abroad to visit Scampton, but possibly not for much longer.
The selling of Scampton not only deprives the local economy and costs us jobs but wipes out the history of those who bravely fought against the fascist threat during world war two. Did the Minister and the Ministry of Defence consider the effect that the closure would have on the local economy when they decided to close Scampton and relocate the Arrows? Has the Ministry of Defence honestly given any consideration to the future of the heritage centre?
The leader of the Labour party has committed to save Scampton—I went straight up and bent his ear, and he agreed to that. He recognises its immense local and national significance, but the Prime Minister continues with an unpopular, short-sighted and misinformed policy. I have had more requests about this issue in the 16 months I have been an MP than about anything else—it is so vital locally in Lincoln.
I began this debate by asking the Minister questions about land value and the local economy. I hope that I get some kind of reply, because I have had nothing from the MOD. I would now like to open the debate to other Members.
Break in Debate
As always, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) on securing this timely and important debate. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). Recently, I had the privilege to be on a parliamentary armed forces visit, and I take this opportunity to thank everyone at RAF Linton-on-Ouse for making us so welcome and giving us such an instructive, informative and excellent visit.
I want to focus in particular on RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey, which was closed in 2013. It is in my constituency. There is still an association with RAF Scampton in so far as there are assets in Kirton-in-Lindsey still being used by the Scampton base. The closure of RAF Scampton will have an impact on Kirton-in-Lindsey. Those are the assets that I am concerned about.
I have always found the military personnel—from the RAF and all the armed services—with whom I have come into contact to be excellent, but I found that dealing with the MOD was less than excellent when it was disposing of the site in Kirton-in-Lindsey. The MOD’s attitude of mind is very much focused on disposal and simple numbers. However, the impact on cost is not about simple numbers from a disposal—the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton touched on this, in some ways—but about community value and community assets.
In Lincolnshire—“bomber county”, as my colleague said—the disposal of assets has a history of being done in a way that has actually cost the public purse. The disposal might have got a little cash for the MOD at the time, but the cost to the public purse has been a lot more, because the disposal was not done effectively: the maintenance and support of often derelict sites has frequently fallen back on other parts of the public purse.
My plea is that the disposals of RAF Linton-on-Ouse and RAF Scampton are done in a way that engages fully with the local community and that looks for full community value, not simple pennies in the pot. That will much better serve the nation and the communities in which the bases have served for such a long while, giving better value for money to the public purse.
I return to Kirton-in-Lindsey, to read from the letter sent to me by the town council. It reminded me:
“Previously Kirton in Lindsey Town Council have submitted requests to North Lincolnshire Council for the registering of the tennis courts, gymnasium and surrounding leisure land off York Road, Kirton in Lindsey, as assets of community value which are now listed as such”—
under legislation brought in by the coalition Government, which is rightly being used by communities to benefit community interest. The letter continues:
“The Town Council has also proactively written to the MOD requesting that they consider selling the leisure land at RAF Kirton in Lindsey to the Town Council for the good of the community.”
I very much support the town council. Those are assets of community value that can benefit a significant community—or they can be sold to a slightly higher bidder for a bit of cash that would probably be spent fairly quickly by the Red Arrows and would not have the same community and public benefit of the more intelligent approach.
I hope that the Minister will do everything he can to look at the assets in the Kirton-in-Lindsey base and to ensure that the community interest is explored and delivered to the maximum extent possible. It is interesting that in the disposal of the base, North Lincolnshire Council, which is Conservative controlled—sadly, still Conservative controlled—put in a bid for the base land. I think that the numbers were probably fairly close to those of the successful bidder, but by now the council would have developed the base further than has been done.
Instead, the development of the base has been stalled, typically, although I hope it is now moving forward. With the best will in the world, a private developer, even though developing the base for very good business interests, is not making the same progress that might otherwise have been made. I hope that lessons have been learned to benefit both Linton-on-Ouse and Scampton, and that there is an opportunity to put the community value back into the community through the appropriate disposal of the community value assets that Kirton-in-Lindsey Town Council identified and registered—appropriately—with the Ministry of Defence and with North Lincolnshire Council. That is my plea. I cannot make that plea big enough, because this is a moment in time when the public good can be better delivered. If the opportunity is missed, the future will not benefit.
I cannot finish without mentioning the historic nature of the Scampton site. As everyone knows, it was the host of 617 Squadron, otherwise known as the Dambusters. That is rich within our heritage, and always will be—one of the big emblematic and triumphant missions of the second world war, to which we all owe a huge debt. In the 100th anniversary year of the RAF, it is something that we commemorate and remember. The Red Arrows maintain that historical tradition by flying out of RAF Scampton. Often, when I drive to Newark to catch a train down to London on a Monday morning, I see the Red Arrows above, in the Lincolnshire skies, doing their stuff. It is a sight to be seen—awesome, frankly. I share the feeling of my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln that it would be appropriate, if the changes go ahead, for the Red Arrows to remain in Lincolnshire, flying across the Lincolnshire skies.
The point I was making was not about meeting current capability; it was about having the capability to flex and expand. Once we build on an aerodrome, it is gone. We have to have the capacity to keep things operational, so that should the bases be needed, we can make them so.
Break in Debate
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) on securing the debate and the informative and passionate speech she made, outlining the impact and effect of any proposed closure for RAF Scampton and RAF Linton-on-Ouse.
We all recognise that the requirements of the defence estate will change over time and that there is a need to modernise to reflect that. However, any restructuring of the estate must enhance our military capability and deliver value for money for the British taxpayer while providing flexibility, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). These two proposed closures are particularly disappointing, coming as they do in the RAF’s centenary year. The closure of either site would have a significant impact on the livelihoods of a large number of people, as we have heard: we know that 600 personnel are working at RAF Scampton and just under 300 at RAF Linton-on-Ouse. If those sites were to close, servicemen and women and their families would be required to move, and civilian staff would face redeployment.
Those closures would also affect the wider community. As Members are aware, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln and others highlighted, MOD sites are important to the local economies in which they are situated as well as the wider supply chains that support the work of the bases. In that vein, I ask the Minister what assessment the Department has made of the economic impact of closing the two sites. Will he also set out in as much detail as possible the discussions that have taken place with personnel at those bases and the options that have been made available to civilian staff? What help and support will be given to civilian employees who are unable to move?
I will address that later in my contribution.
It is important that we look at civilian employees who are not able to move and the impact any closure would have on them. They may have restrictions that perhaps Air Force personnel do not have.
RAF Scampton is known to many as the base for the world-famous Red Arrows, as well as having historic links to the Dambusters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) has highlighted, there are historic links to RAF Scampton that we must consider. I ask the Minister to assure the House that any decision about the future of the site would take full account of those historic links.
To address the hon. Lady’s intervention, the Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that we want to see RAF Scampton continue as the home for the Red Arrows, for many years to come. It is a case of prioritising and taking into consideration my points about the links it has, as well as the economic impact of closures, not just on the RAF but on the wider economy and community.
Can the Minister outline what consideration has been given to preserving the heritage centre at RAF Scampton? We understand that the Government are considering other potential defence uses for the site at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, ahead of any potential closure. Can the Minister set out what possible uses there may be and what the timescale is for exploring those options? It is important, as we have said, to look at the wider impact and the community value of the sites.
The announcement of these two closures will undoubtedly raise concerns about other possible cuts and efficiencies that may come about as a result of the modernising defence programme. In light of this, can the Minister take the opportunity to update the House on the progress of that programme and, crucially, when he expects to be reporting on it?
That’s Virgin Trains for you. But I should not advertise.
On 1 April next year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force actually coming into existence. It was the threat of war with Germany in the 1930s that resulted in the rapid expansion of the RAF. New stations were built, new aircraft were ordered and the strength of the RAF increased from 31,275 personnel in 1933 to 264,346 by 1939. At the end of the second world war, the strength of the RAF stood at more than one million. By 1948, of course, that had dropped to less than 250,000, and two years later it was less than 200,000. By 1979, the strength of the RAF was just over 86,000 personnel. The end of the cold war and the reconfiguring of the RAF for expeditionary warfare saw a further reduction in manpower.
I will turn to one of the most important points that the hon. Member for Witney made in his opening remarks, which is the battle of Britain. As I said earlier, I am a child of the ’50s and ’60s—and probably one of the older Members in this room—and I remember many of the films of the period, such as “366 Squadron”. We were brought up on those movies. “The Dam Busters” was slightly before my time, being born in ’55, which was the year it was made, so I do not remember it opening.
Sir Henry, if you will permit me for one minute, I will share a couple of personal recollections. “The Dam Busters” was about Operation Chastise, on 16 to 17 May 1943. We all remember that it was Sir Barnes Wallis who invented the bouncing bomb, but how many of us remember some of the other people involved? I am very privileged to have as one of my closest friends the grandson of Sir Benjamin Lockspeiser, who was the co-inventor of the bouncing bomb, and who died just months before his 100th birthday in 1990. He was one of the most influential inventors of the time, and with Barnes Wallis he invented a weapon that brought the war to an earlier close than it might have had. These are the people who are often forgotten.
Benjamin Lockspeiser was honoured after the war for his role, but there are many like him who worked hard to ensure that we could win the war and stop Hitler’s Operation Sealion, which started in July 1940, from invading Britain and therefore removing the last democratic obstacle to his domination of Europe. In order to do that, he had to destroy the RAF’s ability to attack his forces. We should never forget that the RAF was outnumbered 5:1 by the Luftwaffe in both machines and men. It was the first significant strategic defeat suffered by the Nazis during the second world war. Of course, the war was to last another five years.
My late father was at that time a pupil at Brentwood School, in Essex. It was a boarding school; he had come to the country as a 12-year-old from continental Europe to escape the fascist persecution of the Jews. He was on fire duty one night in 1940 as the battle of Britain was taking place over Brentwood. Hon. Members present probably do not know that area of Essex; Brentwood School is on hill, and Warley barracks is on the next hill. The Luftwaffe used to bomb Warley barracks regularly, but sometimes it got confused and bombed the school instead. When they dropped a bomb on the cricket pavilion, the deputy headmaster said to my father, who was on duty at the time, “Let it burn; we need a new pavilion.” That was one of the stories I best remember from my father’s wartime exploits. He ended up in the RAF himself in 1945. He never told me exactly what his duties were, but I know that at one stage, after having volunteered, he was parachuted into occupied France. That is a direct, personal connection.
Many of us who are children of that era remember building the Airfix kits. I do not know how many hon. Members in this room remember those Airfix kits— I am looking round to the boys.
And the girls. Surely, the hon. Lady is not old enough to remember such things. I remember building the kits of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mosquitos out of balsa wood. I think the real aircraft were built out of balsa wood as well—those Mosquitos were very flammable, but they were extremely fast. The technologies of that time enabled the RAF to be so superior, in spite of the fact that it had fewer personnel and fewer machines —the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was the engine that powered the Spitfire. Indeed, when the film the “Battle of Britain” was made in 1968, I think, they re-enacted with original Spitfires and Hurricanes the battle over Brentwood School, which I was a pupil at, too, during that period.
The RAF is an important strand in the lives of all of us who grew up after the war in the ’50s and ’60s, and subsequently. The cost of the battle of Britain was very high. Of the nearly 3,000 air crew who fought, 544 lost their lives and of the remainder, a further 814 died before the end of the war. We should remember that not all those fighters were British. Fighter Command was a cosmopolitan mix, and some reference has been made to that this afternoon. There were 141 Poles, 87 Czechs, 24 Belgians and 13 Free French killed, who swelled the ranks of those who died fighting in the RAF as pilots and other crew in the battle of Britain and throughout the second world war.
As of October 2017, the RAF consists of 30,560 full-time, trained personnel, against a 2020 target of 31,750. The RAF as we know it today—reference has been made to this already—is at the centre of the UK’s fight against Daesh. In fact, in March this year I was privileged to visit RAF Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus with the shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). Akrotiri was the staging point for Operation Shader, the UK’s military campaign against Daesh. We saw just how brilliantly well the RAF works today in spite of the many pressures on it.
Another point I want to make is about equality, which other hon. Members have referred to. The Women’s Royal Air Force was formed in 1918. Although the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was disbanded in the 1920s, it was reformed in June 1939 as a result of the outbreak of the second world war. On 1 February 1949, the permanent service came into being, under its old name of the Women’s Royal Air Force. The RAF has been at the very forefront, integrating its women’s service in a meaningful way. In 1994, the WRAF ceased to exist as a women’s service when it merged with the RAF and female personnel were fully integrated on the same rates of pay and subject to the same regulations as their male counterparts.
The RAF has been consistently praised as an excellent employer for women and has been named in The Times top 50 list of employers for women on more than one occasion. Not only that, but the RAF has the largest proportion of female officers: 16.9% of regular officers and 22.7% of reserve officers are women. The current target for women in the armed forces is 15% by 2020, but the RAF plans to raise its target to 20% by 2020. The RAF also created the first female two-star military officer. Air Vice-Marshal Elaine West was the first woman since the second world war to become a non-honorary air vice-marshal or equivalent in the British armed forces, and the first to achieve that rank in the regular forces. The RAF currently has three female officers of two-star rank, compared with one in the Army and none in the Royal Navy. In September, the RAF became the first service to accept women in all roles, including close combat roles.
We have had a very good debate, and I wait to hear what the Minister has to say in conclusion. I thank the hon. Member for Witney once again for bringing this important anniversary to public attention. I hope that this is the first of many celebrations.