Armed Forces (Investment)

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, Conservative)
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Robertson. I am grateful for being allowed to hold this debate. May I just say what a privilege it is to be the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport? I know that David Simpson will be delighted to hear me say so. My constituency is of course the home of 3 Commando Brigade and one of the principal homes of not only the Royal Navy, but the Royal Marines. I should also potentially declare an interest in that I am a vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces, with special responsibility for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. I hope that I am their champion in this place.

Upon my election in 2010, I submitted a paper on the strategic defence and security review, which clearly set out that I fully supported the control of public expenditure and in which I named long-term care for the elderly and the defence of the realm as my political priorities within that reduced financial envelope. I argued that any military expeditions should be done within the context of NATO. While I recognise that there is at present no public appetite to put troops on the ground, particularly under conditions where eventual outcomes and aims are unclear, our armed forces have a high level of support. I found that out this weekend when I watched the Plymouth Argyle versus Portsmouth football game, which I will discuss in a moment. The country expects our Government to defend British interests. If we expect our military to engage outside the UK, we must ensure that it is equipped and manned properly. I press the Government to commit to spending at least 2% of our GDP on defence. If not, could we at least have a bit more?

At the weekend, as I mentioned, I went to watch Plymouth Argyle play Portsmouth—the dockyard game—at Home Park on armed forces day. I am delighted to report that Plymouth won 3-0, but I was sad that my hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt had to see her side get a bit of a pasting. While speaking with some royal naval officers during half-time, I was told of a potential shortage of trained engineers. Indeed, at a meeting earlier today, I learned that the shortage could be 400,000 across the military. When the Minister replies, I will be grateful if he might explain what the Government are doing to ensure that we have the necessary number of trained engineers across all three of our military disciplines.

David Simpson (Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government); Upper Bann, DUP)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. May I put on record the thanks of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland for the tremendous work done by the armed forces in the Province, certainly during the difficult times? In this debate about the funding of the armed forces, will he include the aftercare of soldiers and of those who have come home with loss of limbs, mental health problems and so on?

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, Conservative)
I will come on to that in due course.

I will be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister tells me what discussions his Department is having with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on plans for a new nuclear engineering college—located, I hope, in my constituency, but we will soon find out about that. In my opinion, the SDSR should not look simply at equipment; it should also continue to look at delivering the armed forces covenant for the families, a point made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann. That means improving housing conditions, providing better health care, especially mental health care, and education.

Most importantly, Britain is an island nation. As we prepare for the next SDSR, I urge the Government to ensure that resources are directed at protecting our trade routes. That means prioritising both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

Jim Shannon (Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health); Strangford, DUP)
That also means the Army, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is coming to. When we look to the future, we need to see more boots on the ground. In Northern Ireland, whether regulars or reservists, we have had a big level of recruitment, and the biggest level of recruitment to the Territorial Army or Army Reserve that there has ever been in any part of the United Kingdom. Does he feel, as I feel, that the necessary resources should be made available to ensure that where there are large levels of recruitment, as in Northern Ireland, we continue to make that happen? I understand that resources are being squeezed, but it seems a pity at a time when people want to join the reservists.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, Conservative)
I am keen to ensure that we look after the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines as well. I understand that the Army plays a significant role, but my priority this afternoon is to talk up the interests of the Royal Navy, if I may.

My right hon. Friend the Minister should not be surprised about that, because I represent a major naval garrison city and, like him, I am a Navy brat. Without a strong Royal Navy, Christmas could be cancelled. We all expect to find fresh fruit and vegetables in our supermarkets. The majority of us want to buy wines from Australia, South America, South Africa and throughout the world. Imagine the number of letters and e-mails that we would all receive, especially from children, if Christmas were cancelled because such products were not available in our shops. So a key part of our defence strategy must be to retain our nuclear deterrent.

Since the 1990s Devonport has been the only dockyard in Britain that renews and refuels our nuclear submarine fleet. We also have the deep maintenance programme for our surface ships, though we share those somewhat with Portsmouth. Earlier this autumn my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced that he had signed a £2.6 billion agreement with Babcock that will safeguard 4,000 jobs for the next four years or so. I very much welcome that and thank the Secretary of State—if the Minister will pass that back to him—for safeguarding the jobs in our dockyard for the immediate future. I am concerned, though, that in six months’ time Drake’s drum could be called back into service, especially if the polls stay as they are.

Let me make it clear: I desperately hope that we have a Conservative Government with an overall majority after the general election. Many of the pundits, however, are predicting a hung Parliament in which Labour could be looking to do a deal with either the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish National party—

Jim Shannon (Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health); Strangford, DUP)
Or the Democratic Unionist party.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, Conservative)
Or the DUP—but let me deal with the other two.

Earlier today I looked at the Liberal Democrats’ website. They are still saying:

“Britain’s nuclear deterrent, which consists of four Trident submarines, is out-dated and expensive. It is a relic of the Cold War and not up-to-date in 21st century Britain. Nowadays, most of our threats come from individual terrorist groups, not communist countries with nuclear weapons.

The Liberal Democrats are the only main party willing to face up to those facts.

The UK has four Trident submarines on constant patrol, which are nearing the end of their life. A decision needs to be made about what we do to replace them.”

I emphasise that I am quoting the Liberal Democrats:

“It would be extremely expensive and unnecessary to replace all four submarines, so we propose to replace some of the submarines instead. They would not be on constant patrol but could be deployed if the threat from a nuclear-armed country increased.”

They quite obviously have taken no notice of what has been going on in Ukraine.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
My hon. Friend is making a crucial point. It is worth adding that the Liberal Democrats, when sending a submarine to sea, would send it unarmed, wait for a crisis to arise and then sail the submarine back to its home port in order to put the nuclear weapons on board, presumably by the grace and favour of the country now threatening us.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, Conservative)
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. The Liberal Democrats are making it clear that they want to reduce the number of submarines and they might make that a condition of being in any coalition with the Labour party.

On Saturday, Nicola Sturgeon, the new leader of the SNP, told her party conference:

“My pledge to Scotland today is simple—the SNP will never, ever, put the Tories into government.”

She added that Labour would

“have to think again about putting a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons on the river Clyde.”

On Andrew Marr’s programme on Sunday, Mr Findlay, a candidate to be leader of the Scottish Labour party, set out a radical agenda for his party. He confirmed that under his leadership Scottish Labour would oppose Trident on the Clyde. He confirmed that that had been Scottish Labour’s policy for some little while. That is in line with the position of the Scottish trades unions.

I very much hope that the Minister will confirm that a future Conservative-led Government will remain committed to four continuous at-sea deterrent submarines. My concern is that if the nuclear submarines are thrown out of Scotland, the Government of the day might decide that our submarine base and dockyard should be relocated from Devonport to another site. Some 25,000 people in the travel-to-work area of Devonport depend on defence for their jobs.

Jim Shannon (Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health); Strangford, DUP)
There will always be a place for the base in Belfast, if that should happen. Be assured of our support for the Trident submarine. The DUP is committed to that.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, Conservative)
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I remind him that I am the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. I do not want to see the submarines going off to Northern Ireland, although it plays a significant role in things.

During the 10 years that I was the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Plymouth Sutton and, subsequently, for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, I found myself campaigning almost every day to keep the Devonport dockyard and naval base open. My interest in Devonport is not only due to my political candidature, but because my grandfather was the first lieutenant of HMS Vivid, the Devonport barracks, having served as the gunnery officer on Devonport-based HMS Valiant at the battle of Jutland, and my uncle commanded Stonehouse barracks before becoming commandant general of the Royal Marines.

The previous Labour Government proposed to move the Type 23s to Portsmouth. That would have left Plymouth with five Type 22s, which have subsequently been scrapped. The Labour Government also proposed to move the submarine fleet to Faslane, while retaining Devonport for the refuelling and refilling of the nuclear submarines, despite the fact that they had not gained agreement from the families. In my opinion, despite the very best efforts of my Labour predecessor, Mrs Linda Gilroy, and Alison Seabeck, the previous Labour Government were slowly but surely killing Devonport’s naval base and dockyard by a thousand cuts. I believe that was because Labour has no political clout in Devon and Cornwall. People need to remember that on 7 May next year.

In the past four and a half years, we have seen Devonport’s future as a naval base and dockyard become much more secure. The coalition Government have kept seven Type 23s at Devonport, moved HMS Protector from Portsmouth to Devonport from 1 April this year so that all our Antarctic resources are placed in one location, and delivered amphibious capability with Royal Marines Tamar at Devonport.

I seek confirmation from the Minister that at least seven of the Type 26s will be based at Devonport, although I would like the whole lot if I am quite honest—I realise that I am a bit greedy—and that one of the Type 26s will be named HMS Plymouth. I also ask him to clarify the timing for the move of the submarine fleet to Faslane and to state when the infrastructure will be ready. By confirming much of that, he will be helping to ensure that Drake’s drum can be put away again for the next five years and that we will not be hearing its drumbeat for many a year.

Mark Francois (The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence; Rayleigh and Wickford, Conservative)
I congratulate my hon. Friend Oliver Colvile on securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss this important subject. Before turning to the matter at hand, namely investment in our armed forces, I will take this opportunity to offer my public thanks to him for his staunch support of the armed forces, including in his role as the vice-chairman for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines in the all-party group on the armed forces, and for his support of the 350th anniversary of the Royal Marines this year.

As for investment in the armed forces, the UK is one of the 12 founding members of NATO and takes that role seriously. We have the second largest defence budget in the alliance, behind the United States, and the largest in the European Union. This Government are committed to and indeed meet both key NATO spending targets, spending 2% of our GDP on the defence budget and over 20% of that budget on new equipment. Those commitments were reaffirmed in September by the defence spending pledge made at the NATO summit that the UK proudly hosted in Wales.

Our equipment programme represents a substantial investment of some £164 billion over 10 years, and is expressed annually in our published defence equipment plan. The Army is receiving significant investment in a number of equipment programmes. In September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced a £3.5 billion contract for the highly advanced Scout armoured vehicle, which will boost our capability and sustain 1,300 jobs across the United Kingdom supply chain. We are also investing in expanding our fleet of battle-proven Foxhound armoured vehicles and upgrading our fleet of Apache attack helicopters and our Challenger 2 main battle tank fleet.

The Royal Air Force boasts an impressive equipment programme, which includes enhancing the Typhoon via Tranche 2 and Tranche 3 upgrades to maintain its battle-winning edge and procuring the new F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, which will place this country at the forefront of fighter technology, as the United Kingdom is the only level 1 partner with the United States in that programme. We recently announced agreement in principle to procure the next four F-35B aircraft for the United Kingdom. This month, the Ministry of Defence has taken delivery of its first A400M Atlas, marking the start of the RAF’s next generation of airlift capability. Production and delivery for the remaining fleet will continue at pace to deliver the full fleet of 22 aircraft by early 2018. We have also recently acquired 14 new heavy-lift Chinook Mk 6 helicopters, to be based at RAF Odiham, giving us one of the largest Chinook fleets in the world after the United States.

To move particularly close to my hon. Friend’s heart, the Royal Navy continues to be one of the premier navies in the world, especially as we look forward to the delivery of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, the largest ships ever built in the United Kingdom. I was delighted and honoured to be at the naming ceremony of HMS Queen Elizabeth in July, a truly historic occasion. I was also pleased that the Prime Minister announced at the NATO summit that the second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, will also be brought into service, ensuring that we always have one carrier available 100% of the time. The Navy is also procuring and supporting seven Astute class nuclear attack submarines and six Type 45 Destroyers, and is starting the transition from Type 23 frigates to the new Type 26 global combat ships. The recent contract award for three offshore patrol vessels also serves to strengthen the Royal Navy’s capabilities and maintain shipbuilding skills in the United Kingdom.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
Will the Minister confirm that 13 Type 26 vessels will be ordered?

Mark Francois (The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence; Rayleigh and Wickford, Conservative)
As my hon. Friend will know, we are still at the assessment phase for the Type 26 programme, but 13 is still the planning assumption.

Additionally, the latest version of the Royal Marines’ protected mobility Viking vehicle is being rolled out, and four new Royal Fleet Auxiliary tankers will be built over the next four years, with the first due to enter service in 2016.

We are also making full provision for the successor deterrent system, providing the ultimate guarantee of our national security. In answer to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport—and to an intervention by my hon. Friend Dr Lewis before he has made it—the Royal Navy has maintained a continuous at-sea deterrent for over 50 years, based on four boats. It is envisaged that that will continue under a new Conservative Government.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
I would not have liked the Minister to have anticipated an intervention that was not then made, so can we therefore conclude that in a hung Parliament there would be no question of our ever agreeing again to a deal with another party to postpone the main-gate contract signing, as unfortunately happened in 2010?

Mark Francois (The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence; Rayleigh and Wickford, Conservative)
My hon. Friend, with his usual eloquence, tempts me down a difficult alley. I cannot give him the assurance that he wants on that point, but I think I have made the party’s position on four boats clear. I regret that I disappoint him, as I know he has hankered for a fifth boat for some time, but I cannot promise that to him either.

Furthermore, we are significantly increasing our investment in cyber-security, ensuring our armed forces are equipped with cutting edge capabilities across all environments. That combined investment is not only securing the best possible military capability, but helping to secure UK jobs and growth. The UK defence industry employs more than 160,000 people, with a turnover of some £22 billion.

I turn now to naval bases. For generations, up and down the country, many communities have given outstanding support to our armed forces. That is particularly true for those around the Royal Navy’s three main naval bases at Devonport, Portsmouth and Clyde.

Her Majesty’s naval base Devonport delivers world-class, safe and secure operational capability and support to the fleet. Devonport is home to Britain’s amphibious ships, HMS Ocean, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion; HMS Protector, the ice patrol ship; survey vessels; half of the Royal Navy’s frigates; flag officer sea training, the training hub of the front-line fleet; and the centre of amphibious excellence at Royal Marines Tamar. Devonport is also the main support base for the Royal Navy, particularly with its unique deep maintenance refuelling and defuelling facility for nuclear submarines.

The Devonport base employs 2,500 service personnel and MOD civilians, supports around 400 local firms and generates around 10% of Plymouth’s income. In all, some 25,000 people in Devonport’s travel-to-work area depend on defence for their livelihoods—and in my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport they have a worthy champion.

Portsmouth naval base is home to almost two thirds of the Royal Navy’s surface ships, including the Type 45 destroyers, half of the Type 23 fleet and the mine countermeasures and fishery protection squadrons—something close to my heart, as my father, to whom my hon. Friend kindly referred, served on a minesweeper at D-day. HMS Clyde, the Falkland Islands patrol vessel, is also based at Portsmouth, which will be home to the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, the first of which should arrive in early 2017.

Her Majesty’s naval base Clyde is the naval service’s main presence in Scotland. It is home to the core of the submarine service, including the nation’s nuclear deterrent, and the Royal Navy’s newest and most advanced submarines, HMS Astute and HMS Ambush. From 2020, Clyde will be the Royal Navy’s single integrated submarine operating base and submarine centre of specialisation. The nearby Royal Navy armaments depot at Coulport is responsible for the storage, processing, maintenance and issue of key elements of the UK’s trident deterrent missile system and the ammunitioning of all submarine-embarked weapons.

The 2010 strategic defence and security review confirmed the requirement to maintain all three naval bases. This commitment is evidenced by the recently announced maritime support delivery framework—MSDF.

Turning specifically to that framework, on 13 October my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence notified the House that the Ministry of Defence had awarded two contracts to provide continued support to the management of the UK’s naval bases, and maintenance and repair of Royal Navy warships and submarines to ensure that they are able to meet their operational commitments. The award of these contracts, with a combined value of £3.2 billion, shows a clear indication of our continued commitment to invest in the support provided to the Royal Navy.

MSDF contracts have been awarded to both our industrial partners at naval bases. The contract awarded to Babcock to provide support services at Her Majesty’s naval bases at Devonport and Clyde is valued at £2.6 billion, and the contract awarded to BAE Systems to provide support services at Portsmouth naval base is worth some £600 million. The Babcock MSDF contract covers the 5.5 years to March 2020. The BAE Systems contract covers an initial period of 4.5 years to March 2019, with an option to extend it for an additional year.

We should recognise the contribution that this level of investment will make to the long-term economic health of the nation’s three main naval bases. They will sustain around 7,500 industry jobs across the three naval bases, with 4,000 of those jobs in my hon. Friend’s constituency at Devonport naval base. I thank him for his kind words and I will ensure that his gratitude is passed on personally to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, whom I will see in about an hour. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport considers that to be telegraphing the message pretty quickly.

There will also be 1,500 jobs at Clyde naval base and more than 2,000 at Portsmouth. MSDF is a modern commercial and financial strategy replacing a number of existing support contracts with one wider contracting framework with each company. We have consolidated several different contracts into two main ones. This new strategy incentivises industry to transform and rationalise to meet the needs of the Royal Navy, to drive continuous performance improvement and to provide a better deal for defence and the taxpayer by delivering significant savings. We estimate that those savings will be of the order of £350 million over the life of the contracts.

Investment is not just about equipment, infrastructure and support contracts. It is also about people and we are investing in them. Like other employers, our armed forces face a challenge in recruiting and retaining personnel, especially in engineering and nuclear cadres. That is being addressed through a range of measures, including affiliations with four university technical colleges. My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence, Equipment Support and Technology—Min DEST—is in discussion with colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about a new engineering college. My understanding is that those discussions have not yet concluded and that there is still some way to go, but it may assist my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport to know that it is planned that the next meeting on the project will take place early in the new year.

Jim Shannon (Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health); Strangford, DUP)
During an earlier intervention, I mentioned the take-up of reservists in Northern Ireland where, numerically, it is stronger than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, as the Minister will know. An issue that has been brought to my attention is the resources needed to ensure that they can capture more of the potential recruits in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister give us an indication of what he could do with that?

Mark Francois (The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence; Rayleigh and Wickford, Conservative)
First, the hon. Gentleman knows a lot about this as he has been a reservist in Northern Ireland; I pay tribute to his service. Secondly, I have visited Northern Ireland at least twice since I have been at the Ministry of Defence and while there I have visited several units, including the 2nd Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment which I believe is one of the best recruited infantry battalions anywhere in the Army Reserve. I was impressed by its spirit and determination and it was one of the best attended Army Reserve centres that I have been to since I have been in this job. We appreciate that in Northern Ireland there is a strong tradition of service in the armed forces and we will do what we can to continue that. I hope that volunteers will continue to come forward enthusiastically, as they have done in the past.

The Government fully understand the importance of our armed forces and the security and protection of our national interests at home and around the world. We absolutely understand the importance of our people and I hope that the House will accept that that is also important for me, as the son of a D-day veteran.

We have sorted out the mess that was defence spending under the previous Government and we have taken hard but necessary decisions. We now look ahead to the realisation of Future Force 2020. We take pride in our battle-winning armed forces that serve to defend this country and its allies. As the son of a man who served in the Royal Navy, I take great pride in the senior service which is so well served by those at Portsmouth, Clyde and Devonport.