James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire
Many of us in the House would agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, and we opposed many of these sad cuts, which were necessary for the nation to break even. Will he enlighten the House? If the outcome of last year’s referendum had been different and we now had an independent Scotland, would he guarantee that the pre-cuts strength that he decries that we have lost would be replaced by the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government? Also, how many jobs would be lost if Trident were to be removed from Scotland?
Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall
I welcome the Bill, which allows our armed forces to be recruited and maintained as disciplined bodies. I want to pay tribute to our brave armed forces personnel, particularly in the Royal Navy. The House will know of my special interest in this service because my daughter is a serving Royal Navy officer. My interest goes further than that, however. HMS Raleigh, the premier initial sea training establishment, is based in my constituency. It provides considerable employment, as does the Devonport naval base and dockyard. There is also the Thanckes oil fuel depot at Wilcove. The Royal Navy is thus at the very heart of my constituency. Young recruits experience their first six weeks of what it is like to serve in our armed forces there. That is why the Bill is important—because we must maintain recruitment.
I welcome the clauses to modernise and update the Armed Forces Act 2006 to ensure that our armed forces are appropriate for modern times. It is important to pass the Bill to ensure that we recruit and maintain disciplined armed forces who will be able to operate professionally in our services. I particularly want to ensure that we man our Vanguard submarines, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has confirmed that four new successor submarines will be introduced. This Bill will ensure that the manpower is available for them to remain fully operational.
Devonport dockyard in Plymouth is the sole nuclear repair and refuelling facility for the Royal Navy. Its excellent work has been long championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile). I understand that my right hon. Friend may not be able to do so today, but I would be grateful if he could confirm as soon as possible that the continuing refuelling programme for the ballistic submarines will continue at Devonport as the new submarines are integrated into the fleet.
I feel that I should also mention my surprise that the Leader of the Opposition seems determined to compromise the security of our armed forces and this nation when he talks of abandoning our continuous at-sea deterrent.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to the new aircraft carriers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already told me that they will be manned by a crew whose numbers will be similar to those on HMS Invincible, despite being three times its size. He has also told me that the Royal Navy is planning to ensure that it has the suitably trained and qualified people it needs, and that that will include training on HMS Raleigh in Devonport. It would be good to hear that he is confident that we have enough suitably qualified and experienced personnel who are ready when they are needed to develop the operational capability of both ships.
Let me finally say something about clause 14. I am pleased that the Act is being amended to recognise the brave firefighters in our armed forces, and to give them the same authority as our civilian firemen and women. I thank them for their brave work in keeping our military safe.
Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)
I welcome this Bill. As was said by a number of Members, including the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, this is an important Bill in that it involves a key constitutional issue. This Bill might seem quite dry and boring, but it actually asserts Parliament’s control over the armed forces and the fact that we have a standing Army. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) did not understand the significance and importance of that. As he is new to the House, I may suggest to him very gently that if he does not understand something, it is perhaps better not to comment on it.
I am a veteran of Armed Forces Bills. I considered the Armed Forces Act 2006, which was a major Act in that it radically changed the disciplinary acts of the three services. Unfortunately, it then followed me into ministerial office in the Ministry of Defence. The constructive way in which that Bill Committee did some very detailed work over a number of months not only improved service discipline and brought the Acts into the modern day, but helped to address some of the public concerns.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) talked about Deepcut, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the service complaints commissioner. Getting those issues into place has involved a long journey. We are now in a good place with regard to the service complaints commissioner. I was on the Defence Committee when Nicholas Blake compiled his report on Deepcut. I met the families involved on numerous occasions. Were they let down by the system, by Governments and by the Army? Yes, they were. Could we turn the clock back and find out what happened in those cases? Tragically, the answer is no, but what came out of the Blake report was a step forward in terms of the armed forces commissioner. I welcome the Government’s current commitment to the armed forces ombudsman. The Act tried, where possible, to apply to armed services personnel the modern standards that we would expect in civilian life. That is difficult because we are asking people to do different things. Where possible, the two areas should be mirrored. Clearly, the transparency that people expect in their dealings with Government should also be afforded to members of our armed forces. The ombudsman is a move in that direction.
The Bill before us is a piece of cake compared with the 2006 Act. It tidies up quite a lot of minor issues. As my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said, we will support that, and ensure that those issues are scrutinised so that any unintended consequences are addressed. It is important that we send a message to the members of the armed forces that we are taking these things seriously. When they raise matters that they are not happy with, we should consider whether we can amend and change things for them. Obviously, I am not talking about interfering with the rigid discipline that is required or breaking the chain of command. The hon. Member for Portsmouth South—I must welcome her to the House and say that she is a vast improvement on her predecessor—made a point in that regard.
One issue that came up in the 2006 Act—it is a continuing one that needs to be addressed—is whistleblowing. I am not talking about whistleblowing for minor complaints or things that are not relevant. If members of the armed forces have serious concerns, there needs to be a mechanism, or a safety valve, in the chain of command—I know that the ombudsman will address some of this—so that these things can be dealt with. That is very important.
The worst thing that happened in previous years was that some complaints were not taken seriously—that has improved greatly—and delay added to the problem. Quite minor things should have been dealt with lower down the chain of command. Not only would people have felt that they had been treated better, but the bureaucratic outcomes for both the armed forces and the individuals would have been better.
We had seven contributions in this debate. I am not sure that many were on the actual details of the Bill, but I will touch on some of the remarks. Let me turn first to the hon. Member for Portsmouth South. I congratulate her son on graduating from Sandhurst. The academy does a fantastic job. She made a really important point, which is that we need to be proactive, not reactive, on issues. Those issues could include mental health, service discipline or just the way that we treat people. I also pay tribute to the work of Castaway House. I visited it when I was a Minister and saw for myself what a fantastic job it does in supporting veterans and the wider armed forces community in Portsmouth and the surrounding area.
We also had a contribution from my friend, the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), who paid tribute to the work of HMS Raleigh. I agree that the Royal Navy does a fantastic job there with its new recruits. One of the many highlights of my ministerial career was attending a passing out parade on HMS Raleigh. It is humbling to meet both the parents and the recruits and to see the dedication and hard work that goes into ensuring that those people are not only transformed in the short period that they are there, but given life opportunities to work within our armed forces, which many would never ever get.
The hon. Lady was a little bit naughty, which is unusual for her, when she referred to the nuclear deterrent. The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) also referred to the Labour leader’s position on the nuclear deterrent. May I reassure them that the Labour party policy on the nuclear deterrent has not changed? It was agreed at the Labour party conference this year that we are in favour of a minimal credible nuclear deterrent provided by four boats under the continuous at-sea deterrent. We are committed to ensuring that we are part of multilateral disarmament talks so that we get to that point that everyone in this House wants to get to, which is a reduction in the ownership of nuclear weapons.
Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said, he would have heard that I referred to the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.
Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)
I am not sure what point the hon. Lady is making. That is what I referred to. That is Labour party policy and it has not changed with what has happened in our great party in the past few months.
Mike Wood Conservative, Dudley South
Will the shadow Minister explain how we could have a credible nuclear deterrent if we were to have a Prime Minister who had already said that he would never use it?
Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)
It is up to the Prime Minister of the day to write whatever advice he or she wants in the letter to the commanders. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall said that our policy had changed, but it has not. It is very clear. End of story.
Labour Members past and present have contributed to the armed forces and I know that my constituency and those of many other Members make a tremendous contribution through their sons, daughters and others who work not only for the regular forces but for the reserve forces. I am proud to represent a constituency with a long history of connection with the forces, and long may it continue. I reassure everyone that I will ensure that I champion their interests and ensure that their welfare, which is important in terms of this Bill, is taken care of.
The hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse)—I am not sure whether he is in his place—made an important point. The Bill refers to drug testing, but, as we all know, one of the biggest issues that needs addressing, which was an issue when I was a Minister, is alcohol. The question is how we address that, not in a nanny state way but by ensuring that people’s health is not affected by the drinking culture not only while they are in the armed forces but after they leave. Perhaps we could consider the question of alcohol and the armed services in Committee.
The hon. Member for Strangford talked about the contribution made by his part of the world to the armed forces as well as the idea of ensuring that people’s voices and complaints are heard. I, too, welcome the Government’s commitment to the service complaints commissioner.
We then heard three contributions from the Scottish nationalist party. I do not want to reiterate the issues about some of their points, but the Scottish nationalists cannot have it all ways. They cannot argue that they are committed to and want more defence resources for Scotland and then argue that an independent Scotland could produce even a fraction of what Scotland gets now.
I get a little disturbed when I hear the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife use the phrase “the distribution of spoils in the UK” to refer to the armed forces, as though the defence of this country is somehow about moving resources around the country in such a crude way. It is actually about ensuring that the country is defended and has the capability to defend itself. He talked about warships never being based in Scotland, but conveniently forgot to tell the House that our submarine base and defence are in Scotland and that that would be put at risk if we followed the proposals to abandon the nuclear deterrent that he and his party want us to follow. The Scottish nationalist party should be honest in this debate and say that what is being proposed for an independent Scotland would not have anything near the footprint or the proud history that is there at the moment. He referred fleetingly to the idea of regiments, and the idea that the SNP would reinstate all those regiments in an independent Scotland is complete nonsense.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) mentioned the White Paper on independence. I read it in detail, and not only its costings but its military strategy were complete and abject nonsense.