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Harriett Baldwin responds to Armed Forces debate

20th July 2017

Harriett Baldwin responds to a Parliamentary debate on the future shape of the armed forces.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Harriett Baldwin)

It is truly an honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Roger, and it is a privilege to respond to this debate. It has been a very good and effective debate on a topic that we often do not have the opportunity to discuss, so I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing it. I also congratulate him and his gallant colleagues on participating in it. It has been truly fascinating to hear of his distinguished service and the contribution it makes to our deliberations in this place.

I would point out that it would normally be the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), who would respond to this debate, but he is going out to visit some of our brave men and women on deployment at the moment, so he sends his regrets for not being with us today.

Several common themes emerged in the debate. I will attempt in the time available to me to touch on each of them. The first was the importance of the armed forces covenant in all our communities. I hope that everyone ​here today can share with me the aspiration that next year, when we have the 10th anniversary of Armed Forces Day, we will help our local areas to put on a really tremendous celebration. I am proud to have been part of the Government that enshrined the armed forces covenant in law in 2011.

We also heard about some of the issues around accommodation; in particular, from the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke very forcefully. A new contract was announced today with Carillion. In the last financial year we put another £68 million into accommodation, but I will certainly pass back what the hon. Gentleman said about the issues he has seen in his constituency.

I certainly heard a lot of support from Government Members for spending at least 2% of GDP on defence. I hope that the Labour party shares that aspiration; it was in its manifesto.

Wayne David

We do.

Harriett Baldwin

Nevertheless, it is a shame that we have not had quite as good a turnout of Labour Members as we have had of Government Members.

A number of colleagues mentioned the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill. That has started its passage through the House in the Lords, and I was glad to hear a range of supportive voices from the Government Benches for that legislation.

We heard about the issue around the base closure at York, which is scheduled to happen in 2031. We hope that setting such a long-term time horizon will give people the chance to plan around it, and of course there will be significant investment in the Catterick garrison, which is about an hour away from York, in terms of basing decisions.

Bob Stewart

I really must protest, Minister, that in my constituency there is not one military unit, and I want that rectified. What is she going to do about it?

Harriett Baldwin

I think that everyone can see that my hon. Friend himself embodies that military unit. Beckenham is well served in terms of the voice of the armed forces.

A number of hon. Members talked about celebrating the year of the Navy. It is a very exciting year, with HMS Queen Elizabeth going off on her sea trials from Scotland recently. It was also very exciting to announce recently the first of the new frigates, the Type 26. I assure the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) that not only will the way we are ordering the frigates ensure that we have those eight anti-submarine warfare frigates, but it will provide the best value for the public purse. That idea is behind the approach we are taking.

As far as the Type 31e is concerned, we are still in the pre-concept phase on that, and the approach that we take on procurement is that we will always make decisions at the last responsible moment.

Wayne David

Will the Minister give an assurance that she will encourage the use of as much British steel in the new frigates as is humanly possible?

Harriett Baldwin

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. We have published our requirement—I think it is about 4,000 tonnes of steel per frigate—on the Government pipeline website, and we encourage our contractor to look where possible to procure British steel.

As for the other issues raised on the naval front, a number of hon. Members asked about the national shipbuilding strategy. I can certainly say that it will be published in due course, but we are aware of the excitement in Scotland among those awaiting the report. Given the previous exciting events I have mentioned in terms of the Navy in Scotland, we do not want to overexcite the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) with everything all at once.

Douglas Chapman

I can assure the Minister that I am an extremely calm person. The time we have been waiting for the shipbuilding strategy has become unacceptable. We were told in previous debates and in answer to questions that the strategy was expected by spring. Then, in the Minister’s own words, it was expected by summer. Going by the weather outside, it is summer. Can she give us a date for when she expects to make the announcement?

Harriett Baldwin

I am pleased that we are giving the hon. Gentleman ships. This week, we are cutting steel on the first of the Type 26s. We have had the HMS Queen Elizabeth sea trials. We will be naming the HMS Prince of Wales later this year. I was up in Govan cutting steel on an offshore patrol vessel earlier this year. We are giving him ships, and he will get his shipbuilding strategy in due course. By the way, he is wrong to say that there is no admiral in Scotland, because Rear Admiral John Weale, the Flag Officer for Scotland and Northern Ireland, lives on his road in Argyll and Bute.

Douglas Chapman

To clarify, I am not the Member for Argyll and Bute.

Harriett Baldwin

I apologise. The admiral lives nearby.

I want to reassure colleagues on the stories in The Times this week about the F-35 joint strike fighter. We strongly disagree with the conclusions that the journalists came to. We are confident that the programme is within its budget envelope, despite the fluctuation in the exchange rate. We are also proud of the amazing capability it is demonstrating. We already have 10 of the planes in the States, as colleagues will know. We have about 100 British pilots and ground crew over there, with the pilots learning how to fly them. I have had the pleasure of speaking to one of them, who used to fly the Harrier. He said that this jet is the most amazing jet he has ever come across. The Navy and the Air Force are excited about the arrival of the planes into the UK.

In terms of our overall aspiration for defence, our vision is that we will protect our people, our territories, our values and our interests at home and overseas through strong armed forces and in partnership with allies to ensure our security and to safeguard our prosperity. This debate is a welcome opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the defence and security of our country and to the armed forces, which so many Members have spoken about and of which we are all so very proud. I pay tribute to the many servicemen and ​servicewomen who are currently involved in operations at home and overseas to ensure our safety, security and prosperity.

Our armed forces are exceptionally busy. More than 24,000 servicemen and women were deployed on operations at some point during the past 12 months. The RAF has carried out some 1,300 air strikes in Iraq and more than 140 in Syria as part of our comprehensive strategy to defeat Daesh, working with our global coalition partners. Nearly 400 British soldiers are providing engineering and medical support as part of the United Nations mission in South Sudan. Some 500 personnel are still serving in Afghanistan, working with the NATO mission to support the Afghan security forces. With NATO, we have deployed a battlegroup to Estonia. The Royal Navy continues, as it has done since 1969—that is nearly 50 years—to provide our nuclear deterrent patrols, which are at sea every minute of every hour of every day. The Navy maintains an enduring presence in the Gulf and the south Atlantic.

There are many, many other operations and deployments in which our forces are demonstrating daily their unparalleled commitment and dedication to duty, and I am sorry I can mention only those few examples in the time available. This debate is about the future shape of the armed forces. I remind Members that two years ago the Government announced the biggest programme of new investment in our armed forces for a generation. The 2015 strategic defence and security review identified an uncertain world—several colleagues have reiterated that—that is changing rapidly and fundamentally. In response, the SDSR defined the role, size and capabilities of the Navy, Army and Air Force for the next 10 years. Joint Force 25, which is now coming into being, will ensure that the armed forces remain able both to conduct the full range of operations that they might be called upon to undertake and to succeed against ever more sophisticated and capable adversaries.

Colleagues mentioned cyber-security, which is a very important area of investment. We announced a further £1.9 billion investment in the SDSR to go into our cyber capabilities, whether that is to defend the homeland, to deter people from attacking us or in the offensive capability that has been used in the conflict in Iraq and Syria. We have the fully comprehensive national cyber-security strategy too.

In the time available to me, I will skip quickly through some points. It is important to emphasise that we are committed to increasing our defence budget in every year of this Parliament. That increase is not only linked to the size of the economy, but will be at least 0.5% above inflation every year for the rest of this Parliament. We are already the second largest defence spender in NATO and the fifth largest in the world. We will sustain that investment by continuing to meet the NATO guideline. ​We plan to spend £178 billion on new equipment and equipment support between 2016 and 2026. Colleagues raised points around that, but that investment will allow us to maintain the size and capabilities of the armed forces with impressive new equipment.

I have mentioned the first of the new aircraft carriers. The second is coming along pretty snappily behind. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) said, they are the largest ships that have ever been built for the Royal Navy. It is an immense achievement for those who designed and built her, and for those now serving aboard her. We have also committed to building the four new Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines to provide our nuclear deterrent through until the 2050s at least. I can confirm that we will have eight new Type 26 global combat ships—the anti-submarine warfare ones—and steel will be cut on the first of those by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence tomorrow in Glasgow. I have mentioned other points about the Navy.

I wanted to talk about equipment for the Army. Divisions will be further reinforced by enhanced communications, which is very important. There will also be improved Warrior infantry fighting vehicles. I simply disagree with the tone of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who talked down what we are doing and talked down all these programmes. The programmes are incredibly complicated and complex, and the people involved in delivering them are to be admired and thanked. We are also doing a life extension programme for our Challenger 2 tanks. We are ordering 50 upgraded Apache and Chinook helicopters.

Without having enough time to touch even the tip of the iceberg in all the things that are happening, I will conclude. In every aspect of what makes our armed forces among the very best in the world—whether that is the equipment they operate, the training they undertake or the men and women who serve in the Navy, Army and Air Force—the Government are working and investing for the future; a future in which Britain has the right armed forces to ensure the safety and security of our people.

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