Julian Lewis: The Secretary of State evidently did not read the comments of five former chiefs of the defence staff if he genuinely thinks that it is not believed that his having two jobs sends out a terrible signal to members of the armed forces. He will recall that, earlier this month, I asked whether his ministerial salary was paid to him entirely for his duties as Secretary of State for Defence, and he failed to give me a direct reply. However, the Library has spoken to the Cabinet Office and a note to me states that a second official at the Cabinet Office informed the Library that:
‘following the recent cabinet reshuffle, the Ministry of Defence was instructed to pay Des Browne a ministerial salary and the Scotland Office was instructed not to.’
There may not be enough money in the defence budget for helicopters, but there is enough for the Secretary of State for Scotland.
More from Hansard here.
“the current material state of the fleet is not good; the Royal Navy would be challenged to mount a medium-scale operation in accordance with current policy against a technologically capable adversary”.
Which of those statements should the country be more worried about?
Des Browne: The Army is stretched – I have accepted that. I have been saying for some time that if we continue to ask it to operate at this tempo in the long term, that will be unsustainable. Over that period, we have been reducing the pressure on the Army. It is recognised that with the conclusion of Operation Banner in Northern Ireland and of the operation in Bosnia, and the planned reduction in the number of troops in Iraq, a significant amount of that pressure will be reduced.
The hon. Gentleman’s speech to the Conservative party conference suggested that the Army needed three further battalions. I do not believe that the Army needs that or that it thinks that it needs that. I accept that we need a balanced force structure in the Army, but that debate will not be helped by people seeking soundbites, particularly the sort that do not bring with them the commitment to invest the £700 million that would be necessary to make them reality.
On the Navy, the process of reducing the fleet was started by the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported at the end of the cold war, and has continued in line with the White Paper of 2004 in respect of numbers. The most important thing about our Navy is that with fewer ships it can deliver precisely the same tactical effect as before. I recognise that that does not mean that it can deliver the same strategic effect—that is a function of numbers rather than one of capability—but the ships that the Navy has have significantly greater capability.
Liam Fox: But it is not just about manning where there is a gap. There are real gaps at the moment—we have a real shortage of battlefield helicopters, as I saw in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago. That came as a direct result of this Government’s decision to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004. We may be getting more helicopters now, but people in the field are asking what sort of idiots cut the helicopter budget in the middle of two wars. We have ended up with not enough helicopters, soldiers or ships, we are not even paying all our troops and the Prime Minister gives us a part-time Defence Secretary to boot. Do Ministers understand that it is not only former defence chiefs who are angry about this, but increasing numbers inside and outside the armed forces?
Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman knows two things about helicopters from his trip to Afghanistan. The first is that operational helicopter hours in Afghanistan have increased significantly over the past months and that there are plans to increase the number of helicopters quite significantly. He also knows that that investment has been made and that one cannot just buy helicopters off the shelf—one must get them from the production line and make them deployable, and that takes some time.
More from Hansard here.