UK defence has undergone a decade of decline under successive Conservative governments.

The Tories have overseen a steady erosion of our Armed Forces strength, with 45,000 personnel cut since 2010, our under-equipped war-fighting division slimmed down and delayed into the 2030s, and a £8 billion real-terms cut to the defence budget since 2010.

The government appeared to have finally accepted the need for a long overdue change in defence procurement policy, and I welcome the end of ‘open competition by default’.

Introduced in 2012 by the Coalition Government, we have seen business defence spending off-shored by the Conservative Party, at the cost of UK jobs and business.

However, with a Conservative government, there is no guarantee that defence procurement will be concentrated in the UK.

In May, the Government announced a £1.6 billion competition to acquire three new Fleet Solid Support ships.

The new Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships will carry munitions and provisions for the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers.

Unite the Union has expressed concern that the government is allowing bidders to work in partnership with foreign companies to create a false image of work being integrated into UK yards.

Unite has rightly branded this a ‘smoke and mirrors’ competition.

In reality, this contract could be won by a UK-led bid and then designed and built largely overseas. These are UK ships that need to be designed and built in the UK, using core UK technologies and products, such as steel.

The Defence Secretary must show his commitment and faith in UK workers’ skills and expertise; UK shipyards are a vital part of local economies and could play a significant role in the government’s ‘levelling up agenda.’

Labour would go much further and set a higher bar for defence procurement and adopt a ‘British-built by default’ policy. This would require Ministers to prove that military equipment cannot be built in the UK before buying off the shelf from abroad.

The Integrated Review makes clear that threats to Britain are increasing. Our forces will be deployed further from home, yet the government’s plan is for fewer troops, fewer ships, and fewer planes over the coming years.

Deeper cuts to our armed forces will limit our capacity to simultaneously deploy overseas, support allies, and maintain our own strong national defences and resilience.

As such, the UK risks being out of step with the defence plans of our other leading NATO allies. Canada plans to increase regular personnel by 3,500. President Biden’s interim national security review reaffirms the US’s view that a powerful military provides a “decisive American advantage.”

Labour’s commitment to international law, to universal human rights and to the multilateral treaties and organisations that uphold them is total.

I would like to pay tribute to the invaluable contribution of the Armed Forces to the national Covid-19 response, in what has become the biggest ever domestic military operation in peacetime.

I am appalled that a survey by the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association found that 40% of Brits surveyed were unaware that the Armed Forces have supported the fight against Covid-19.

A further 53% surveyed did not know the Armed Forces helped with the UK’s vaccination programme.

This is a failing on the Government’s part to recognise and commend the Armed Forces’ vital contribution to the pandemic response.

Government failure continues beyond military service.

From substandard housing, to veterans’ mental health and social care, the government is failing to provide our veterans and their families with the respect and support their service should afford them.

Our veterans are left alone or reliant on charities if they fall on hard times. This is simply unacceptable.

Due to the lack of support for veterans’ mental health, the community has taken it upon themselves to help their comrades.

Veterans in my constituency and the surrounding area are fortunate. They have the newly established East Durham Veterans Trust, a charity in my constituency providing practical assistance and mental health support to our veterans community.

I would like to thank it’s founder, veteran Andy Cammiss, for establishing the charity and for the invaluable support he and the staff at East Durham Veterans Trust provide.

The charity’s existence is precarious, dependant on grants, donations and charity fundraising efforts.

I know the generosity of the House, and the Defence Minister will appreciate the gaps in support.

So while he works on fixing these problem, he will be pleased to know that he can make a one off donation or a regular monthly donation.

All donations, particularly during Armed Forces week, will be greatly received.

Finally, and related to the work of East Durham Veterans Trust, I would like to highlight an e-petition by another local veteran, David McKenna entitled ‘Fight of Our Lives: Reform mental health support for veterans.’

The petition asks that the government provide veterans with annual mental health check-ups for three years following discharge, create a Veterans Mental Health Scheme offering ongoing screening for conditions such as PTSD, offer a rapid intervention service for Veterans in distress, and require coroners to record Veterans suicide, which is a hidden epidemic in the community and does not get the attention that it deserves.

I hope the public will support this petition and help it to hit the threshold required to at least receive a government response.

We live in an increasingly dangerous world, and I hope the Government will listen to today’s debate and not repeat the mistakes of the last decade, on the size of our forces, on finances and on veteran mental health, care and support.

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