[Relevant documents: the Fifth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 558, on the UK deployment to Afghanistan, and the Government’s Response thereto, and the Sixth Special Report from the Committee, HC 1211.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]
Any debate on defence policy should be grounded in key current operations. I should therefore like to start by laying out the policy context for our major existing deployments, before setting out our future thinking.
Ministers have a responsibility to develop a clear policy framework that allows front-line service people to understand what they are being asked to do, and why, and ensures that they have the resources to succeed. It is then for our military commanders to ensure that that policy is implemented on the ground. Without motivated, informed and properly supported people, policy is just empty words.
I have made it a key part of my role over the past five years to see for myself our military contribution to overall UK and international efforts, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. I pay tribute to the achievements of our troops. They carry out their role with the highest degree of professionalism, commitment and dedication to duty. Those are the attributes that they are delivering in the highest measure in our two main operational theatres—Iraq and Afghanistan—and I want to touch on both of those areas.
On Iraq, to withdraw prematurely would represent a huge disservice to the Iraqi people, undermining their hopes for a better future after Saddam’s tyranny and the recent and current sectarian insurgency. What is needed is a measured and agreed process of transition. This week, we have seen two good examples of that approach: first, the announcement of the Iraqi security forces taking responsibility for Al Muthanna, and secondly, the new Basra security plan, announced yesterday, that will increase the number of Iraqi security forces patrolling the streets to make the city a safer place.
The plan also has a public services element, supported by the coalition provincial reconstruction team, to provide local people with the know-how to ensure the provision of vital services—things that we all take for granted in our own communities, such as clean water, reliable electricity supplies and refuse collection. As in Al Muthanna, our objective is progressively to transfer responsibility to the Iraqi security forces in the other provinces in Multi-National Division (South-East): Maysan and Di Qhar and Basra.
In Afghanistan, forces from 36 countries are now assisting the Afghan National Government through the NATO-led, international security assistance force, working within and under a full UN mandate. In Afghanistan, too, we have a duty to play our part in helping a fledgling democratic state to overcome fanatical and undemocratic antagonists. As in Iraq, and previously in the Balkans, transition is a key feature of our strategy. With our allies, we are training and equipping local police officers and soldiers to take back responsibility for the control of their country in the face of intimidation and terror.
Over time, a process of transition from ISAF to the Afghan security forces will take place. Completing that process is not simply a moral obligation to the Afghan people; success is also essential for future British security interests. If the Karzai Government were to fail and Afghanistan were to be an unpoliced and impoverished black hole, there could be no greater boost for worldwide Islamist extremism and no more certain way to ensure abundant and uninterrupted supplies of heroin on our streets. That is why we the United Kingdom, along with others, have made a long-term support commitment to Afghanistan.
There are a number of countries in the south, which is part of phase 3 of the process. Canadian, Australian, Dutch and forces from other nations are assisting as well. Clearly, the United States is still there as well. We have deployed a significant force to Helmand, but the south is, of course, bigger than Helmand, and it is going to the north of that area as well. Our military deployment in Helmand is part of the planned NATO move into the south to support the Afghan National Government. There is a tendency to focus on military developments, but it is important to place them in context. The real measure of success, of which the military effort is but a part, is effective civil policing, economic development, reconstruction and social cohesion.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but we had a useful debate yesterday, and he made a very good contribution. I did not agree with everything; I did not get the chance to address every point that he made, but he has a lot of knowledge on the subject. I hope that his intervention will be about Afghanistan.
I wish to raise that very issue. The subject of today’s debate is the Defence Committee’s fifth report, “The UK deployment to Afghanistan”. I appreciate that the Minister takes a huge interest and has an obligation to speak, but he is just about to touch on other areas that go far beyond the military interest. Therefore, why do we not see members of the Foreign Office team here and, importantly, the Department for International Development team, given the huge sums of money that are coming from those Departments as well?
I do not see any representative of the Conservative Foreign Office team in opposition to me. The debate is one of the four planned debates on defence. This one is on policy. It so happens that the Defence Committee has tabled its report on Afghanistan, and those members of the Select Committee who are present can clearly make their contribution in the light of their report and the Government’s response to it. I take the point—as I recollect, it was made yesterday—that there should be greater engagement and debate across the Government, either from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or from DFID. I understand that that was raised earlier during businesses questions. That will be taken on board, and we must consider how best we ensure that there is an understanding that such things are co-ordinated across the Government and not solely defence-led.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I would not presume that he can give me instructions on what my intervention should be about. In fact, I was not going to ask him a question about that.
On the general policy, since the strategic defence review in 1998, have not the envisaged levels of commitment gone up and the envisaged levels of resources, both human and financial, gone down? Are not our armed forces more undermanned, more ill-equipped and more under-trained than at any time in the past 60 years?
I agree in part with some of that, but not with the latter part. If anything, there is a greater intensity in ensuring proper training. In many ways, the nature of the deployments that our troops have undergone has given them greater awareness, greater knowledge and greater capacity to keep up their skills. There was a long time—it was certainly before my time—when that must have proved difficult, because we had a static position in Germany. Sadly, we had the experience of Northern Ireland. Much of that experience has helped us elsewhere.
In terms of training and knowledge, that is not the picture that I have of Her Majesty’s armed forces at present. In terms of equipment, I would accept that that was the picture in the early stages of our deployment—but, of course, needs must. What happened in Afghanistan happened, as did the attacks on the twin towers. They happened, and not by design or with predictability. We had to react, and we did so—I believe correctly.
At the same time as we were having to react to that, we had a major exercise under way in Oman, which had been planned five years before. Its purpose was to ensure that we had the necessary logistic support and the right kit—that the kit being used was capable of working in hostile environments such as those in Oman. We could have cancelled that exercise.
We did not try to. We decided to continue with it because it was teaching us invaluable lessons, as is clear if one looks at what is happening now in terms of logistic support, the way in which urgent operational requirements have been triggered in, and how our personnel are currently kitted out. Complaints about equipment by our personnel to people who visit them are now very rare. I am not saying that there are no complaints, but they are very rare, and they are certainly at nothing like the level they were at five years ago.
On reshaping and restructuring the armed forces overall, we could have a debate about future army structure, and the projected size of the new navy, while remembering the ships we are purchasing—I will address that later in my speech—which require fewer personnel to serve on board. That is the case even for the new larger aircraft carriers, for which I think about 200 fewer personnel are needed. That meant there would be a reshaping. We have also reshaped the RAF; about 7,500 posts have gone. The RAF has never been busier, and, actually, it is delivering to tremendous effect. So we should get this issue into the proper context. If the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) is prepared to say, drawing on his parliamentary experience, that the armed forces were always fully manned and always equipped beyond need, he is not living in the real world.
I have been talking about the tendency to focus on military developments and the importance of putting that in context. I said that that has to be part of an overall package of delivery of civil policing, economic development, reconstruction and social cohesion. As the House will be aware, the means by which we hope to achieve that is through the proven route of a provincial reconstruction team to be based in Helmand. It will combine the various agencies of UK Government delivery—the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. That mechanism has already delivered in the north and west of Afghanistan. I recognise that the south is a more difficult environment, but we are determined to succeed.
Will the Minister state whether he believes that there are sufficient forces in Afghanistan to deliver all the things that he has said they wish to achieve in that very large country?
The Minister also mentioned heroin and the drug supplies that come from Afghanistan. What support is he getting from within Afghanistan to help to eradicate those supplies?
On the latter point, we have been able to equip, train and assist a standing Afghan force that deals with eradication, and it is very successful. The problem is huge, and it will not be solved overnight. [Interruption.] I hear the points that are made, but I do not hear any solutions, other than those that we are seeking to deliver. If anyone has a better solution for dealing with the increase in the opium crop, I will be interested to hear it, because we will certainly take on board any good ideas.
On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, we have always said that we will keep the size of the deployment under review. We recently made an announcement in respect of sending a company of the RAF regiment to lay down better force protection at Kandahar airfield. We will always examine what we are doing and listen to what the field commanders are saying—about whether they need particular expertise, or strengthening in one area or another. All that is judged on a military basis—although, of course, it must ultimately have ministerial approval—so if there is such a requirement and it can be met, it will be met.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He will be aware of the deaths of four more American soldiers last night and of subsequent comments by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. President Karzai, commenting on the security situation in Afghanistan, said last night:
“I have systematically, consistently and on a daily basis warned the international community of what was developing in Afghanistan…and of a change of approach by the international community in this regard.”
How does the Minister interpret those comments, in terms of both how we are carrying out Operation Enduring Freedom and the ISAF deployment?
First of all, we have to discuss that with President Karzai. The incident referred to is recent, and he clearly has specific views on what should be happening. We have an international capability, which is seeking to deliver. If more needs to be done, let us see if more can be done.
What we are seeking to do in Afghanistan has been well planned, well structured and has a very clear focus. I say again to the hon. Gentleman that if he thinks we should be doing more, he should tell us how, and we should also set that against his view that we are overstretched and we cannot run campaigns in two theatres. If he wants us to do more, where does he think that will come from?
Will the Minister give way?
Hold on a moment.
When demands are made, they have to be set against available resources. That is what we seek to do. We are also constantly seeking to engage greater international buy-in to this. That process will continue; that is part of what NATO force generation is all about. We cannot commit other countries; we cannot force them to do things. We can only consult our allies and seek to get the best possible lay-down of military presence. Also, we keep closely in touch with President Karzai; we listen to his concerns, and if we can react, we will do so.
The Minister asked what could be done to make better use of existing resources. Does he not agree that the time has now come to fully integrate ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom, because western, NATO military forces in Afghanistan cannot make the best use of resources if there are two command structures, even given the current attempts to co-ordinate them?
That will come, but the point is that they are under two separate command structures because they are carrying out two distinctly separate roles.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has sophisticated knowledge of these matters. He knows what we are doing. We have worked successfully in the north and the west, and we have proved that we can deliver in a particular way. We then said, “Let’s look at what can now be delivered in the south”—which is stage three of the development. It took a good number of months to build up force capability and to see what to do. We are almost fully deployed—but we are not there yet. However, we are already taking action against whatever force comes up against us—such as insurgencies inspired by the Taliban or tribal warlords. When that has proved successful, the intention is to move into the east.
This has been a progressive process, which has “approvability”. We are now in the most difficult environment: the south. This stage will take time, but difficult time scales will be set down for the military commanders to make judgments as to when we can make the next move in the process. I agree that what the right hon. and learned Gentleman recommends is required, but we are not yet at the stage to do that.
Let me now turn to broader issues.
No. The comprehensive approach that we have adopted in both Iraq and Afghanistan guides much of the work of the MOD. We work increasingly closely with other Departments on a range of security issues. The conflict prevention pools and the post-conflict reconstruction unit are major innovations in joined-up Government. They bring together MOD, FCO and DFID resources for a more strategic approach to conflict reduction. They integrate the Government’s conflict prevention work in a wide range of countries. Countering the proliferation of non-conventional arms is a good example of that and is a cross-government priority. Our work on instruments such as the non-proliferation treaty and the chemical weapons convention aims to eliminate certain types of weapons of mass destruction.
In particular, we are actively pursuing global partnership activities in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. For example, I recently visited Shchuch’ye, in the Russian Urals. In Shchuch’ye, the MOD, on behalf of the UK and other international donors, has implemented projects to enable the construction of a key chemical weapons destruction facility. The UK’s role has been to bring together some 10 international donors, with a funding commitment of £55 million, as part of a major Russian/US-led project designed to destroy the chemical weapons stockpiles of the former Soviet Union.
The MOD is also actively working with other Government Departments to further the UK’s commitment to gaining international support for an arms trade treaty, which will improve international mechanisms and reduce the flow of irresponsibly traded conventional arms, particularly in areas of conflict. There are too many parts of the globe from which this illegal and evil trade emanates, which is why we need renewed and better-focused international mechanisms to deal with the problem.
Running alongside that is the important role played by the MOD’s defence diplomacy initiatives, which are aimed at changing attitudes and perceptions among emerging states and at helping the development of democratically accountable armed forces. Our financial contribution is in the region of £50 million and covers conflict prevention and management, as well as post-conflict reconstruction. That contribution is made within the financial and policy framework of the global conflict prevention pool and the defence assistance fund, and brings together defence diplomacy and defence development work. All that is conducted within a common strategy, and in the light of shared conflict analysis agreed between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the MOD and the Department for International Development. The programmes delivered through this mechanism can make a real difference, whether in sub-Saharan Africa or elsewhere.
There is only so much that the United Kingdom can do in isolation, however. We contribute strongly to the wider work of international agencies to deliver change. This is why we are keen to see the UN being properly transformed to deal with the new global challenges and threats. NATO is also undergoing a dramatic transformation so that it, too, can respond to the full range of global security challenges; the most prominent example is the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. NATO continues to make a vital contribution to ensuring stability in Kosovo.
On the European front, the European security and defence policy is progressing. It is proving to be both an effective partner to NATO, and is able to act in its own right when NATO as a whole chooses not to be engaged. It is contributing a peace support mission in Bosnia, after taking on that role from NATO. Of course, NATO will remain the natural choice for operations involving both European and north American allies, and it remains the essential basis of our collective defence.
The European Union also has the potential to bring together its diplomatic, judicial and economic strengths, alongside its ability to conduct a range of military operations. Both the EU and NATO have the potential to play a role in partnership, or individually, to promote world security. They are co-operating in the Balkans—in both Bosnia and Kosovo—and they are working together to support the African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur. NATO is playing a vital role in Afghanistan, and the EU has helped to end the civil war in Aceh.
I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and whether he believes that the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons by any signatory to the non-proliferation treaty that currently holds weapons would indeed be illegal—not to mention very costly—and probably immoral.
If my hon. Friend cares to hold on, I will deal with that issue in some detail.
I turn now to another key part of our defence policy: the defence industrial strategy. The strategy is more than just a policy document: it is a framework for action, so that both the MOD and the UK defence industry can develop and implement the changes that both need to make. The Government’s commitment to defence should not be in doubt. We are working on some massive programmes: future aircraft carriers, Type 45 destroyers, new armoured fighting vehicles, Typhoon and the new joint strike fighter, to name but a few. These and other platforms will have long lives. In the unpredictable future that we face—of uncertain threats and new requirements—we are looking at new ways of delivering support to the front line, and at doing so in partnership with industry.
The defence industrial strategy is designed to match this new environment. It provides greater transparency in respect of our defence requirements, and sets out the industrial capacity that we need in the United Kingdom to meet them. Its overall aim is to ensure that, in future, we can provide our armed forces with the equipment that they require. We are delivering the DIS. We announced today in a written ministerial statement the signature of a strategic partnering arrangement and a business transformation incentivisation agreement with AgustaWestland—an arrangement that balances opportunity and challenge to create precisely the demanding partner relationship envisaged by the DIS. I am also delighted to say that we have placed an order for 70 Future Lynx helicopters with AugustaWestland. That fulfils another DIS commitment, and will help to sustain critical skills onshore and provide vital major equipment for our armed forces.
I am interested in what the Minister is saying, not least because I know of his commitment to the armed forces. But there was a report in the Evening Standard—of course, it is only a newspaper and I do not always believe newspapers—on 12 June entitled, “Huge cuts to the defence industry”. It alleges that the Chancellor wishes to take £1 billion out of the defence budget per year and to devote it to homeland security. It then suggests that one major procurement project—the Minister has just been discussing those projects—could be scrapped, such as the aircraft carriers. Can the Minister please categorically deny that?
I learned a long time ago never to believe what I read in the newspapers, when it is under a glaring headline and the context in which it is written is not based on any identifiable or authoritative source. I have just mentioned the aircraft carriers, our procurement programme and the major development of the rotary wing fleet, and more will follow on the back of that. Today’s announcement is worth 1 billion, and I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would thank us for that, rather than trying to find some windmill to tilt at.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He referred to the written statement that he made today, which is indeed largely welcome. Can he explain why the new Lynx helicopters will not be available until 2014 and 2015, given that the Lynx currently operated by the Royal Navy are absolutely knackered—for want of a better word—and say what the division is between the number of helicopters for the Royal Navy and for the Army?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman specifics on the latter point. He should have read the written statement in the round, because it does mention the new partnering arrangement. A dismissive reference has been made to that arrangement, but it is a new arrangement not just with AugustaWestland but across industry, the purpose of which is to incentivise the industry and ensure that it delivers on its commitments to the existing fleet. We are looking at new ways of ensuring greater availability of existing platforms, and of perhaps extending their life, to ensure that the spares required to sustain those fleets are provided at the right time and in the right volume. Of course, part of the overall package that we have delivered for AugustaWestland is a future procurement stream, but it must also deliver on the existing stream. Industry understands this—we are adopting this approach with Boeing, Rolls-Royce and BA Systems. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who has detailed knowledge of these issues, would do well to spend some time studying our efforts in this regard. If he does, he will find that there is full, not just partial, support for what we are doing.
I need hardly remind the House that we face decisions on the future of our Trident nuclear deterrent. It is worth reminding the House—
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. The defence industrial strategy is long overdue and very welcome, but can he assure me that it will not lead to a level of protectionism? Do we recognise that we still have to access the best equipment anywhere in the world for our forces, and to look for value for money? We must work with our European partners to provide Europe, as well as Britain, with resources.
My hon. Friend has good knowledge of the subject and raises an issue of concern over whether we have monopolistic suppliers and what the implications would be. The DIS is very much designed to ensure that we keep in this country what core competences we can. We have to recognise that increasingly there will be joint ventures; indeed, the joint strike fighter is a joint venture with the United States. The purpose of the European Defence Agency is to begin to look at where the shortfalls are in European capabilities and to grow from that a greater willingness within Europe to supply to meet the shortfalls.
We have a comprehensive approach, but it is early days and it has not been fully tested. We have to be careful not to find ourselves becoming reliant, as has happened in the past, on a procurement stream that neither delivers on time or on cost, or to the quality that we require.
I could never be angry with the Secretary of State and am grateful to him for giving way. Before he moves on, I have a question about equipment connected with Afghanistan. As our forces appear to be winning the firefights in Afghanistan, does he expect those who oppose our troops there and in other theatres to revert to the use of improvised explosive devices? If so, what vehicles are our forces to be equipped with to counter the threat?
I am not bidding for that.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) raises an important issue. We have been very effective in Afghanistan. We have a potent force in the Apache attack helicopters. We are up against intelligent and capable enemies, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, and we know that they will continue to look for ways to attack land-based vehicles or air-based platforms. We have a lot of measures in place. The hon. Lady will understand that it is not appropriate to discuss all the detail, but where we identify a threat—be it a new or technological threat—we identify a quick way to deal with it. Sometimes that takes time as we come to understand the threat before developing the technical response. Our focus at all times is the protection of our personnel, whether it involves fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, land-based systems or maritime systems.
I want to deal with the future of our Trident nuclear deterrent. It is worth reminding the House that when the Government came to power we initiated a range of changes to our nuclear weapons profile. The UK has an excellent record in meeting our international legal obligations. We have withdrawn and dismantled the RAF's air-launched WE177 nuclear bomb without replacement, so that Trident is our only nuclear weapons system. We have dismantled all our remaining Chevaline Polaris warheads, demonstrating our commitment to irreversible reductions in the UK's nuclear weapons. We have reduced our operationally available stockpile of nuclear weapons to fewer than 200 warheads—a 70 per cent. reduction in the potential explosive power of our nuclear forces since the end of the cold war. We have reduced the readiness of our nuclear forces: only one Trident submarine at a time is on deterrent patrol, carrying 48 warheads, compared with a previously planned total of 96, on several days' "notice to fire", and its missiles are de-targeted. We have signed and ratified the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. We have also continued to press for negotiations without preconditions, to begin at the conference on disarmament in Geneva, of a fissile material cut-off treaty.
At the last election, we stood on a manifesto commitment clearly stating that we intended to retain this country's current independent nuclear deterrent. That commitment remains. We sent an initial memorandum to the Defence Committee on these issues, which was published in January.
No. I shall set out the whole of our policy and take it from there.
We currently have no requirement for a new nuclear warhead, nor do we have a programme in place to develop a new nuclear warhead. We did, however, announce last July additional funding for the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the purpose of which was to put in place a programme to ensure that our current Trident warhead remains both safe and reliable.
We have made it clear that decisions on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent are necessary in the current Parliament. As a consequence, work is under way by officials on risks, threats, options and costs in order to prepare the ground for eventual decisions to be taken by Ministers. It remains the case that no decisions have yet been taken in principle or detail on any replacement for Trident. I stress that any decisions that may be taken on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent will be fully consistent with our international legal obligations, including those under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
On the role of Parliament in this process, the Prime Minister has repeatedly promised—most recently yesterday at Prime Minister’s Question Time—that there will be the fullest possible parliamentary debate on the issue. He has also indicated that the timetable on the way forward should be clearer around the end of the year.
The Minister made much of the commitment in Labour’s manifesto to retain our independent nuclear deterrent. I do not think that there has ever been any question of a Government policy to abandon the existing Trident system. The question is not whether they intend to retain it, but whether they intend to replace it. Last night, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he would support the retention of our independent deterrent in the long-term. That has been interpreted as meaning replacement, which is why it is on the front pages of the press. Have the Government decided to replace the nuclear deterrent? If they have not, does he think that the Chancellor was talking about retention or replacement?
I do not think that my statement could be any clearer, which is why I wanted to set out the policy in detail. The Chancellor said that he pledged to demonstrate the strength of national purpose in protecting our security in this parliament and in the long-term. He said that we would be
“strong in defence, in fighting terrorism, upholding NATO, supporting our armed forces at home and abroad, and retaining our independent nuclear deterrent.”
Let me also quote the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). He said that last night’s speech was just more spin designed to cast the Chancellor as a statesman. Well, the Chancellor is a statesman. He represents this country at the very highest levels of international negotiations, and he does it exceptionally well. He is not the political pygmy; he is a world statesman. The hon. Gentleman also said that the Chancellor was “reheating” an old pledge to retain the current deterrent, but not committing to replacing the independent nuclear deterrent when it reaches the end of its current life.
I am disappointed that instead of answering the perfectly reasonable question about the Government’s intentions put by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), the Minister chose to hand responsibility back, implying somehow that the Conservative party’s views on these matters are more important than those of the Labour Government.
Leaving that aside, however, will the Minister tell us one thing? I thought that I heard him say that the Government had not yet decided on the principle of replacing the nuclear deterrent. Will he confirm that they have not decided on that principle? He also said that he would consult the House as widely as possible. Will he confirm whether the Government intend to give a vote to Members of the House of Commons on whether that principle should be endorsed?
I realise that my hon. Friend wants to be helpful—at least I hope that he does—but he must let me reply—[Interruption.] I assume that Members on the Labour Benches are rising to be helpful because we made a manifesto commitment to retain the independent nuclear deterrent, so I can only assume that they want to say why they support that commitment and why they were proud to be elected Labour MPs on that platform at the last election.
Let me first answer the question put by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). I have set out the process and I cannot do so in any other way. Officials are looking at the range of things that have to be done so that they can report to Ministers. Ministers at a senior level in Cabinet will then make the decision. Once a Cabinet decision has been taken it will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was asking for any other process and the one that we have established is clear.
I knew that my hon. Friend would be an honourable friend because, like me, he was pleased to be elected a Labour Member at the last election on that manifesto commitment about the retention of our independent nuclear deterrent. The programme has an extensive life span, which is why we have invested to ensure its long-term safety and reliability.
I can answer only one question at a time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) asked whether I had a view about what was in the Conservative manifesto. It is not really for me to say, but I do not think that they even mentioned the matter. We took a brave political decision—they just seem to disappear when things get tough.
I thank the Minister for giving way. In his remarks about a possible replacement for Trident, or a new generation of weapons, he said that everything would be done consistent with international treaty obligations, including the non-proliferation treaty. That treaty, signed in 1970, includes a commitment by the five declared powers to long-term disarmament. Can he explain which part of the treaty would be broken if we developed a new generation of nuclear weapons in contravention of it?
I was hoping that my hon. Friend would say that he, like me, was proud to stand as a Labour candidate at the last election on our manifesto commitment—I do not think that he resiled from it then. On our international treaty obligations, I have set out what we have done since coming to power in 1997, and made it clear that at all times we take the lead in trying to push forward multilateral discussions on the NPT and elsewhere. I wish that my hon. Friend could take some pride in what the Government have achieved, instead of constantly trying to undermine us and giving us the benefit of his—although I hesitate to say it—wisdom by explaining the meaning of the treaty. The Government know what the treaty means and we are standing by it.
The Minister spoke about retaining the current nuclear deterrent. The Chancellor’s comments about the long-term tend to indicate that there will be a replacement. The Minister said that officials would carry out the necessary risk assessment to make a decision about the future and that there would be parliamentary scrutiny. If I recall the Prime Minister’s answer correctly, he said that the decision would come back to Parliament, but will the Minister confirm that there will be parliamentary approval rather than merely a report and parliamentary scrutiny in the normal way?
I think that I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman’s party wants to get out of NATO, never mind its non-nuclear stand, although it may be revising that. Of course, if members of the Scottish National party decide to change their policy—as they should—they will come under the nuclear umbrella, so they will have a problem in squaring those views. Perhaps that explains their approach to NATO and to the way in which it tries to deal with problems in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
I have made clear what we said. Our manifesto commitment was clear and the way in which I set out the process for the development of the policy was abundantly clear. It is not inconsistent with anything that anyone has said recently.
I want to move on. Members know that I do not run away from debate but I have already been speaking for 45 minutes and I have several other important policy matters to set out. I want to talk about our personnel.
We recognise that our people remain our greatest asset, and we are doing our utmost to implement policy that will provide our service personnel with conditions and services that help to generate and maintain battle-winning defence capability. Among the wide range of projects and initiatives under way, I shall mention two in the context of the debate: improvements in training and accommodation for our people.
The defence training review rationalisation programme aims to provide modern, cost-effective specialist training, improved facilities and accommodation and significant savings through the more efficient utilisation of a reduced training estate. That will give our servicemen and women the best living and learning environment that we can provide, and we expect to announce preferred bidders later this year.
The importance we attach to our personnel is also reflected in the investment we are making in modernising the defence estate across the country. In Colchester, the modernisation programme will enable us to move more than 2,000 service personnel from their current cramped and inadequate living accommodation to state-of-the-art, single occupancy, en-suite accommodation fit for the 21st century. It will also provide exemplary social and working conditions for personnel across the garrison.
Not in the whole British Army. The figure I mentioned was 2,000. I realise that the hon. Gentleman is a strong supporter of the project, but as I do not know the basis for his question I cannot give him a specific answer. If I can find out the answer before the wind-ups, I will let him know. It is a major project and he has taken a close interest in it. I was proud to cut the first sod—
I will not even go there. It was great to see the project and the enthusiasm of everyone associated with it. The private contractors and our own people—both civilian and military—are keen for it to succeed.
I want now to touch on future policy and to address our long-term strategic defence posture. Our investment decisions are measured in decades ahead, rather than individual years, and we need to get them right. The debate is an opportunity for the House to consider the challenges of the longer term, and to understand how the Ministry of Defence is looking at them. The primary responsibility of any Government must be to provide security for its citizens, but we also have a global responsibility to defend international stability. It is in the UK’s interest to act internationally to bring about a peaceful and prosperous world.
Our prosperity rests upon globalisation and we need, as a nation, to remain engaged in its development to ensure both our security and success. Our armed forces are a key asset for achieving that. Their quality and reputation are second to none. Their capabilities allow us and, often, international organisations, such as the UN, the EU and NATO, to respond to threats and to support an international system based on human rights, good governance, democracy, civil and political liberties and free trade.
As the House will agree, no nation can be the world’s policeman, and that applies equally to the UK. However, we will continue to act where it is right to do so. The British people expect nothing less. That is why we have to adapt in good time to the trends that we identify both at home and around the world. We do not expect that purely national and military solutions will be adequate. Armed forces cannot act alone to maintain international stability. As I have indicated, we recognise that the major security challenges of this century will require joint, integrated and multinational solutions. UK policy needs to be based upon putting to good use the resources and expertise of different Departments in the UK, and different nations across the world. We will continue to build on our alliances, working together with the international community in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and Africa. It seems to me that public debate tends to focus on the British and American roles only, but we must not ignore the vital contributions of our allies and partners.
The success of our British military contributions has derived from expeditionary forces whose structure and capabilities provide speed, agility, deployability and the ability to conduct a range of tasks. Those capabilities, which make the UK armed forces almost unique, are possible only because of commitment to professional excellence and sustained investment to deliver what is required in today’s—and tomorrow’s—security environment.
All that brings me to the longer-term policy question of the future strategic context. Globalisation is driving unprecedented growth and prosperity across the world. Increasing cross-border flows of resources, goods, services and people will spread values and ideas. We can expect greater wealth, lowered cultural and ideological barriers and widening freedoms. All that could be suggestive of a 21st century world where conflict between nation states would be a rarity, unlike the terrible wars and traumas of the 20th century. However, as we move into the 21st century, we see the beginning of profound changes to the strategic environment. There is the speed with which powerful forces are developing, the range of unpredictable ways in which they could interact, and the vulnerability of an increasingly interdependent international system to physical, economic or political shocks—all those things breed uncertainty.
Key security challenges for the future will include the familiar—weak and failing states, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism—but we also need to consider the potential security consequences of climate change, rapidly growing pressures on natural resources, accelerating technological change, and the social, cultural and geopolitical challenges that will accompany the rise of Asia and other emerging powers. It is not possible to predict how those and many other factors will interact, but it is right to acknowledge that not all of the potential futures are benign and that conflict within and between states will not disappear. Weak states will continue to face severe pressures. Extremist ideologies will still find breeding grounds among those who believe that they are not gaining from rapid change. Even a return to confrontation between major states or blocs cannot be ruled out.
British Governments, like the entire international community, will continue to have to work hard to promote security and success in that challenging future environment. We need to consider systematically how our armed forces can strengthen the UK’s ability to act, to influence the international management of crises and to respond to unforeseen events. Later this year, the Ministry of Defence will publish a paper on the future strategic context for defence. It will offer an analysis of the future strategic environment and its implications and, I hope, improve understanding of the issues and the key questions to be decided.
Painstaking analysis of security challenges helps to maintain the vital continuous understanding among service people of how they fit into overall policy, which I mentioned at the beginning of my contribution. It also helps us to continue to give our people the right tools, by investing in the highest priority programmes. Beyond the services, in a democracy such as ours, major decisions require an informed public discussion. I hope that today’s debate will contribute substantially to that process and I look forward to hearing the contributions from both sides of the House.
Let me start with a quote from 1997:
“A strong defence capability is an essential part of Britain’s foreign policy…By 1999 defence spending will have fallen to 2.6 per cent. of GDP…The people who have had to bear the burden of these cuts are our servicemen and women, overstretched and under strength as never before. The strain on our Armed Forces is huge. We have a continuing commitment in Northern Ireland. Our forces operate in the Gulf, the Balkans, Africa, the Falklands, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Germany and other parts of the world all at once.”
That was our Prime Minister in full pre-election flow. What have we seen from the Government he brought to office? The answer is further commitments in Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan, and cuts in our armed forces of almost 40,000. The Army is down 9,000, the Navy is down 10,000 and the RAF is down 16,000 since the Government came to office. This year we will spend only 2.2 per cent. of our GDP on defence—the smallest proportion of our national wealth that we have spent on defending our country in any year since 1930. So much for the overstretch that the Prime Minister described when he was in opposition.
That level of defence expenditure is supposed to provide for, at most, no more than one small-scale operation and two medium-scale operations at any time. However, since 1999, British armed forces have been operating over and above the Government’s own planning assumptions in every year but one. The Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Defence, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, have trimmed the available resources time and time again—at the same time as the Government have been asking our soldiers to do more and more. For example, the gap between deployments for infantry units had dropped to 15 months, when it is supposed to be a minimum of 24 months, increasing the stress placed not only on our servicemen and women, but on their families—something that is not sufficiently taken into account. As a consequence, there is a rising divorce rate among service personnel.
There are serious capability gaps now, and more looming in the immediate future. Only 40 per cent. of the Lynx and Gazelle helicopter fleet is fit for purpose—as is only 40 per cent. of the C-130K Hercules fleet. At times, we have had so few aircraft that soldiers have been left sitting on the tarmac in Basra because there have been no planes to fly them back home. This March saw the withdrawal of the F/A2 Sea Harriers, leaving the maritime fleet without air defence. As Ministers openly acknowledge, we shall be reliant on the United States for air defence of the fleet until the Type 45s, with their air defence role, enter service around 2009. These will be followed by the new carriers, with their joint strike fighters, which are due to enter service—well, we do not know exactly when they will be entering service. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us.
The hon. Gentleman has missed the full explanation on the Sea Harriers. This keeps being raised. The background is that to have upgraded the Sea Harriers would have cost in the region of £500 million. The process would have been technically difficult and there was no guarantee of success; in fact, it was so technically difficult that it could have meant a delay in the aircraft flying. Against those criteria, the judgment was made not to proceed. That was done on the basis of military advice: “Don’t spend the money on something you can’t get a guaranteed return for.” Clearly, however, the old spendthrift ways of the Tories are still there. That is why we have such a big headache in defence in relation to some of the legacy programmes.
As ever, the Government, having been in office for nine years, can find nothing better to do than blame their predecessors for the problems that they themselves have brought in. Many in the military believe that the Sea Harriers could have been kept flying without a change in engine for some time yet, but the Government have chosen instead to leave that gap in our services and to leave us dependent on the United States. I am keen on our partnership with the United States, but we are talking about a Government whose members kept telling us when they were in opposition that there was overstretch and underfunding and that gaps were being left. Since they came to office, we have had greater commitments, insufficient funding and greater gaps.
However the Minister dresses it up, there remains a fundamental gap in our air defences. Even when the T45 is rolled out, it will still have only a limited radar capability to the horizon. The only way in which we are going to protect our fleet is by having either Sea Harriers or the F-35, which has the radar capability. However the Minister dresses it up, our sea fleet will be vulnerable until the aeroplanes are replaced.
My hon. Friend is not only knowledgeable, but has a regular discourse with the Minister in Westminster Hall. That sounds like a good attempt to make sure that we keep that discourse going. Since my hon. Friend has been getting by far the best of the debate, I am sure that he can look forward to that.
The Public Accounts Committee reported recently that on average, 30 per cent. of the UK armed forces had serious weaknesses in their peacetime readiness levels between January and September 2005. Our armed forces are already experiencing serious gaps in their capabilities, and as major projects such as the carriers and the future rapid effect system continue to fall back, the effect of those gaps will become more acute.
That brings me on to a second type of capability gap, which occurs when a capability is cut back to such an extent that it is no longer able to fulfil the role that is required of it. For example, there were originally meant to be 12 Type 45s. The number was cut down to eight, and the Government have failed to give a commitment on the final two ships, which would leave the Navy with six. That is the case before we get on to the ludicrous prospect of reducing our purchase of aircraft carriers, as has been rumoured, from two to one, to address budgetary shortfalls—[Interruption.] If the Minister wishes to confirm that we will be having two not one, I will happily give way to him.
I think that I set out our future programme: future carriers—plural—the Type 45s, land systems and air systems. The programme is substantial. There was the biggest increase in defence spending for 20 years in the last spending round, so let us get back to the facts.
And let us get back to the spin from the Treasury. Not content with confusing the Government over their nuclear programme, the Treasury has been happily briefing that it wants the proportion that we spend on defence to be brought down from 2.2 per cent. of GDP and that major cuts might have to be introduced. Perhaps it would be worth while for the Cabinet to meet now and again to discuss some of these issues, so that we could get less confusion from two different wings of the Government.
Will my hon. Friend bear in mind what the Minister just said about the increase in defence expenditure? If a Government reduce spending on defence dramatically on coming to office, they can of course introduce the largest percentage increase in defence expenditure on the bit that they previously cut; that is not a difficult thing to do.
Obviously, my right hon. Friend has studiously worked out how Labour’s arithmetic is calculated and how the process of spin, which the Government have improved as a black art, can make something turn out to mean anything that anyone wants. The truth of the matter is that it is impossible for any Government to increase the number of commitments for our armed forces without equally increasing the resources that enable them to do their job properly. Without such resources, we get unacceptable cuts and a lack of capacity.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.
Let me turn to the situation in Iraq. Many people see the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and claim that that in itself is an argument that the war in Iraq was wrong. I do not believe that. I still believe that it was right to want people to determine for themselves who would govern them. It was right to help people to enjoy free speech and a legal framework that they could design, which we take for granted in this country. It was right to free those people from a vicious and bloody tyrant who used chemical weapons against his own people. It has to be a good thing that we saw the end of a regime that had started two wars and was almost certainly sanctions busting and attempting to gain nuclear technology. Frankly, those who take a contrary view need to explain why Iraq, the middle east and the rest of the world would be better off with Saddam still in control.
Like everyone else in the Chamber, I believe, I want our troops to come home as soon as possible—but that can happen only when we are confident that the Iraq that we leave behind is a functioning stable nation. I purposely do not use simply the words “a functioning democracy”. Far too many people take the simplistic view that democracy simply means an exercise in electoral mechanics. It took us in this country 200 years to get from Adam Smith to universal suffrage. We are a liberal democracy, but we were liberal before we were democratic. We had a set of liberal values, a judicial system that applied equally to the governing and the governed, a respect for human rights, and the ability to own property and to exercise our individual liberty in a market system. All those things are necessary for a functional stable state. Being a democracy is not enough, as Gaza has all too clearly demonstrated. We need to take that into account when people consider the expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq and when they are likely to be achieved.
The hon. Gentleman has blown his own argument out of the water in a few sentences. First he says that what happened was about democracy—not about weapons of mass destruction, incidentally, which was what the Tories and the Government were saying at the time—but then he says that it was not about democracy. His argument is a bit inconsistent.
Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that in a whole number of ways—if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will put them on record—it is worse for the population of Iraq now, under the occupation, than it was under Saddam Hussein? I am no supporter of Saddam Hussein; I am pleased that he has gone. However, the hon. Gentleman should see that his argument would lead to occupations all round the world, because there are plenty of Saddam Husseins in other places.
Dr. Fox: I was making the point—although not sufficiently clearly for the hon. Gentleman—that a stable and sustainable state is made up not simply of democracy, but of other elements. I can only explain the argument to the hon. Gentleman; I cannot understand it for him.
Post-war mistakes have clearly had several consequences, so we should accept what they were. Both the British and American Governments failed to plan successfully for the aftermath of the war. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) said time and time again in the Chamber that although winning the war would be the easy part, given the overwhelming firepower, the difficult part would be the reconstruction. The Iraqi police and army were disbanded far too soon, and I am afraid that the insufficient deployment of troops at the outset has led to a situation in Iraq that means we are likely to be there longer, and in more difficult circumstances, than might otherwise have been the case.
In recent days, both Japanese and Italian troops have withdrawn from the theatre of operations. The handover of al-Muthanna province to the Iraqi authorities is a development to be welcomed, but that does not mean that there is not still much to be done. Only this week the chief of joint operations made it clear that it would be some time before an area such as Basra could be handed over, although many of us already took that for granted. The Minister himself admitted that things had become worse, in that soldiers were in body armour rather than soft hats when he last visited. Intra-factional fighting in Basra is on the increase, and the Iraqi Prime Minister’s declaration of a state of emergency is a testament to that.
I hope that we will hear the answers to several unanswered questions at the end of the debate. How prevalent are the militias on the streets of Basra? Given the extent of the overstretch, how do the Government intend to deal with any upsurge of violence in Basra, alongside the increased involvement of Afghan forces that has been announced today? How are the Government dealing with the shortfall in the availability of Lynx helicopters? What are we doing to ensure that the basic rights of Iraqis are protected in the areas that we control and for which we are responsible? In particular, what guarantees can we give that Sunnis will not be systematically intimidated and that women will not be oppressed by fundamentalist groups, reports of which are increasingly appearing in our press on an almost daily basis?
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, or if he took an interest in what is recorded in Hansard, he would know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes laid out our reservations on several occasions during that time. Unlike my right hon. and learned Friend, I was chairman of the party at the time, not the shadow Foreign Secretary—these things matter when one is in the official Opposition. It is clearly on record that we laid out our reservations and what we thought that the consequences of several mistakes that we outlined would be. I wish that my right hon. and learned Friend had been wrong, but he was right about many of the things of which he warned. When we took the decision to back the Government, we set out plenty of caveats, which are there for the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) to read whenever he wants.
One aspect of our deployment to Iraq is not mentioned very often. What we are doing there is not simply a matter of grand geopolitical and military strategy. There is a human cost, not merely to Iraqi citizens, but among our serving British soldiers. According to parliamentary written answers obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), 732 service personnel have been aero-evacuated from Iraq. Almost one in 10 of those were diagnosed with some sort of mental health problem. That is a fairly shocking figure, but after returning from deployment a further 727 soldiers have sought treatment from the MOD’s community mental health departments, which raises the question of how many soldiers there are out there who do not know where to turn for help.
It is a matter of the utmost importance that those who risk life and limb in our name be given the health facilities that they require. I hope the Minister will give a commitment to find out whether sufficient information is available, so that those returning know where to go for help, the help they get is appropriate to their service background, and they are not simply treated in a civilian mental health institution, which may not understand the effects of trauma in a military setting.
I turn to the other great deployment—that in Afghanistan, which also remains essential in the wider regional strategic context. As I have said before, while we could not have failed to act, we must not act and fail. The consequences of failure would be calamitous. A failed state would re-emerge, our enemies would be emboldened, and the hills and valleys of Afghanistan would once more become incubators of global terror.
As a knock-on effect, Pakistan, already a nuclear state, could become destabilised. NATO’s reputation would be sullied by one of its first out-of-area operations, with the consequent dangers that the wider NATO membership could restrict operations to the Euro-Atlantic zone in the future. A loss of nerve within NATO, the emboldening of our enemies and the denial to the people of Afghanistan of a better way of life is not a legacy that Britain could or should contemplate.
It is a source of great worry to many within and outside the military that our deployment may be under strength for the many and varied tasks assigned to it. Despite there being some 10,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan under ISAF command, we still do not have enough support or troops to cover the entirety of the areas of responsibility in the three regions that NATO is supposed to be covering. There is excessive duplication of logistics provision in particular, especially with regard to troop movement. NATO needs to co-ordinate this aspect far more than it is currently doing. With 71 separate caveats among more than 30 contributing nations, the effectiveness of ISAF is bound to be compromised.
We are asking our troops to patrol one of the most dangerous provinces in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, yet we often lack the manpower and lift capacity to guarantee success. In particular, ISAF still lacks a reserve quick response force to deal with sudden incidents, such as when the Norwegians came under attack last February.
We must acknowledge success when it occurs. Although there has been good progress in the training of the Afghan army, training for the Afghan police, the prime responsibility of the Germans, is at least two years behind schedule, yet the police are crucial stakeholders in the efforts of the peace and reconstruction teams and those helping to rebuild Afghan civil society.
It is worth pointing out that there are still major incompatibility issues regarding the equipment of the major participating countries, particularly radios and frequencies. Most disturbing is the failure to agree to universal use of Blue Force Tracker, a system to allow HQs to follow all NATO forces via SatNav, down to an individual vehicle. The system is being used in Helmand, but the French and other countries refuse to use it, preferring to wait for a rival system built by Thales, which has yet to come off the shelf. That is not an acceptable position for the NATO operation to be in.
The role of the police has also become enmeshed in the wider strategic mismatch and confusion of roles, of which many have spoken. The Afghan police are not so much a national force, in the way that we would understand it, as a large number of independent semi-militias. The border goes unpatrolled, drug trafficking continues, and it is an open question to what extent the police militias overlap with the forces of the warlords and/or Taliban. The UN and other NGOs have withdrawn from Helmand, claiming it is too dangerous. I raise these points, and they all matter, because we are in danger of losing the hearts and minds war among the local population, which is so crucial to the success of the overall mission.
At the same time as we face these logistical problems, the poppy eradication projects have brought warlords and Taliban into coalescence on many occasions. To varying degrees we are seeing what NATO calls Talibanisation, where the Taliban pay local people for one-off strikes against NATO forces. Given the amount of money involved, funded by the drug trade, these incidents are, sadly, on the increase, as President Karzai noted today.
I raise all these matters because there is still time to do something about them. Our troops are committed, they are brave and intuitive, and they will do almost whatever we ask of them, with whatever we give them. But we need to ensure that they are given all that they need to carry out the task demanded of them—no shortcuts, no shortages. The Government have a twin duty—to maximise the success of the mission, and at the same time to minimise the risk to our troops. We strongly support British participation in the war on terror in Afghanistan, as it is strategically in our national interest and our membership of NATO commits us to it. However, it is questionable whether our security footprint is large enough to achieve the goals identified, in anything like the time scale envisaged. Having acted, we absolutely cannot afford to fail.
Let me deal with the issue that has dominated the newspapers and media coverage today—our nuclear deterrent. While North Korea threatens missile tests and there is the continuing stand-off with Iran, and when we cannot predict what new threats we may face by 2025, we cannot afford to leave ourselves exposed and vulnerable. Given such uncertainty, it is a strategic imperative that we replace our nuclear deterrent when the time comes. I remain to be convinced that any alternative to a submarine-based system is a credible option, but it is still an issue that we will consider in our policy review.
All history tells us that the outbreak of conflicts is seldom accurately anticipated. The onus must therefore be on the nuclear abolitionist, not on the believer in deterrence, to explain why one can be confident that no nuclear or major chemical or biological threat will be posed to the United Kingdom during the long period so far ahead. I doubt if any such explanation will carry much conviction.
The identification of a potential enemy once shaped the nature of our armed forces—the two power standard for the Navy, for example. With our nuclear deterrent, we enjoy a much greater degree of versatility. Intercontinental ballistic missiles such as Trident are sufficiently flexible, given their range and invulnerability, to deter any state that may seek to use, or threaten the United Kingdom with, weapons of mass destruction at any time in the future. In short, it would not matter which potential enemy posed a real threat. Each would face unacceptable retaliation from a modern strategic missile system such as Trident.
When we have deliberations in the House about the replacement for Trident, does my hon. Friend agree that Members of Parliament should be allowed to debate the various options—whether it should be an American purchased replacement or one predominantly made in the United Kingdom?
If my hon. Friend will have a little patience, I will shortly come to the process by which that should occur. Let me say one final thing about the policy of deterrence. The versatility of a policy of minimum strategic nuclear deterrence makes up for our inability to anticipate future enemies or predict future threats. Conversely, any decision to deprive ourselves of the deterrent would leave the country open to future aggressors whom we would be able to identify only when it was too late to try and rebuild our nuclear forces that had been so recklessly discarded.
Needless to say, any attempt to reacquire a nuclear deterrent once a threat began to emerge would immediately generate a storm of political protest, on the basis that it would constitute a new arms race and make a tense situation even more febrile. We must act now on principle, because those are powerful and substantive arguments, but the way in which they have been handled in the past few days by the Government is nothing short of disgraceful. Instead of an announcement to Parliament about the Government’s intention, there was a one-line mention in an after-dinner speech, not by the Prime Minister or the Defence Secretary but by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The commitment itself is not clear—is it a commitment in principle or in practice? Will it retain or replace the existing deterrent?
The Minister said that a decision to replace Trident has not been made “in principle”, yet the newspapers are full of stories saying that the Chancellor’s people have briefed that a decision has been made and that the Treasury will spend the money. The Chancellor, as the Prime Minister in waiting, will oversee a new generation of nuclear deterrence for the United Kingdom. If those newspaper reports are wrong, if all those Treasury briefings did not take place, and if a decision has not been made about the principle of replacing Trident, when will the Chancellor publicly disown everything that has been said in his name in the past 24 hours? This is a vital issue, so it is utterly unacceptable that power politics should be at play in the Cabinet, as the national interest must be put first.
The place to debate major issues is the House of Commons, and we must debate the principle and practicalities of action on our nuclear deterrent. However, we must do more than debate, as the House deserves a vote on those important issues. If the Government do not allow the House the opportunity to vote, the Conservative party will certainly ensure that all hon. Members are given a vote on an issue of enormous importance to the country.
We will back the Government when they act in the national interest, but the professionalism of our servicemen and women stands in sharp contrast to the Government’s increasingly shambolic amateurism. What sort of Government, for example, arrange a defence debate, in their own time, knowing that the Secretary of State cannot attend? Those who serve our country deserve so much better; before long, they will get it.
Before I call the next speaker to address the House, may I remind hon. Members that there is a 15-minute limit on speeches by Back Benchers?
I want to speak about Afghanistan and Somalia, but principally about Iraq.
In Afghanistan, not enough aid was provided to lift and stabilise that war-torn country after the initial takeover from the Taliban. We took our eye off the ball when we invaded Iraq, so vital time and good will were lost. Other forces are at work. Drugs are a driving force for lawlessness and the resurgence of the Taliban, which is backed by shadowy forces, probably from Pakistan or Iran and perhaps the countries of the former Soviet Union that have an interest in destabilising the foreign occupation of Afghanistan. That demonstrates the limit of defence operations. We cannot occupy north-west Pakistan, or go to war with Iran in support of our activity in Afghanistan, so we must find other routes to achieve our goals, for example, by working constructively with the United Nations and neighbouring countries. Our aim should be to stabilise democratic governance, with an ensuing reduction in drug production, which cannot be achieved peaceably without tackling the security situation. Killing every member of the Taliban is not possible, and trying to do so causes civilian casualties and acts as a recruiting sergeant. I do not want the Taliban to return, but we must be more politically proactive to incorporate moderate Taliban sympathisers in the political process. If we are to do our job in Afghanistan, the American troops should go, as their roaming, killing role is not helpful and creates a climate of danger for our troops. The exit of the American troops would be a sign that the fighting should be brought to an end. There should be another push to boost aid and the institutions of civil society, as Hamid Karzai suggested today.
In Somalia, the Americans backed the wrong group when it chose to support unpopular warlords. The popular Islamic Court Union is in the process of coming to power and can unify the Somali people for the time being, while the warlords cannot. America has encouraged the UN and the UK to back the wrong horse and the position has been made worse by President Bush’s crude strategy of “for or against us”, which means that Muslim groups that attain power are automatically assumed to be supporters of al-Qaeda. We have worked constructively with Muslim Governments all over the world—for example, in Saudi Arabia and Turkey—so we can do so in Somalia, too.
We must acknowledge that we backed the wrong horse and start to engage properly and effectively with Somalia to achieve stability. We should not back Ethiopia’s efforts to spread the conflict throughout the region, as that would be detrimental for the people of both countries, leading to more poverty and death, and an increase in the number of asylum seekers. We should not become embroiled in such a conflict, because the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) was right that failed states and ongoing conflict offer the best opportunities for al-Qaeda to operate and recruit. We should therefore encourage stability in countries such as Somalia.
Turning to Iraq, on which I wish to concentrate, the weekly magazine, Tribune, published a “world cup” of the worst human rights abusers. It was a very good article and the final was a high-scoring draw between Iran and the United States, which keeps thousands of individuals in custody without charge in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. It conducts rendition to undisclosed locations and is guilty of torture at Abu Ghraib, as well as atrocities and abuses, including the mass killing of civilians. The US is our coalition partner and our Government offer apologia and gentle rebukes for such activity—for example, they refer to atrocities as “unfortunate incidents” or say that such matters are “their responsibility, not ours.” I strongly believe that joint and several liability applies, because we are part of a multinational force. The Government claimed credit for Saddam Hussein’s fall, even though it was mainly achieved by US troops, so we should share the blame for US wrongdoing. A UK general is second-in-command of the coalition forces in Baghdad, and we share overall responsibility, whether or not we make representations, which are often ignored. In my opinion, the UK should have been in the semi-final of Tribune’s world cup human rights abusers, given its role in Iraq.
I did so in that debate and I am happy to echo what I said. I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman should choose to intervene on me, as he should intervene on Members who supported the war and put the lives of our troops at jeopardy, not to mention risk of mental illness and so on. I am happy, however, to give that assurance and acknowledge that our troops do a splendid job given the terms under which they operate. It is the political decision making that sent them to Iraq of which I am fiercely critical.
We have also been hostile to Iran and Syria, which are neighbours of Afghanistan. In a private sitting of the Defence Committee, the Minister of State discussed Iran’s alleged role in Iraq and the death of British soldiers, although I suspect that he had very little evidence. Extending the war to Iran should not be an option, so we need to obtain better relations for mutual security. Threats, hostility and covert tit-for-tat killings are not the way forward.
I want to use this debate to raise some difficult human rights issues. Mr. Abdul Razzaq Ali al-Jedda is a joint British and Iraqi citizen on whose behalf Amnesty International has been making representations. Amnesty is concerned that, even after months of internment, the multinational force is continuing to hold internees without providing them or their legal counsel with substantive evidence to justify their detention. Mr. al-Jedda has been detained since his arrest on 10 October 2004 in Baghdad. He filed a case against the UK Secretary of State for Defence challenging his internment in Iraq, which was dismissed by the High Court of England and Wales on 12 August 2005. However, the court noted:
“Although detained for imperative reasons of security, the claimant has not been charged with any offence; and the Secretary of State acknowledges that, as matters stand, there is insufficient material available which could be used in court to support criminal charges against him. The claimant is therefore detained simply on a preventive basis.”
Mr. al-Jedda continues to be held without charge or trial by UK forces. When I tabled a written question on the matter, the reply stated:
“Mr. al-Jedda is being detained by the British contingent of the Multi-National Force in Iraq for imperative reasons of security under the authority conferred by United Nations Security Council”.—[Official Report, 25 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 1963W.]
He might be a dangerous man—I do not know—but there should be a proper process of law, including charges and evidence. That man is a British citizen who is being held by British forces under a secretive process, which is not satisfactory. The Government should deal with the case properly.
Then there is the shooting of innocent Iraqi civilian motorists by employees of the UK company Aegis Defence Services. Evidence of that happening was posted on a website and broadcast on TV for all to see. The company has immunity from Iraqi law under the decree of the then chief US occupier, Paul Bremer, which was enacted with the support of the UK, and it is seemingly above UK law. It has had the nerve to use British law to shut up the whistleblower, an ex-Army man, Mr. Rod Stoner. The situation is unsatisfactory and the Government should address it.
I want to discuss inquiries set up by UK forces and the MOD when innocent Iraqis are killed. For example, a helicopter went down in Basra recently and the subsequent disorder led to the deaths of several Iraqis, including two children. During the Secretary of State’s statement in this House, I asked whether the mothers of the children who were killed would be able attend or put any evidence to the inquiry, but no answer was provided. That raises a query in my mind about how such inquiries are carried out. The excluded Iraqis who have lost loved ones will see them as cover ups, which I suspect they are. We should hear a statement about how such inquiries are carried out and whether Iraqis who have lost loved ones can be involved.
We have been in control of Basra for three years, so why has it ended up in a state of emergency? The Stop the War organisation has e-mailed me to say that public order in Basra has virtually collapsed and that one person is being assassinated every hour. I have received an e-mail entitled, “Ethnic cleansing under the watchful eyes of the British Army”, from Mr. F. Sabri of the Iraqi Islamic party, which is based in London. It states:
“Three years of kidnapping, torture and assassinations by Shiite militias in Basrah caused tens of thousands of Sunnis to flee the city. A healthy Sunni population of 35 per cent. reduced to less than 15 per cent. under British rule. The British government is responsible for the protection of all Iraqis under its control in the south of Iraq yet it failed its obligation under international law to curb the influence and power of the Iranian backed gangs and militias. Last week leaflets were distributed in the city asking the Sunni population to leave by the 3rd of July otherwise they will be exterminated. We have asked the British Government repeatedly to act and protect the civilians in Basrah, but we never receive an answer. We hold the British government responsible for the safety of our people in Iraq. History will tell if a tragedy in Basrah will be added to the catalogue of catastrophes committed by Britain against the people of the middle east.”
We deserve an answer about what is going on in Basra.
Just to help me in the wind-ups, can my hon. Friend tell me where Stop the War collects its data from?
I do not know, as we have had virtually a news cover-up about Basra. I do know, however, that there are many deaths and many people are being forced to flee. Stop the War has quoted the information to me and I have put it to the House. It may be true, but we do not know. I bet that if the figures on the number of people killed in Basra were disclosed, they would be high. I invite the Minister to give us those figures when he winds up.
But the Government know the number of deaths that have occurred among civilians in Iraq and in Basra, and their policy of saying that they will not give those figures is a disgrace. We still need a proper answer about what has been happening in Basra.
Then there is the matter of the death squads. The UN’s human rights chief, John Pace, said that they were overwhelmingly linked to the Ministry of the Interior. The then Minister, Bayan Al Jabr, said that it was not down to him and that the death squads were from the facilities protection service set up by the coalition. When I asked a parliamentary question about the FPS, I was told that the UK trained it. Why have we been training and unleashing the death squads that have caused so much damage?
I could raise plenty of other issues, such as Saddam Hussein’s trial and the killing of his third defence lawyer. He is not going to get a fair trial in Iraq, and it should be moved to The Hague. If it is all right for that to happen to Liberia’s Charles Taylor, it should happen to Saddam Hussein. President Bush is hell-bent on delivering the death penalty to Saddam Hussein and a fair trial can go hang as far as he is concerned.
I could mention a host of atrocities, but time precludes me from doing so. Robert Fisk said in an article that, when the Americans bring a lot of bodies into the mortuaries, they say to the people there, “Don’t do any post-mortems.” In Haditha, 24 innocent civilians—women and children—were slaughtered in their own homes. Even the American ambassador has said that there is huge social discord among staff. There is a catalogue of problems.
We need an explicit exit strategy. Muthana is a start, but there needs to be a coherent and swift exit strategy overall. That is not consistent with the criteria set out by Ministers, which were completely subjective and not measurable. The situation is not improving; it is closer to civil war—
It is welcome to have this chance in Government time to debate these important matters and to range across the whole realm of defence policy. I regret that it has not been possible to have the Secretary of State with us today, but it is still good that we are able to have these discussions.
These are important matters, because in recent months there have been many developments in our overseas operational activities. In the past five months, there have been announcements on major troop deployments to Afghanistan and decisions on the reconfiguration of British troops in Iraq. At the same time, the House has had to consider the Armed Forces Bill, the Blake review, and a series of critical manning, readiness and procurement reports. There are many other pressing issues that have not, until today, been subject to the same level of parliamentary scrutiny or debate, and I shall refer to some of those in a few minutes.
The defence White Paper proposed key changes to cope with new planning assumptions, reflecting the enhanced use of network-enabled capability, effects-based warfare and force restructuring. Those measures were said to create the circumstances for a reduction in future manpower requirements, but I wonder whether that can possibly be considered realistic now, when the demands on our forces in many different places have increased so much.
It must be of profound concern that, although the National Audit Office and the Armed Forces Pay Review Body have found that the services have been operating beyond planning assumptions for at least seven years, the Government have successively reduced armed forces strength requirements, leaving what the Defence Committee describes as “little if any fat” in the armed forces. I am sure that the Committee is right. When outflow from the armed forces is at a high, recruitment is at a low and our overseas commitments appear likely to increase, there cannot be any justification in those reductions in numbers. What impact will that have on our reliance on harmony guidelines and the extent of our reliance on reservists?
The latest Defence Analytical Services Agency figures show an increase in the total annual outflow from the armed forces. The figure is now 24,290 compared with 23,430 in April 2005. Similarly, recruitment from civilian life into the UK regular forces has dropped substantially, to below 20,000 in the past two years. It was reported earlier this year that the Army expects a 12 per cent. recruitment shortfall compared with its target. Will the Under-Secretary confirm recent reports that the bounty offered to soldiers who persuade friends to join up is to be doubled, from £650 to £1,300? Does he acknowledge the serious recruitment problems?
The Armed Forces Pay Review Body’s annual report in February attributes the increase in voluntary outflow to “operational pressures” and
“the nature of service life”,
which it labels as “retention-negative”. The National Audit Office readiness report identified
“the continued use of personnel on operations”
as a potential cause of retention problems. It went further, saying that the problem
“could exacerbate the shortage of specialist skills within the services, or more extensive drawing down of reservists”.
The Armed Forces Pay Review Body identified serious shortages in key trades and skills. The Government have declined to make public, on what they describe as “operational grounds”, the extent of the shortages in specific areas, but the existence of several operational pinch points is seriously worrying.
The report identifies specific shortages in trades in the Royal Engineers, the Royal Signals, the Intelligence Corps and the Army medical services and asks questions about the prevalence and extent of the problems. What progress has been made in filling those gaps?
Questions are being asked about the effect of operational strains on our armed forces, consequently calling into question the feasibility of the revised defence planning assumptions in the defence White Paper. The NAO readiness report warned that a third of British forces had serious weaknesses in their state of readiness, and of the cumulative effect of a series of minor risks. It has also been said that 8 per cent. of our armed forces are medically unfit for duty, which could get worse with strains on mental health from over-deployment. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made that point effectively. That is profoundly significant not only for the individuals—the hon. Gentleman was right to stress the importance of making facilities available to them—but it must have an impact on the calculations of the extent of deployment that we can sensibly undertake in future.
I want to consider some current operations. Understandably, there has been much discussion of Afghanistan. In a memorandum to the Select Committee in February, the Ministry of Defence stated that, despite manning shortages, deployment to Afghanistan is “manageable”. However, in its report today, the Defence Committee observes:
“Overall we judge that the impact on personnel of our deployment to Afghanistan is manageable, but will inevitably constrain our capacity to respond elsewhere.”
The Committee is quite right to make that very level judgment. I wonder what assessment the Ministry has made of the fighting capabilities of the Taliban and other illegally armed groups in the south of Afghanistan, and what assumptions underlie its calculation of the kind of help that we are going to get from the Afghans themselves.
We support the deployment of troops to Afghanistan. It is intrinsically the right thing to do, but we are less certain of the extent to which it is do-able. I was in Paris earlier this week for the meeting of the Western European Union, which had received a report from a group that had been to Afghanistan. The report concluded that there would be a need for overseas troops to be present there for 15 years. I do not think that political or public opinion in the many parts of the country that are supplying those troops is in any way ready for that.
It is in everyone’s interest to achieve the stabilisation and reconstruction of Afghanistan, not least because it supplies 90 per cent. of the world’s opium. This concerted international effort has come rather late in the day, however. For three years, not enough progress was made. I fear that energy was being devoted to Iraq at the expense of Afghanistan, and the task is now more difficult because of that neglect. The Government have yet to explain how they can reconcile the concurrent objectives of achieving security and making progress on counter-narcotics. It has already been pointed out that the prevalence of the connections of the drugs industry throughout Afghan society and within its political institutions means that the drugs trade is the foundation of the Afghan economy. Effective measures against the trade are going to make the security situation even more challenging.
I hope that our forces will find ways of overcoming that tension, but I am unclear as to what role they will play in the counter-narcotics strategy. Does NATO have sufficient numbers of combat troops in southern Afghanistan, where the level of violence has reached a new high? What provision is there to cope with any further escalation in hostilities? This is undoubtedly a highly challenging mission, and we must be clear that an enduring solution will not be achieved without comprehensive political reform and serious reconstruction. Success will also depend on the active and constructive engagement of Afghanistan’s neighbours, especially Pakistan.
There needs to be clarity on the co-ordination between the different national contingents serving in the international security assistance force—ISAF—as the hon. Member for Woodspring said. There have been examples of overlap, and the co-ordination does not seem to have been as strong as it might have been. With the forthcoming unification of ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom, there needs to be clarity on the counter-insurgency role undertaken by NATO forces, and a recognition of the dangers of mission creep. There is a real danger that Afghan society will see all foreign troops in the same light, and come to view all of them as unwelcome.
Italy has begun the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq, with a view to complete withdrawal before the end of the year. As that involves the second largest contingent in multi-national sector south-east, I wonder what effect the withdrawal will have on our forces and commitments there. The Secretary of State told me when he made a statement just a day or two into his new post that the objective in Iraq was to reach a situation where we could hand over security responsibility to the new Government—I think that everyone would agree with that—and that the strategy was to achieve the objective. A full debate in the House on Iraq is overdue, and any such debate should be led or shared by the Foreign Office rather than being viewed simply as a defence matter.
A new strategy is needed in Iraq, central to which should be a peace process led by the United Nations to achieve national reconciliation and the internationalisation of support for Iraq. That process would need to build on the policies that have been set out by the Iraqi Prime Minister, and would work towards the agreement of an international compact setting out the commitments of all sides and a comprehensive security and reconstruction strategy. It would need to build on the good work—to which I pay tribute—of coalition forces that are busily engaged in the training, equipping, professionalising and regularising of the Iraqi security services. But it would need to go a long way beyond that.
We need a regional contact group to strengthen the engagement of Iraq’s neighbours. We need a comprehensive disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration strategy comparable with those that coalition forces have overseen elsewhere. As the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) rightly said, we need an end to systematic and indefinite detentions by United States and, indeed, Iraqi forces, with safeguards against abuses. We need an enhanced national programme in Iraq to promote human rights and the rule of law. We need to expedite the reconstruction process, do what is possible to eliminate corruption, and increase the involvement of the United Nations and the World Bank.
As all those components begin to progress, it will become feasible to start talking about a programme for phased security transfer and the withdrawal of coalition troops. To get anywhere near such an approach, however, will require the United Kingdom to use its influence in Washington to press for US support, and it will have to be developed and implemented with the approval of, and in partnership with, the sovereign Government of Iraq.
Le me say something about procurement. The defence industrial strategy has rightly received a generally warm welcome, despite some concerns about its potential impact upon smaller companies. How will the Ministry of Defence monitor its impact over a period, and ensure that it is having a benign effect?
I will not attempt a tour d’horizon of procurement issues in one short speech, but a few brief points are worth making. What progress is being made on technology transfer in relation to the joint strike fighter? Last week, discussions between Bill Jeffrey and Gordon England failed yet again to achieve a statement of principles to facilitate the United States’ sharing of technologies with Britain in the context of the JSF programme. Does the Minister believe that a memorandum of understanding between our two nations will be produced by December, as previously planned? Does the recent publication of a report in the US saying that the costs of the JSF could be better controlled if there were competition to provide engines revive any hopes for Rolls-Royce?
That is a very good point. The Farnborough air show will soon be upon us. I hope that it will focus minds and produce some agreements. That would be a realistic and sensible time scale in which to try to conclude discussions that are vitally important. No one wants to see the JSF programme fail, but British Ministers and officials have—rightly, in my view—taken a robust line with the Americans, and it is essential for this thorny issue to be resolved as soon as possible.
Another procurement issue that urgently needs attention is heavy lift capability. My noble Friend Lord Garden has persistently raised the issue in another place. What resources has the MOD with which to address that urgent problem, and when does it plan to do so?
We must ensure that the drive to meet planning assumptions does not lead us towards reduced stock holdings and spares. There are obvious risks associated with purchasing to meet urgent operational requirements, as we saw in the case of Operation Telic. The readiness report from the National Audit Office states:
“The department relies extensively on cannibalising equipment”,
and that applies particularly in the fleet. What progress is being made to reduce that dependency, which is often inefficient and manpower-intensive and which restricts operational flexibility?
One issue that has not had parliamentary scrutiny but deserves it has to do with pre-emption and the Geneva conventions. In a speech in March, the then Defence Secretary called for a reappraisal of the Geneva conventions and an expansion of the doctrine of pre-emptive strike. Will the Minister say whether that is Government policy? If so, what revisions are proposed to those conventions, which form the bedrock of international humanitarian law? In light of the catastrophic consequences of the Iraq invasion, on what grounds should the pre-emptive strike doctrine be expanded? The UN High-Level Panel concluded last year that existing international rules on the use of force are sufficient, but that they need to be respected.
Finally, I turn to the matter that has been referred to already and which has dominated this morning’s newspapers—the replacement of our nuclear deterrent. In February, the Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee:
“I do not know that we need, specifically, to have a vote…but I am sure there will be the fullest possible Parliamentary debate and there will obviously be that…it will probably be done in a far more open way than these decisions have been taken before.”
That was a welcome sentiment, but I wonder about it. The number of scientists working on hydrodynamic testing at Aldermaston is being increased for the first time in 20 years, and additional investment of more than £1 billion is being made in that facility, with more than £10 million allocated to preliminary work on Trident renewal.
I have been rather surprised by some of the answers to parliamentary questions that I have received in the past few weeks. Will the Minister confirm that no work is currently under way at Aldermaston on designs for a new nuclear warhead? It seems inconceivable that that can be right. We need transparency from the Government about the process, and they should actively provide information to Parliament and the public so as to inform a full debate on the matter.
Last night, we learned that the Prime Minister-in- waiting believes that the decision must be taken next year—although he seems to have made a decision, despite the fact that key facts have not been made public. Successive Defence Ministers have said only that a decision may be required in this Parliament. Why the sudden urgency? Has the Ministry of Defence changed its position and, if so, on what basis? The former Defence Secretary said in a written answer in March that Ministers had not yet begun to consider the position “in any detail”, so what new analysis has taken place since then? Exactly when will the “fullest possible parliamentary debate” that the Prime Minister promised begin? The truth is that the timetable for replacement seems to have more to do with political considerations than technical ones.
The Americans are proposing to extend the lifecycle of their Trident systems into the 2040s. I do not pretend that we could do that with ease, but it would certainly be possible. In that case, why does the Chancellor suddenly believe that a decision about replacement has to be made in the next few months?
I agree that the problem lies with the submarines, which have a limited lifecycle, rather than with the warhead or the missile. However, the Americans are proposing to eke some extra life even out of their submarines. Although I do not see that we have a great deal of scope to do the same, I do not believe that final decisions need to be made by next spring. If we did everything that we could to extend Trident’s lifecycle, a number of years would certainly pass before it had absolutely had to be replaced.
A decision to replace Trident before all the options—as well as their costs, the strategic environment, proliferation implications and security requirements—are considered would be a dereliction of public duty. This is a matter of essential national debate, and all such factors need to be brought into the open. The decision should be taken only after an informed debate and a slow and careful consideration of the issues, not on a political whim.
In concluding, I welcome the announcement in the Minister’s statement that, before the end of the year, a future strategic context for defence policy will be published. That in itself may prove a useful step along the way in our discussions of the possible replacement of Trident. I did feel, however, that the Minister was at times in danger of painting a slightly rosy picture of the 21st century context. There are very great dangers; we live in a very uncertain world.
Climate change could prove a great threat to security, as many of the world’s cities are based on vulnerable coastlines. HIV/AIDS has been recognised by the UN Security Council as a security issue that threatens to destabilise parts of Africa. Competition for scarce resources is intensifying and the US, China and India should certainly rein in, sit down and participate in discussions about the problem. There is a growing poverty gap between wealthy parts of the world and the developing world, and trade barriers are being put in the way of the developing world as it tries to improve itself. In addition, there is the spread of weapons of mass destruction and the constant threat of terrorism. All of those are new challenges that require new policies. Talk of the peace dividend seems a long way behind us now.
It is welcome that we have a chance to debate the new security contexts later in the year, and I am glad that we have had the opportunity to look into the more current issues now. I very much hope that the Government will shortly give the House more information about the replacement of Trident so that we can begin a rational debate about it as soon as possible.
Right hon. and hon. Members will know about the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I was delighted to be accepted into and to take part in it. For the benefit of anyone observing our debate or reading Hansard later, it is worth restating that the scheme was established to enable Members here and in the other place to gain a feel for, and understanding of, what our armed forces do. I venture to suggest that some who have already participated in today’s debate or who intend to later would do well to think about signing up to the scheme to widen their knowledge.
One important aspect of the scheme is the sharing with the House of any lessons learned. I would certainly recommend last year’s armed forces parliamentary scheme booklet to anyone who wanted to get an idea of what the scheme does and to get involved with it. Over the next few minutes or so, I would like to give the House some of the information that I have learned through participating in the scheme so far. I make no apology for the fact that it is a personal view based on what has been said to me and what I have learned. I also make no apology for the fact that my speech is Army-centred, because that is the armed force with which I worked. I make no apology either for failing to mention any names—it would be unfair for me to do so and it would send out the wrong message to people who want the opportunity to talk to parliamentarians when they are out and about with different units. People should not feel inhibited in any way about speaking to us.
I would be delighted to do so. The scheme has been going for about 18 years and it has allowed something in the order of 170 or 180 Members to participate. In my relatively short period in the scheme, I have undertaken a few visits. I kick off with the Army presentation team. Again, I would recommend any interested Member to take the opportunity to get a flavour and overview from the team of what it does.
I also visited Headquarters Land Command and met the commander-in-chief of our land forces. The meeting was attended by three chiefs of staff, four assistant chiefs of staff, the Command secretary and his deputy and the director of Army infrastructure. Indeed, there were so many stars in the room that I thought I was in an episode of “The Sky at Night”. It was extremely informative. We talked about the organisation of the forces, the current operations, as have been mentioned in the debate, the major issues that the Army is addressing and the major challenges that it faces and, indeed, some of the issues that have been so eloquently spoken about already, such as the commitment of forces and the new equipment that is planned.
I also attended Pirbright, spoke to some of the new recruits on their phase 1 training and had an insightful briefing from the commander in charge of that facility. I saw at first hand the high-tech shooting range, where new recruits are taught how to use weapons in an extremely safe environment. They can get used to the equipment in a way that allows the trainers to correct any new recruit who needs some further guidance, in a way that would not be possible traditionally because of the accuracy of the training equipment that they have been given to use. Throughout my experience so far, the quality of the training comes through time and again. Perhaps other Departments could learn some lessons about the quality of the training that the Army is able to undertake. I stand in the House as a perhaps less-than-perfect example of someone at his peak physical fitness, but the effort that goes into, and the quality of, the physical training was also particularly notable.
I was fortunate to spend some time with 1 Royal Anglian on its training exercise. Give that yesterday was the longest day, the name of the exercise—Druids Dance—seemed somewhat appropriate on Salisbury plain. I also spent some time with a squadron of the King’s Royal Hussars. Again, that was insightful, and I hope in the next few minutes to develop some of the information that was provided to me during those three very informative days. Most recently, I visited the armoured centre at Bovington with the Royal Armoured Corps. Again, I gained first-hand experience of training and speaking to recruits and soldiers at various stages of their Army careers, as well as the leadership of those facilities.
Later in the year, I hope to visit Iraq to see it for myself. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) is not in his place, but if he got himself on to that visit, we could both see for ourselves what the reality of life is like for the troops in Iraq, by talking to serving soldiers about their experiences and perhaps not relying on—dare I say?—propaganda from possibly unreliable sources that cannot be corroborated.
I have had an opportunity to talk to soldiers at all levels, from a recruit who was only a few weeks into phase 1 training to the commander-in-chief of land forces. I spoke to soldiers all the way through: captains, majors, lieutenant-colonels, colonels and all the ranks. I had a particularly interesting conversation over a cup of tea in a deckchair on Salisbury plain with a brigadier, who very kindly hosted me at the headquarters of 12 Mechanised Brigade.
I want to get to the meat of the major issues that were expressed to me, but this is just a snapshot of some of them. The Bowman radio system has not been mentioned specifically in the debate, but it has been alluded to. I got very mixed views from professional soldiers—the signalmen—to whom I spoke, but the vast majority of them were impressed with the system. They said that it was fantastic and that the secure communications, the robustness and the whole set up was very good. Where the problems still lie—they are being resolved—is in rolling out the additional functionality of the Bowman system.
A number of outsiders have expressed concerns to me about the loss of some knowledge and the encryption ability in relation to the use of unsecured communications. Yet when I was with the Royal Armoured Corps at Bovington recently, I saw with my own eyes recruits being trained to use encryption if the secure communications system falls down. There is a lot of hype and myth about the loss of trained skills and abilities, but on seeing the situation for myself, it was clear that the reality is completely different.
Many people outside the military have expressed to me their views about equipment levels and availability. Being a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme has allowed me to see the situation for myself and to talk to serving soldiers. On doing so, it became clear—I hope that my Front-Bench colleagues will take note of this message, and the spirit in which it is intended; this was a learning experience—that the equipment provided on operational duty was excellent and of the highest quality. Soldiers had what they needed where and when they needed it, but time and again they expressed concerns about training. For example, although the sights provided on operation in Iraq were superb, they were not available in the UK training environment, so there was a delay in deployment and in getting up to speed in the use of that equipment. The thermal imaging sight for the Javelin 2 missile system is an extremely capable piece of kit, but it is not cheap. One sight was available for training use by a number of units, which was sufficient to meeting training needs; however, we could do better.
Some of the equipment used at the land warfare centre to train soldiers is incredible, and a lot of thought has gone into developing the training systems. One room there has desktop computers with training aids that soldiers can use as part of a lesson or in their own time, in order to get back up to speed. They can also take those aids back to their base units, so that they can continue to upgrade their knowledge. There are also gunners’ “cabinets”, which are used to train gunners, and a wide range of other training equipment. Yet again, the quality of training is absolutely superb.
Turning to the after-action review and my time spent with 12 Mechanised Brigade on Salisbury plain, the training facilities, tools and equipment provided there are absolutely superb. It is possible to identify whether individual soldiers are standing or lying down, and moving in the right or wrong direction. Such information can be gone through item by item in a replay after the training session, which is incredibly valuable.
On asset management of equipment, particularly the heavier equipment—the tanks—it would be remiss of me not to mention the robust session that I had with the King’s Royal Hussars in the major’s tent at the end of one Wednesday. They expressed their views in a forthright manner, pointing out that although central asset management of tanks such as Scimitars is in principle a good idea in practice, when on exercise troops have to spend a lot of time at the start bringing such equipment back up to standard. Because the unit that has used it previously does not own it and therefore has no personal pride in it, the various niggles are not sorted out before it is put back into storage. As a result, work often needs to be done to bring it back up to standard when it is taken out of storage. I hope that my colleagues on the Front Bench will take note of that information.
The KRH pointed out to me that most of their vehicles have been switched over from petrol to diesel, but my understanding—I hope that the Minister can correct me if I am wrong—is that the fuel used is virtually of the type to be found in the public garage down the road. It was duty-paid fuel, and it seemed odd to me to use that for those vehicles and that some arrangement has not been made. Perhaps more important, though, would be taking a lead in looking at biofuels and alternative fuels, to see whether there are ways for the services, and the Army in particular, to set an example on the environmental impact of having a Saxon armoured carrier sitting with its engine running so that tea can be boiled up in the brewing vessel. There is a need for alternative fuels.
A lot of comments have been made about soldiers having to buy their own kit, especially if they want anything decent. My experience is that that may have been the case a few years back, but the quality of kit is mighty fine now. It is good stuff. It is good kit. I was issued a pair of boots before going out to Salisbury plain, and only remembered them the day before. So, I had three days out in these brand new boots, but without a blister to speak of, and believe me that was not because I was sitting down, because I certainly had to do a lot of walking.
What came across to me was that soldiers do still buy some personal kit, but that is for personalisation reasons and not because there is anything wrong with the kit. One comment made to me was about a lightweight fleece jacket. Someone had bought one, but two months on they are being issued as standard, and he is looking for the receipt to try to take it back. The quality of food has also come a long way. Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach, and the only comment made to me was that an awful lot of soldiers carry their own bottles of Tabasco sauce to spice things up a little.
Safety was absolutely paramount on the exercise. Someone twisted an ankle and the whole exercise on the plain was closed down while that was attended to. The quality of the safety, like the training, was phenomenal. Loader training at the Royal Armoured centre involved teaching loaders to get away from the recoil of the Challenger 2 breech. Almost everything seemed to be done, too, in terms of risk assessment. I started slightly cynically, as a Member of Parliament, thinking that things might be being talked about and done for my benefit. But when I sat back in the middle of the exercise and could see things happening for real, I started to realise that risk assessment is well and truly embedded.
Pay is never too far from most people’s minds, and soldiers are no exception. One thing mentioned was that overseas troops tend to have tax-free pay. What was not mentioned was levels of pay and how well troops are paid now in comparison with some time ago.
I pay tribute to the soldiers I met. Finally, I ask that veterans day should be not just about ex-service personnel and that we should celebrate our current, serving personnel, who do a tremendous job.
I declare an interest in regard to what I wish to say later about Afghanistan.
I have some sympathy with the problems of the Minister of State and the Ministry of Defence. I know as well as anyone that although the Ministry has what appear to be vast resources—£32 billion a year or whatever it is—that does not enable it to do more than a proportion of what it would like to achieve. The Ministry of Defence is always treated with a lot of jealousy by other home Departments. I recall Margaret Thatcher once saying to me that the problem with the Ministry of Defence is that it has no friends. I suggested that the Foreign Office was perhaps a friend, and she said, “The Foreign Office? They’re not wet; they’re drenched!” And so was the conversation brought to a premature end.
I hope that the Minister of State will forgive me for saying that our discussion so far illustrates why the Leader of the House was quite wrong to suggest that a debate such as this one meets the Government’s responsibilities with regard to the House having an opportunity to debate Iraq or other fundamental issues of defence policy. We have just heard from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) and from others about many important topics, and we cannot go through dozens of relevant issues, which just happen to include Iraq and Afghanistan, and then say that the House of Commons has fulfilled its responsibilities and that Parliament has been able to agree or disagree with the Government’s policy. That is not acceptable. The United States Congress has had many opportunities to debate Iraq and Afghanistan, and I suggest to the Minister that his Department, and, I hope, the Foreign Office, will impress upon the Leader of the House, who ought to know better than most, why such a debate would be timely and necessary in the wider public interest if the Government wish to try to win back some support for their policy.
I shall not detain the House long, but I want to make two kinds of comment. First, I shall deal with the argument that the Government try to make, either intentionally or subliminally, that the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan—the problems, opportunities and tasks—are broadly the same, and that they are pursuing a single strategy and should have the support of the House and the country. Secondly, I want to make specific comments about Afghanistan.
I support what the Government are doing in Afghanistan; it is absolutely right. The starting point was quite different. Al-Qaeda may be present in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is in Iraq as a result of the British and American invasion of that country. Before then, there was a secular despot who had no more time for al-Qaeda than do the British Government. Al-Qaeda has identified a big vacuum in Iraq and is there in a big way, but the situation in Afghanistan is fundamentally different. The British, American and other Governments were right to intervene in that country.
The second consideration is that the United States had genuine global support. A few years on, it is easy to forget how unanimous that support and sympathy was around the world; there was also recognition of the need to take swift action against the Taliban, because they were giving al-Qaeda practical support. Another consideration is that there is not the insurgency in Afghanistan that there is in Iraq. People express great pessimism about Afghanistan going the wrong way, and talk about mission creep and our being sucked into something insoluble. There are indeed major problems, but they are of a quite different order. For practical purposes, the whole of Iraq—certainly in the areas where the population is concentrated, in Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere—is convulsed by the insurgency. In Afghanistan the Government’s remit is relatively limited. However, that is not because there is general insurgency, but because warlords and others control individual provinces and deny respect for the central Government. The situation is not comparable.
Furthermore, 40,000 Iraqis and others have died since the insurgency began. There have been fatalities in Afghanistan, but they are of a different order.
My right hon. and learned Friend is right: there is as yet no general insurgency in Afghanistan. Is he not concerned, however, that the unpleasant coalition against us of poppy growers, the Taliban, local warlords and local people, together with al-Qaeda and others coming from Iraq and Iran, may lead to a more general insurgency in the country if we do not do something about it?
My hon. Friend is correct; the situation could deteriorate significantly, but at present there is no evidence of such an unholy alliance materialising. There have been no major military incidents of a comparable kind in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, there is not the sectarian split that has so dominated the Iraqi issue. Afghanistan is overwhelmingly a Sunni country and no one suggests that that situation is likely to change in any meaningful way. There is no equivalent of the Kurdish dimension; no part of Afghanistan has aspirations to the total independence that would fragment the country. Nor does Afghanistan have what is in one respect the curse of oil, to create further division in that state. However, there are big problems and we must look frankly at why the coalition forces of NATO and others, including the Afghan Government, are finding it so difficult to cope.
Part of the problem is that the Taliban were never defeated in the conventional sense; they simply faded away. They realised the overwhelming strength of the United States, in particular, and its allies, and withdrew to their villages, to the hill areas and the frontier where they could regroup and continue, which creates a very different situation. In addition, there is the inability of the western forces to act in a coherent and united fashion.
Earlier, I raised the question of the integration of the international forces operating in Afghanistan. I appreciate and understand the difficulties. Even within NATO, there are countries with different views on whether they would wish to take part in the kind of work being carried out by Operation Enduring Freedom. However, it is manifestly absurd to have a situation in which many thousands of British, American and other NATO forces are all operating within the country, but with two separate command structures for all practical purposes, two different rules of engagement and with an attempt now being made to draw them closer together. That is a wasteful use of resources and a wasteful way of approaching these matters.
The Minister knows that perfectly well—although he is not in a position to say it in quite the blunt terms that I am using—and the United States knows it perfectly well. Most countries know it well—even if the only way in which we can get a single unified command in Afghanistan, in order to maximise operations against the Taliban and other elements in that country, is to say to the one or two countries in NATO that do not want to go in that direction that they should no longer take part in the operation. Most of NATO is willing to work in a unified way. The United States, which is NATO’s leading member state, can hardly be expected not to be part of a single, unified process.
There is a word of warning for the United States. It has seen the British and NATO involvement in Helmand province as the beginning of a process that will enable it to reduce its own troop complement in Afghanistan. Indeed, Donald Rumsfeld, in his usual sensitive fashion, has said as much, and has anticipated that the Americans will now be able to reduce their commitment. That would be an incredibly foolish mistake—comparable to the mistake that the United States, and indeed the rest of us, have been making since the beginning of the Afghan operation.
When the Taliban were overthrown—when Karzai’s Government came into effect—the best estimate at that time was that Afghanistan would need an international force of about 30,000 to provide real stabilisation. In fact, we ended up with about a third of that number. Against that background, it is not surprising that warlords in individual provinces have been able to continue in control, and it is not a matter for any particular astonishment that the central Government in Kabul have not been able to extend their authority, even in many of the areas where the Taliban are not remotely present, or not present in any significant numbers. The problem is not just the south and the east. It is the failure in Afghanistan—in this sense it is comparable to Iraq—to realise that once the war is over, we still need a major international military presence. I am afraid that Mr. Rumsfeld is the guilty party, as he is in Iraq, for having decreed that somehow the numbers needed were far more modest than has turned out to be the case.
The Government are entitled to the support of this House. The United States continues to have a considerable degree of international support for what it is seeking to do in Afghanistan. All the warnings that have been given by the Minister and others about what would happen if the west simply withdrew from Afghanistan are entirely correct and justified, but that should not be used as an excuse to maintain an inefficient military command structure that cannot deliver the best results and, most of all, it cannot be used to justify a reducing American military commitment over the next few years.
One of the lessons that we should all have learned from history, over 100 years, is that if one wants to make a profound change in countries of lower economic and social development, which have major internal problems of stability and cultural differences, one needs to be there for a long time. If one is not prepared to do that, one should not go there in the first place. That is particularly true in Afghanistan at the moment. If the Government are able to pursue such an approach—not only in their own policy, but in the recommendations that they make to other Governments, including the United States—they will deserve the support of the House.
I begin by paying tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces, who risk their lives every day to keep us safe and secure. My constituency is the home of the Royal Navy and Portsmouth ships have defended our country in many famous sea battles. Portsmouth itself suffered badly from bombing during the second world war and we who live there are aware that our city still remains a military target. My constituents and I owe a great debt to the men and women who have defended and continue to defend the city and our country.
Up until fairly recently, our defence policy was centred on keeping our borders and those of our allies safe from attack by potential enemy states by preparing our stand-by forces for traditional combat operations. However, things have shifted dramatically since 9/11, and our country now faces threats not so much from states, or even organisations with which we can negotiate, but shadowy individuals who are not allied to any one state. Such individuals can cross international borders and operate within our borders. They have unprecedented access to technology and weaponry that can cause destruction on a massive scale. They also operate without a thought for preserving their own lives. The accepted conventions under which defence policy was formulated for many years have thus changed.
We can no longer adopt a mentality of sitting on top of a hill and fending off the attackers, and sheer force of numbers does not help much against a chemical or biological attack. We must have a smarter and more agile position in which we use the best equipment that technological advances can give us. Such equipment must be able to move in quickly and perform a multi-functional role, and the men and women who operate that equipment need to be professionals who can exercise judgment. They must be treated with the respect that they deserve, given the danger in which we ask them to put themselves.
The Ministry of Defence must prepare for all eventualities when it makes policy. We owe it to the men and women of our armed forces to ensure that they are trained for all types of conflict. We do not want them to have to be put in a situation that has not been foreseen and for which they have not been properly prepared. Of course, we cannot foresee every eventuality, but we need to think outside the box and prepare for as many scenarios as we can possibly envisage, no matter how unlikely they might seem at the time.
We need to consider not just conflict. Often the work of the armed forces is not armed combat, but peacekeeping, peace enforcing and disaster relief. The role of peacekeeping and peace enforcing becomes intertwined with the international objective of sustainable economic development in unstable countries. The role of the troop deployment in Afghanistan is as much to curb the narcotics trade as it is to bring security and stability to the area. That is a delicate role for our troops to undertake. The more successful we are at curbing the traffic in narcotics, the more danger our troops are likely to be in. How do we win the hearts and minds of local people if we are viewed as removing their livelihood? That must be balanced against the fact that Afghanistan will not have security and stability in the long term while the narcotics trade flourishes. We need to ensure that our troops are fully trained for such a role and that we have troops who can exercise their judgment and act professionally in such delicate situations.
I spoke earlier about treating our troops with the respect they deserve. They need to be treated with respect by not just the MOD and their commanding officers, but politicians, the public and the media. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit Iraq. I spoke to the men and women who are doing a superb job helping the Iraqis to rebuild their lives and helping to train the Iraqi security forces so that they can take control of their own safety and security. They face danger every day, but they keep their cool and behave professionally against extreme provocation. However, one would not know that from the media coverage. The only stories that are widely reported in the British press are the negative ones, which are then relayed across the rest of the world. That gives the armed insurgents the ammunition with which to arm their followers, which thus puts our troops in even more danger.
I spoke to many serving soldiers who told me about circumstances in which they have faced insurgents who have known only too well the rules of engagement under which our troops operate and goaded them to a point at which they hoped that our troops would break. However, such is the professionalism of our troops that they invariably do not do that. Nevertheless, accusations are still made, and they are duly investigated by our service police, contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) said.
I heard of instances of the security services being hampered in their investigations by the unwillingness of alleged victims to give evidence because they had been approached by agents of predatory lawyers who told them not to co-operate with an inquiry, but to sue through the courts for compensation. The Army investigators then stand accused of failing to investigate properly, or covering up, when they are in fact doing their best to investigate properly, but being prevented from doing so. None of that gets properly reported by the British media. It obviously has not reached the ears of my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead. Is it any wonder that some people ask why we are still in Iraq, when all they hear are the negative and unsubstantiated rumours?
The men and women on the ground whom I met felt that they were still part of the solution in Iraq, not part of the problem, but we all recognise that there is a fine line that needs to be kept continually under review. We have a job to do at the request of the elected Iraqi Government and we need to stay until the job is done or the Iraqi Government wish us to leave. There is an important task to do in training and helping the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own security. From my own observations, I believe that they have the training, experience and expertise to perform that task well.
It is not just the Army, the Marines or the RAF. The Navy, too, is doing its bit. Representing, as I do, the constituency that is the home of the Royal Navy, no one will be surprised that I am speaking up for it, as it was a bone of contention among sailors whom I met on HMS Bulwark in the Arabian Gulf that there was never any recognition in the media back home of the important work that the Navy was doing in Iraq, working with the Iraqi navy to protect the oil terminals that are the lifeblood of Iraq and the economic key to its reconstruction.
I saw the professionalism and diplomacy of our modus operandi when boarding unknown craft that had strayed into the exclusion zone. I was shown the basket of gifts that the captain of the patrol vessel carries with him, which are handed out to the crew while the marines search the craft. That is how we win hearts and minds and how we gain the valuable intelligence that we need in the fight against international terrorism, not by going in with all guns blazing, although of course there may be times when that is the appropriate response.
When we look at defence policy, we must make sure that we consider how our troops are viewed here at home and in other countries, because that has an impact not only on our ability to defend ourselves, but on our ability to recruit and retain high-quality professionals. We want to make the armed services attractive to young people, to ensure that we recruit people of the highest calibre. We also need to ensure that our armed services are representative of our population. That means encouraging recruitment of men and women from all ethnic backgrounds and reaching out to the gay and lesbian community and encouraging gays and lesbians to join up, rather than the shameful way in which they were treated by the MOD for many years.
I was encouraged by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State when he told the House last year that we had recruited our first Muslim, Hindu and Sikh chaplains, and I hope we can continue to work with the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality to ensure greater diversity.
For too long, our armed services have been a closed world, hidden behind a cloak of secrecy, because of the fear that operational effectiveness could be compromised. But all too often we have seen that secrecy encouraging a culture of bullying. It goes without saying that junior ranks must obey orders from senior officers without question, because their own lives and those of their colleagues depend on it. However, one thing above all else that came out of my visits to Iraq, Cyprus and Oman is the tremendous team spirit among regiments, air crew and ships companies. They all had a joint commitment to a common goal and they were all fiercely protective of their fellow soldiers, sailors and airmen. Time and again, these young men and women told me that what they appreciated from their armed service was the training that enabled them to operate as a team.
Team work is much more likely to be generated by trust, transparency and openness than by operation as a secret closed group. We do not need to bully people into obeying orders and we do not need to break people’s spirit. We no longer operate trench warfare and we do not ask our troops to blindly go over the top in the knowledge that not all of them will survive, but in the hope that some of them will.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady, who is making a powerful speech. Of course the whole House would condemn bullying, but having served in the armed forces, as have many other hon. and gallant Members, I know that it is a different environment from the normal nine-to-five job. It is tough and we cannot expect our soldiers, sailors and airmen and women to go into combat unless they have gone through thorough, vigorous training. We cannot be nice to everyone on this side and expect them to stand up to the bullets on the other side.
I have no argument with the hon. Gentleman about the need for robust training and the need to make sure that our troops are aware of what they will face when they go into operation. But when one hears stories, as I heard from someone, of a young recruit having a machete held to his head, that is not robust training. That is bullying and that, to me, is not acceptable. In a recent debate on Armed Forces Bill, there was a great deal discussion of the possibility of establishing an independent commissioner as part of a grievance redress procedure. Indeed, the Blake review of the tragic deaths at Deepcut recommended the introduction of such a post. Not all senior officers in the services accept the need for an independent commissioner, as they believe that the internal grievance redress procedures are adequate, but junior ranks to whom I spoke—incidentally, they told me that there is still a culture of bullying in some parts of the services, although it has improved—did not have confidence that internal procedures would be fair. We will not have the professional, committed, agile armed forces we need to discharge either our responsibilities and duties in defence of our citizens or our international obligations if we do not tackle the issue. The Government agreed to defer consideration of an independent commissioner pending the Blake report. Now that they have had time to look at the recommendations, I hope there will be movement on the issue as the Armed Forces Bill continues its passage through the other place.
My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful and wide-ranging speech. I have responded to the Blake report and I clearly stated that the complaints commissioner—that is the title of the post—will be independent. In addition, there will be civilian representation on complaints panels. As she said, the Armed Forces Bill which has progressed to the House of Lords, would allow us to achieve that, and the mechanisms can be defined and debated in the other place. We have taken on board the main issues that she raised, and we have made progress. I believe that Nicholas Blake QC, the author of the report, is happy with the action we have taken.
I am grateful to the Minister. It is important that independent civilians on such a panel have experience of military matters because, as the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said, the military context is different.
Our professional, committed, agile fighting forces do not consist just of regular forces. To provide the flexibility required by modern warfare we increasingly rely on reservists—either former regular servicemen or volunteer reserves. In Umm Qasr, I met volunteer marine reservists who were helping to co-ordinate the Gulf protection strategy. They greatly welcomed the opportunity to play a responsible role in operations, as their everyday lives were vastly different. One reservist was a lifeguard, one a credit controller and another a quality inspector in a biscuit factory—a world away from the job they were doing in Iraq. A recent report by the National Audit Office shows that the desire to serve on operations is an increasingly important reason for joining the volunteer reserves. Surveys show people who take part in an operational deployment are more likely to want to be deployed again.
The marine reservists whom I met would certainly welcome another deployment. They were looking forward to serving in Afghanistan, but when I asked how their families felt, it was a different story. In theory, all reservists are subject to a compulsory call-up but, in practice, the MOD asks individuals if they wish to serve, and that informs call-up procedures. The NAO report, however, notes that reservists do not all admit to their families or employers that they have volunteered for an operation, which can cause problems.
We must be much more open about such problems and involve families at a much earlier stage in a volunteer reservist’s career, so that when the call-up comes they understand what is involved and what support is available. We should ensure that the support available to the families of regular forces is available to reserve forces. We must work with employers so that they recognise the valuable work that reservists do. That is not just an altruistic point of view—the training and experience that reservists acquire on an operation is invaluable to their employers when they return. Many members of 103 Battalion of the Territorial Army, which is based in my constituency, served in Operation Telic. The battalion is a Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers unit whose job is to repair vehicles and return them to action as quickly as possible. Like all TA units, it has experienced problems with recruitment, but it was allocated additional funding last year, which enabled it to adopt new methods to reach out into the community and sign up new recruits. However, on a recent visit to 103 Battalion, I learned of a particular problem to which I should like to draw the Minister’s attention—the matter of qualifications. Young men in 103 Battalion get excellent training in vehicle maintenance, but it is not recognised by an NVQ, so when they try to get a job using those skills, they are not considered to be qualified. Surely it is possible to make that training NVQ accredited to allow those young people to get the recognition that they deserve. Such practical steps can help to build links between the local community and the armed services and to encourage more people to volunteer for the Territorial Army. I want to see greater integration between regular forces and reserve forces, because we need both in today’s modern armed services.
As I have said, I want all our servicemen and women to be treated with respect, and I want the armed services to be a career of choice, not a career of last resort. I believe that our armed forces are the best in the world and our biggest asset, and an integral part of our defence policy must always be to treat them as such.
It is a pleasure to follow another Hampshire Member, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), because defence is hugely important to the county. It was a pleasure to hear her speak in support of the armed forces.
I love these debates. Somehow, they always take place on Thursday afternoons, when the defence geeks turn out. We often say the same sort of things, but it gives us the opportunity to complain. I am no different, and I shall make my complaints.
We must remember the context in which we make our complaints. The background is that the men and women of our armed services do the most extraordinary things on behalf of this country. I met some of them in Iraq a couple of weeks ago, and they were some of the finest men and women one could possibly hope to meet, risking everything on our behalves and on behalf of the ideals in which this country believes. We are lucky to be served by people such as those who are working in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In order not to take up too much of the House’s time, I shall concentrate on three issues—the strategic nuclear deterrent, Afghanistan, and Iraq. I do not feel in the least annoyed that the Chancellor has discussed a matter on which the Defence Committee will issue a report next week. The report considers the strategic context and timetable for taking decisions about the strategic nuclear deterrent, and it is the first of a number of reports that the Committee intends to produce in this Parliament. Its purpose is to inform and encourage public debate on that important issue, so I have no doubt that members of the Committee were delighted when the Chancellor joined the debate last night.
My right hon. Friend has been in the House far longer than me, but I cannot recall a Chancellor of the Exchequer of any political party making such fundamental pronouncements on defence. I am surprised by how far the Chancellor has gone, because surely it is for the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Defence to lead on such issues, rather than the Chancellor?
My hon. Friend has not read what the Chancellor said, because the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) have rightly pointed out that the Chancellor repeated the Labour manifesto. However, it is mildly irritating that the Chancellor’s people say one thing in private, while he says something else in public, and the problem is that we have grown used to such behaviour from the Labour Government.
I welcome the fact that in last night’s remarks the Chancellor appeared to be a genuine convert to the interests of defence. He discussed
“the same strength of national purpose we will demonstrate in protecting our security in this Parliament and the long-term—strong in defence, in fighting terrorism, upholding NATO, supporting our armed forces at home and abroad, and retaining our independent nuclear deterrent.”
I was delighted to hear that he is intent on supporting our armed forces at home and abroad. If that implies that the money for any replacement of the nuclear deterrent will come out of new money, not current Ministry of Defence programmes, we will be making some progress with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
My Committee has produced a report on the deployment to Afghanistan, and we will undertake a second inquiry fairly soon. That deployment has two elements that are separate, but co-ordinated: the movement of the allied rapid reaction corps from Rheindahlen to take over the international security assistance force operation in Kabul; and the 16th Brigade doing a slightly different job in Helmand. In our report, we concluded that we fully supported the deployment to Afghanistan and considered it essential in the interests not only of the economic and social stability of Afghanistan but of the region and the world as a whole. The attack on the twin towers demonstrated the consequences of allowing states to fail, and we felt that it was right to take the action that we did. In that, I fully echo the remarks made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).
Various issues arise out of the deployment. It is essential to the credibility of NATO that the mission should succeed. We are worried about the national caveats that many members of NATO placed on the use of their troops. When we visit Afghanistan as a Committee, as we will shortly, we will need to satisfy ourselves that the rules of engagement, which the Minister tells us are more robust than any that have operated before, are a cohesive feature of NATO’s operations. I am afraid that I do not agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea that one can say to countries, “If you don’t want to play by our rules of engagement, then don’t come.” The method of collecting troops together to go to Afghanistan was difficult and time-consuming enough, and too many countries might simply say, “All right then, we won’t come.” We need a broad international coalition in a country such as Afghanistan, given the difficult things that we are doing there.
Will the Minister tell us whether the operational command and control between ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom has been fully worked out yet? That is not entirely clear from the Government’s response to our report. I am grateful to the Government for providing that response within two months, to the very day, of the report’s publication.
Our report refers to our worries about air assets and vehicles. We stated that we were concerned that the Harriers would leave Kandahar in June, and we were delighted to hear that the Government have decided now, perhaps because of what we said, perhaps through pressure from NATO, to extend the deployment of Harriers in Kandahar until at least March next year. I hope that, by that time, the runway in Kandahar will be upgraded and can take some of the F16 planes, which can then be brought in from other countries.
We were also pleased when the Ministry of Defence announced in April that, as a result of requests from commanders in the field, more than 60 Pinzgauer armoured wheeled vehicles were being ordered for deployment in Afghanistan. I was therefore a little surprised when the Minister, in responding to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) about what vehicles would be available, did not confirm that good news. I hope that he will confirm that the acquisition and deployment will happen.
We were unsurprisingly worried about overstretch. The number of troops in Afghanistan is low and the tasks that we ask them to perform are difficult. We need to be clear about their remit. We made the point that there is a fundamental tension between the aim of destroying the narcotics trade, on which a huge proportion of the Helmand province relies in order to live, and introducing security and stability to the area. The Government response to our report states there is no such tension. I simply cannot understand the logic of the Government’s position. The tension exists. That is not to say that the twin roles are wrong. They are right, because one cannot introduce long-term security in a drugs state. We have to get rid of narcotics from Afghanistan and introduce stability and security. However, there is tension between the two roles, which British troops, having worked in Northern Ireland and Iraq, will be well trained and equipped to tackle.
I said that I was in Iraq a couple of weeks ago with the Defence Committee. We found greater ground for hope than the media in this country would have us believe. We were encouraged by the formation of the final building blocks, which were put in place while we were in Baghdad, of the Government of Iraq. We were pleased that the Minister for the Interior and the Minister for Defence were appointed. That will produce some hope for Iraq. We were encouraged by the fact that the Muthanna province was close to being ready to be handed over. We were encouraged by the extent of the training of the tenth division of the Iraqi security forces. We were told that, in spite of the attacks on people who tried to join the Iraqi security forces, the Iraqi army is fundamentally full. It is being trained effectively by British troops, among others.
No one would suggest that the whole picture is encouraging, however. There are serious worries in Basra and elsewhere. We were not convinced that the local government in Basra was working in the interests of local people or the security of Iraq, or that there was any proper control over the killings between the various power-seeking Shi’a groups. However, I do not believe that there is an insurgency in Basra. The insurgency is happening in the north and west of Iraq. In Basra, there is a power struggle between Shi’a groups who see it as a rich area that they can exploit for their own interests, and they are using the most violent and awful means to do so. So there are real worries about Iraq.
We felt, when we talked to our troops in Iraq, that their morale was high. They are doing the most incredible work in the harshest possible conditions. I remember travelling through the city of Basra in an un-airconditioned Warrior armoured personnel carrier, and, when we reached a place of comparative safety, the mortar cover being taken off. When 50º C air came flooding in, we thought, “Thank God, that’s cool!” The working conditions in those vehicles are extremely difficult, and the troops working in Basra are carrying 40 or 50 lb of body armour, kit and ammunition, which is very difficult for them.
It is not just that there is no fat in the operation. Our troops are not exactly penny pinching, but they have to juggle all the time with the available personnel, and with equipment that might be unavailable or going out of service. The number of helicopters there is tiny, and the number of vehicles is too small. To return to what the Chancellor has said, and to the support that he has given to the defence of this country, I hope, now that he has said those things, that he means them. I also hope that he will put our money where his mouth is.
It is a bold Back Bencher who follows two right hon. colleagues of such great distinction in these areas as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). They know what they are talking about. I shall therefore seek not to try to equal their distinction, but to talk about rather different matters.
I wholly agreed with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea when he said that this debate should not be about Afghanistan, Iraq or the renewal of Trident. Those subjects are sufficiently large to warrant an entire day’s debate or more—perhaps several days debate over the years to come. To presume that those topics can be covered in this relatively short debate this afternoon would be a mistake.
I therefore intend to keep off the subjects of Iraq and Afghanistan, apart from mentioning in passing that my own strongly held opposition to what we did in Iraq in 2003 is one of the perfectly sensible reasons why I have ceased to be a Front-Bench spokesman on defence. I could not have continued to perform that role, given that I did not entirely approve of what my party was doing at the time. I also have some reservations about whether we shall be able to look back, in 10 or 20 years time, and say that what we have done in Afghanistan has been a success. I very much hope that it will be—it is a job that very much needs to be done—but whether we can be confident that that is the case is a matter of some debate. However, Iraq and Afghanistan are matters that we can debate at length on other occasions. Similarly, the whole question of the renewal of Trident is a huge matter for debate in the years to come. It is a matter for the nation, not just for party politics.
I felt slightly queasy about the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s intervention in the debate yesterday, not least because, if anyone takes the opportunity to Google the words “Gordon Brown” to check up on what the right hon. Gentleman has said on defence, they will find that, over the past 10 years or thereabouts, he has said nothing at all on the matter. So far as I am aware, he has never visited a defence establishment. He took no interest in defence until last night, when he reiterated what had been said in the Labour party manifesto, but made it appear that he was making a spectacular announcement on the £25 billion of defence spending on renewing Trident. I suspect that that has far more to do with his tactical position in the Labour party than with a strategic approach to the defence of the world.
I want to spend my time today commenting on something that I was greatly encouraged to learn that the Government are doing. The strategic defence review was, in its time, radical and far-thinking. Given the 17-year time span, most people thought that it represented a worthwhile approach, although we regretted the failure to release the foreign affairs baseline on which the SDR was said to have been based. A strategic defence review cannot be very good if the foreign policy baseline is not known. In any event, that relatively radical and forward-looking document was severely outdated following one event on 11 September 2001, which made all previous thinking about defence irrelevant. Defence thinking as a whole had to start again from scratch.
I do not think that the subsequent so-called new chapter of the SDR—or indeed the defence White Paper, which one of our defence chiefs described as being more about slogans than about policies—added much to the debate. I was pleased to hear from the Minister today that a new strategic context White Paper would be produced later this year. I hope that it will represent a fundamental piece of thinking, founded solidly on a foreign policy baseline. It is no good talking about defence in the abstract; we must talk about it purely in the context of foreign policy and, nowadays, the context of security at home. We must involve the Home Office—and the Department for International Development, in passing—in that consideration. We need to know what our defence forces are required to do before deciding how to enable them to do it.
There is a degree of confusion about that. Are our servicemen required to defend the homeland against an aggressive outside attacker? I suppose that that is theoretically the case, but it is probably very unlikely. It is hard to imagine any third party attacking the nation, although of course it is right for us to have the capability to put up a defence should that become necessary.
Is it our job to deter a potential aggressor? I suppose that the question arises of what we do if and when it becomes obvious that Iran is going to make use of its enriched uranium for military rather than any other purposes. If that becomes obvious, to what degree does international law allow us, alongside the Americans, to take an aggressive stance of one sort or another against Iran? At what stage do we believe that pre-emption becomes a reasonable cause for the use of force?
During the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, it was said that we must stop the Iraqis using their weapons against our soldiers in Cyprus. That was one of the excuses in the dodgy dossier. What was ignored for the moment was that Foreign Office travel advice for tourists was that it was perfectly acceptable to travel to Cyprus throughout the Iraq crisis, at the same time as the MOD was telling us that we had to invade Iraq to prevent that from happening.
Surely our armed services have a role to play in home defence. Perhaps the Territorial Army or the reserve forces could be involved. Surely we should be playing a significantly greater role in defending our nation on shore from asymmetric terrorist attack. Is there a bigger role for the TA than the role conferred on it in the new chapter of the SDR? Might that bigger role be sorting out huge emergencies? At present, it appears that we could do a pretty good job if a serious emergency occurred in London—probably—but what if there were simultaneous attacks on three of our cities? Would our forces be up to dealing with that? Might there not be a role for the TA?
Alternatively, is our role to take part—along with NATO and the United Nations, and possibly even the European Union, although I doubt it—in some form of coalition, going around the world and suppressing tyrants? That is often cited as the reason for what we did against Saddam Hussein in Iraq—and I am very glad that we did it; he is a bad man and I am glad that he has gone. But will our role in future be to enter willingly into coalitions, perhaps alongside the neocon element in the United States, galloping around the world sorting out bad men?
I remember Richard Perle saying in a notable speech that he believed that the US was a sort of sheriff, galloping around the world at the head of a posse sorting out the bad guys. One of the closest advisers to the US President, he made it clear that anyone not in the posse was one of the bad guys, and that he believed that we had to perform a type of neo-imperialist policing duty around the world. Although there may be some such role to play, we did not play it in Cambodia or Darfur, and international law provides scant justification for that approach.
The Pentagon has justified what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere by saying that a war is being fought against terrorism, but our defence policy is different. We say that we do not want to engage in warfare against terrorists, and that we want to prevent asymmetric attacks being levelled against us. That difference between the UK and US approaches is very important. In that context, there is one significant gap in what this country otherwise does rather well, and that is that we are not entirely clear about why we do some things. In particular, there are discontinuities in the responsibilities undertaken by the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office. For example, is the Home Office or the MOD responsible for homeland defence, or does DFID have a role in that? I believe that we should consider introducing a sensible military stratagem planning mechanism, as has happened elsewhere around the world. Another option might be to establish a Government Department that deals with military planning, which would consider such matters in very fundamental terms.
Moreover, we need a fundamental discussion of the intelligence services. Should we retain the present structure of three separate services, or is it time for them to be amalgamated? My noble Friend Lord Hamilton asked that very question in the other place only this week. Again, is it right to retain our three services? Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Collins has said that he believes that we should abolish the RAF. I hasten to say that I do not agree with that at all, given that there is a substantial RAF base in my constituency, but I believe that we should look at the fundamentals of our defence policy. What are our people being asked to do, and why? What sort of mechanisms is needed to ensure that they are able to carry out what is asked of them? We need the sort of grand strategic policy for the UK that we have not had since 1956.
As many speakers have said, our armed forces are very professional, but they suffer from their own can-do approach. Almost regardless of what politicians ask them to do, they will salute, turn to the right and march off and do it. It is possible that they grumble about it, in the dark corners of their messes, but they never do so in public. They do what they are asked to do, and they are incredibly professional. However, how long can we rely on that can-do approach? I do not much like the word “overstretch”, but there are real signs that our armed forces are being asked to do more and more with less and less. Despite the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s comforting words last night about the comprehensive spending review that is coming up shortly, there has been briefing going around to the effect that the Army could be cut to 80,000 men. That is smaller than the international definition of what constitutes an Army, and a British Army of that size would be the smallest since Waterloo.
I accept that all that may be the result of counter-briefing. The Chancellor may well make it clear during the comprehensive spending review that the 80,000 figure is nothing to worry about, that the reality is not nearly so bad and that the true figure will be a fantastic 85,000. That would be a classic example of the sort of thing that the right hon. Gentleman does.
We do not need an Army with 100,000 personnel—we need one that is significantly larger than that. Our Navy and Air Force also need to be larger, so that they and the Army can perform all the tasks that this Government, and all Governments in the foreseeable future, will require of them. In addition, personnel need to be better paid. What incentive is there to be an Army corporal, in charge of 10 people in situations of extreme danger, when the pay is only £14,000 or £15,000 a year? Police constables get much more. We must look at pay and conditions in the armed forces, as well as at the equipment—both personal and on the larger scale—that is provided. We must also consider every aspect of how our armed forces personnel are sent into war. We need a fundamental review of why we are doing things, how we can encourage our people to do them and how to be certain that whatever we do in the future is done well. One thing is for sure: the European Union is not worth the paper it is written on with regard to defence. The notion that we can have some sort of European Union defence force in the future is laughable. The only countries worth talking about in the defence world today, and the only people who can truly project power for good around the world, are the United States and the United Kingdom acting together in NATO. Without those two nations and NATO, I shudder to think about the future of our great globe.
It is right to have a fundamental look at what we are asking our armed services to do and Opposition Members will co-operate with the Government in doing so. Having done precisely that and published the results, they should look fundamentally at how best to achieve them. They should look into manpower and equipment, how our armed forces are structured and the rules of engagement. They should look at human rights and health and safety—I was astonished to hear someone say that they were glad that an exercise had been stopped because someone had twisted their ankle—the International Criminal Court and how people are asked to act on the battlefield. All those things are fundamental to doing a first-class job, which our people have always done, and to continue in a fully professional way for years to come. If we do not do so, we will not be able to play the role that we havetraditionally played—the role of doing significant good in securing the safe future of our globe.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), not least because, having been in the Territorial Army, he speaks with authority. I think I am right in saying that he is the only person to have done three stints in the armed forces parliamentary scheme and to have reached the dizzy heights of a brigadier, at least.
I would like to place our debate in context by asking what the Government think of their armed forces. I can see what new Labour thinks simply by looking in front of me. Apart from the Minister who is winding up the debate, the silent Whip and the silent Parliamentary Private Secretary, there are acres of empty green Benches. Not a single Back Bencher is in his place for a debate on defence policy in Government time. It is embarrassing—[Interruption]—so embarrassing that the Minister is about to intervene.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has attended throughout the afternoon, but we have already heard two contributions from the Government side. When I look around the Chamber, I see just four more Conservative Members than we have had this afternoon.
As the Minister has kindly pointed out, our smaller party has six Back Benchers in their places, which is six more than the Minister has on his side—and there is, of course, the token Liberal.
So what do the Government think of our armed forces? I shall give three examples. First, in 2003, the Deputy Prime Minister—still hanging in there with his Office—in front of a number of witnesses, including some of our Doorkeepers, said, “All soldiers are boneheads.” That is what he thinks of our armed forces. Secondly, there is the disgraceful way in which the Government refused to take any action to assist soldiers and others on operations to register to vote before the last general election. I raised the matter time and again, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), but the Government took no real action. One can only surmise why not.
The third indicator of the new Labour Government’s view of the armed forces is seen in a business news leader article, entitled “Huge cuts threat to defence industry” in the Evening Standard on 12 June this year. Written by Robert Fox, who is generally pretty well informed, it says:
“Chancellor Gordon Brown…wants £1 billion taken from defence and given to…homeland security…A recently retired chief of staff commented: ‘They’ll have to tear up Labour’s whole defence strategy and start all over again.’…defence chiefs have already been told that ‘at least one major procurement programme has to go’”—
probably the aircraft carriers. I have no idea whether that is true, but I do know, as hon. Members have already pointed out, that in this Chancellor’s time here, he has shown precious little interest in and very little support for defence. I speak today against that background.
The major point that I should like to make is about the politicisation and the responsibilities of senior officers in the armed forces, and then I shall touch on the situation in Afghanistan. First, on senior officers, last November I was quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying that the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, lacked the courage to stand up for his soldiers. I first discovered that that had been quoted—I had had a conversation with the journalist—when I got a telephone call and was asked to ring General Jackson, who had rung the then leader of the Conservative party. I asked him why he had phoned the then leader of the Conservative party instead of me, and he did not really answer. He hectored me down the telephone for 30 minutes in a somewhat bullying way.
It is not my business to have an argument with the Chief of the General Staff, so I am glad to say that a mutual friend organised a meeting. We had a meeting for an hour and three quarters. It was a convivial meeting and we discussed things in a reasonable way. There was not much meeting of minds, but I accept—I promised him at the time that I would—that I have no knowledge that he lacks courage. It was quite wrong of me to have said that he lacks courage, and I withdraw that unreservedly and apologise to him. I said that I would do that at the first opportunity, and this is the first opportunity that I have had. However, I did tell him that I would not withdraw the bit about standing up for his soldiers, and that is part of what I intend to discuss today.
Incidentally, I have no personal problem with General Jackson, so I do not wish this to counted as a personal attack on him in any way. He is a public servant who has given good service to this country over a number of years. However, I want to look at what has happened to the armed forces over the past three years—I shall stick to the past three years.
We had an immensely successful Iraq war in March 2003, or whenever it was. We can all be proud of our soldiers, sailors and airmen for the work that they did then. Since then we have got immersed, as other hon. Members have said, in a very difficult situation in Iraq. We have now deployed to Afghanistan. We have had four battalions of infantry cut from the line of battle. Notwithstanding what was said by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), the TA is haemorrhaging soldiers. Once they have been to Iraq, where they have an interesting experience, most of them do not much want to go again. The reorganisation of the infantry battalions is taking place, too. Although the arms plot was imperfect, I do not believe that that reorganisation will lead to a better system for the infantry.
Demands are now growing for a federation for armed forces personnel. We have to ask why those demands are growing. Why are grass-roots members of the armed forces demanding a federation? Soldiers are public servants. Politicians make the orders and soldiers must obey politicians—that goes for field marshals, generals and the like—but senior officers who demand loyalty from those below them are expected in return to give loyalty to those whom they command. That was certainly what I was taught, and hon. Members who have done any form of military service will know that.
Loyalty goes two ways, and the chiefs of staff who represent the armed forces in discussions with the Government should not be seen as the Prime Minister’s representatives; rather, they should be seen as representing the armed forces to the Government. I understand that the chiefs of staff have access to the Prime Minister whenever they want it, but I have not heard of that access being used during the draconian defence cuts going on in all three services. What senior officer has resigned recently? None that I have seen, and there is a growing feeling—it may not be fair—that some senior officers are apparently more interested in their careers, in knighthoods and in future cosy appointments than in the good of the armed forces and the personnel whom they command. I should like to turn to an example of that: the courts martial that have been taking place in respect of Iraq.
Tight discipline is essential in the armed forces, especially in war, as anyone who has been in battle knows, but discipline is being undermined by a growing human rights culture—fostered, I am afraid, by the Government—that is encouraging barrack-room lawyers. Anyone who is guilty of a crime in the armed forces must be prosecuted, but we have a very difficult and continuing war in Iraq. We expect our soldiers to make split-second life-and-death decisions, while someone is trying to kill them. That is not the same as being on parade outside Buckingham palace or, indeed, policing a riot in Trafalgar square.
I will use one case of court martial as an example, because it is completely out of the courts now—that of Trooper Williams. As hon. Members may remember, in July 2003 Trooper Williams was part of a patrol that stopped a handcart that was being pushed along, filled with mortar bombs. Understandably, the Iraqis pushing the hand-cart scattered. Trooper Williams and a corporal chased one Iraqi into a courtyard and then into a house, where he fought with the corporal accompanying Trooper Williams. Trooper Williams believed—and who are we to gainsay him, as we were not there?—that the Iraqi was trying to grab the pistol from the corporal, so he shot him, and he died.
Rightly, the case was taken up by the commanding officer of the regiment to which Trooper Williams was attached. He was arrested and investigated and brought before that commanding officer, who, having taken legal advice, dismissed the case, as was his right. He made a judgment that Trooper Williams was not guilty.
What happened next? Brigadier Vowles and Major-General Howell—both of whom, as I understand it, are primarily lawyers, rather than soldiers by first profession—queried the decision. A memo dated March 2004, from the then Adjutant-General—I believe it was Sir Alistair Irwin—was sent to the Chief of the General Staff. It states:
“With the current legal, political and ginger group interest in the deaths of Iraqi civilians…there is a significant possibility that this case, our investigation and subsequent failure to offer for prosecution could become a cause célèbre for pressure groups and a significant threat to the maintenance of the military justice system. If the Attorney General became aware of it in the meantime, it is possible that would himself order a review of the case.”
So this prosecution was all about ginger groups and the possibility that the case could become a cause célèbre for pressure groups. I ask the senior officers involved: does that constitute standing up for Trooper Williams?
Following that, Trooper Williams was charged with murder under the civilian system and was to be taken to the Old Bailey. He was 18 years old when the incident took place, and for a year and a half he was under threat of trial at the Old Bailey. I suggest that that is a pretty serious matter for anybody.
On 7 April last year, at the Old Bailey, the Crown offered no evidence. I have been told by a senior officer that Williams should be grateful to the Army because, now that he has been tried at the Old Bailey, he cannot be tried again. I wonder what he thinks about that.
What was the role of the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, in all this? The trial judge, Mrs. Justice Hallett, believed that this was possibly a novel intervention by Her Majesty’s Attorney-General. One of her judgments says:
“No-one in the Army has apparently thought to advise Trooper Williams that although his commanding officer had found in his favour he might still face a civilian prosecution. That is apparently because this is the first time”—
the first time—
“to the knowledge of those appearing before me and called before me, that her Majesty’s Attorney General has sought to exercise the powers accorded to him.”
In a written answer to my noble Friend Lord Astor of 10 November 2005, the Attorney-General, speaking about the five members of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment whose case was dismissed last year, said:
“I considered the matter and…I decided that the case should be referred to the CPS because…while there is no suggestion that the court martial would not deal with it impartially, justice would be seen to be done by ventilating the issues in the civilian courts”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 November 2005; Vol. 675, c. 111W.]
Are this Government and their senior officers standing up for soldiers, or ventilating issues in civilian courts?
I do not expect anything better from a commercial lawyer who happens to be a Minister of the Crown because of his friendship with the Prime Minister, but these people have no idea of the pressures on soldiers, who have to take life-and-death decisions in such situations. Their senior officers should stand up for them, and they should expect better from them. This Government have politicised senior officers in a way that has not happened before. Let me give two examples. I have in my hand an edition of The House Magazine—one cannot get much more political than the in-house magazine of this place—that contains a big interview with the Chief of the General Staff. He also did the Andrew Marr programme, which is the BBC’s major political programme on a Sunday morning.
Too often, senior officers are seen as apologists for Government policy, rather than as those who are obliged to carry out Government policy. If they disagree with me they are very welcome to say so, but I hope that they will consider my words, and whether there is some truth in what I am saying.
The Minister has his glasses on and will notice that I am speaking from the Back Benches, not from the Front Bench.
What I have said is not my opinion alone, but the opinion of a great number of soldiers of junior, and not so junior, rank to whom I have spoken. Nor is it just retired soldiers who think so, but a large number of serving soldiers and officers. I ask that senior officers consider whether there is anything right in my words. If I am wrong, they will dismiss me and ignore me, I am sure, as the Minister surely will.
Let me turn to Afghanistan. A good debate was instigated yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway). I counsel caution. The situation is difficult, and although I supported the action to oppose the Taliban in 2001, and since—we cannot just run away—we should none the less consider the history of the Afghan wars. Yesterday, my hon. Friend said:
“In 1880 the Royal Regiment was virtually wiped out in the disastrous battle that it fought along the banks of the Helmand river at Maiwand. A British officer wrote, rather pessimistically, at the time that
‘making war and planning a campaign on the Helmand from the cool shades...is an experiment which will not, I hope, be repeated’.
Well, the experiment is being repeated and the Taliban tell people in their night letters that their grandfathers are scratching at the soil in their graves to get out and kill the grandsons of the British troops they massacred.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 21 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 434WH.]
In the 1930s, in his autobiography “Bugles and a Tiger”, John Masters describes British soldiers still being flayed alive within the lifetime of some Members still serving in this House. I do not want to dwell on that, but shall perhaps quote Kipling:
“When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
And go to your gawd like a soldier.”
There is no easy solution to Afghanistan, but I suggest we look at more recent campaigns, such as Dhofar, in which small numbers of soldiers supporting local troops did fantastic work. I view the campaign with great foreboding, and urge caution. I thought the points made by the shadow Secretary of State about how we need more helicopters and support if we are to expect our soldiers to work there were quite excellent.
Our soldiers, sailors and airmen deserve our support, and they deserve reasoned decisions from the Government. They expect a Government to respect them and look after their interests in a way that I do not believe this one does. They also expect their senior officers to show loyalty to their subordinates. I hope that they will, notwithstanding the examples that I have given.
Finally, I am sure everyone knows that Julius Caesar said that soldiers are not as other men, and when they think they are, they cease to be our guardians. Our soldiers, sailors and airmen are our guardians, and we should support them to the best of our ability.
It is a great, if daunting, pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) who has a great deal more knowledge on this issue than I have. I have rarely heard such an impassioned speech in the House of Commons. If only more people in the Labour Government had had such direct experience of the armed forces, we might not have so many foreign military interventions.
I shall hone in on Muthana, the Iraqi desert region on the borders of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait from which it has been announced that British troops will pull out. That is very good news and I applaud the Government for having managed to secure that withdrawal.
There are many service personnel in Iraq from my constituency. I have been in the Chamber all afternoon in order to have the opportunity to pay a personal tribute to and to applaud service personnel from Shrewsbury and Shropshire who are serving their country in Iraq.
Recently, James Holt, a journalist on our local newspaper, the Shrewsbury Chronicle, was sent to Iraq and has been sending back photographs and stories about our servicemen and their experiences. Those reports in our local paper have really brought home to me and my constituents the fact that real people from our community are out there fighting for their country—our neighbours, brothers and sisters. I am always in awe at the sacrifices that they make.
I cannot call for a withdrawal from Iraq at this stage; it is not my party’s policy and I am a loyal Back Bencher. However, I want to say two things about which I feel passionately—I hope they do not get me into too much trouble with the Whips. Last week, Mr. Ken Tyrell led a large delegation of people from Shrewsbury to see me to discuss the war in Iraq. They passionately wanted to know when our troops would be withdrawn. They feel desperately sad when they tune into Prime Minister’s questions week after week to hear the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition expressing condolences to the families of British servicemen who have been killed. That is a very emotive issue for my constituents. They applaud the Government for withdrawing our troops from Muthana and hope that soon we will be able to leave further provinces in the capable hands of the Iraqis.
My second point will stay with me for as long as I am a Member of Parliament. It is the most emotional thing I have ever come across, certainly from a political perspective. In January and February 2003, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, I received more than 200 letters from Shrewsbury women—but not one man—to tell me that they were worried that our country was going against the wishes of the United Nations, the Secretary-General of the UN, Hans Blix and every other opinion. They said:
“We are worried and concerned that our country is going to war in these circumstances.”
Those 200 Shrewsbury women, and my wife, convinced me that I should be against the war in Iraq. Week after week, I wrote in my local newspaper that the war was wrong. At the time, I was merely a parliamentary candidate, so it was much easier to express those views, but now that I am an MP it will be interesting to see what happens in the future when I have to follow the party Whip. However, our experience in Iraq makes me cautious about our engaging in future wars in Iran and other countries.
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend. Regardless of his views before the Iraq war, does not he accept that, as he became a Member of Parliament afterwards, and given the situation that we face in Iraq, we need to make sure we leave only when the situation is stabilised and that we leave a stable country behind when the job is done? Despite the fact that he may have been against the war at the beginning, I am sure that he wants our troops to leave with honour a stable country with a functioning liberal democracy.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I entirely agree. That is why I am not calling for the withdrawal of our troops. As I said to Mr. Tyrell and my other constituents, it would be wrong for us to pull out prematurely; our international reputation would suffer even more if we did so.
I am concerned about the lack of assistance in these situations from other permanent members of the Security Council. China and Russia are two huge military powers with extraordinary military spending and military capability, but they are mute on international problems and situations such as Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. If we are successfully to police the world, those important members of the Security Council have to become more involved, as do other NATO countries and other European Union countries that have not fulfilled their roles properly in sending enough peacekeepers to Iraq. We simply have too few troops ourselves to police the whole world in conjunction with the Americans.
At some stage, we may have to reorganise the permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations. They were drawn up immediately after the second world war. We now face a very different world. Perhaps countries such as Germany, although I have mixed views on Germany—[Interruption.] My grandfather was Polish. Perhaps countries such as Germany, which are increasingly economically and militarily powerful, should be included as permanent members to get them to participate in these issues.
Trident should be replaced and we should have a modern version of a nuclear defence capability. I am amazed by statements by certain Labour Members calling for us to scrap the replacement of our Trident system. In this dangerous world, a United Kingdom without Trident, or a replacement for Trident, would be held to ransom by countries such as Iran. Nuclear weapons have kept the peace in Europe for more than 60 years and we must retain a nuclear arms capability. I am pleased that Gordon Brown has supported replacement—
I am sorry; the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am bemused, however, to discover that the Chancellor sees it as his role to lead the debate on the issue.
As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, it is important to have parliamentary scrutiny of the replacement of our nuclear capability. My vote will certainly be influenced by the options. If one option is simply to buy something from the Americans, to me that is nowhere near as attractive as having a nuclear capability primarily designed and primarily manufactured in our own country. When we have the debate, I hope that the Minister and the Government will give us the opportunity to decide between two or three options, rather than merely to vote yes or no to a new modern version of Trident.
Very little has been said about veterans, but, for me, veterans are of great importance. I draw the Minister’s attention to Polish veterans, in particular. One in six airmen in the battle of Britain was Polish. I am extremely proud of the role that my ancestors played in that. I know that people from many countries—countries that were occupied by the Germans—came and sought sanctuary in Britain in 1940 and we have to respect all of them. However, I argue—I put this point to the Minister as forcefully as I can—that the Poles have a unique and special role when it comes to foreign veterans in this country. I hope that, on future Remembrance days, those people will be acknowledged as unique, and quite apart from the French, Czechs, Dutch and others, because of the huge number who came and the courage and valour that they showed in the battle of Britain.
I was brought up just outside London near Northolt airfield. My hon. Friend will know that there is a unique and prominent war memorial there to the Polish airmen who fought with the RAF for Britain and Poland in the last world war. I acknowledge it every time that I go by.
I know the Polish nation and spoke to Polish Ministers a few weeks ago. The Polish people very much appreciate the monument that was built at Northolt to remember what they did in the second world war.
We must use our armed forces far closer to home. We have heard today about the interventions around the world in which our dedicated British armed forces are involved, but I delicately and gently suggest to the Minister that we have to use the expertise of the military to deal with some of the critical problems that we experience as an island nation in Europe. We need to try to deal with the things that matter to people.
I make no apology for raising this matter. I speak following one of the most difficult weeks that I have had as a Member of Parliament because one of my constituents—a young Shrewsbury girl—was raped by a failed asylum seeker from Africa. I am the chairman of the all-party group on Mauritania. I am appalled by the lack of financial assistance and expert training that we are giving to Mauritania and other west African countries to help them to deal with the thousands of illegal immigrants who pour from west Africa, via the port of Nouakchott in Mauritania, to the Canary Islands and ultimately the United Kingdom. Many people die on the perilous journey to the Canary Islands. There is an appalling and tragic situation right on our doorstep, but despite all the questions that I have tabled, all that has happened so far is that the European Union has sent a couple of dinky tug boats to help. Surely the Government should be doing more about such a grave matter and using the expertise of our armed forces to help the Mauritanians to train their navy to police their waters more efficiently and thus stop the terrible human tragedy of immigration from west Africa to Europe, which causes great suffering. I make that point strongly to the Minister.
The Territorial Army is in crisis. Many personnel are leaving due to the huge pressures that are imposed on them. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) recently stated that recruitment to the TA is in crisis, and I totally agree with him. Other hon. Members have commented on the parlous state of the TA. During a debate on defence a few months ago, the then Minister rejected our concerns about the TA and assured us that numbers in the TA were rising, but that is not the case. Anyone who examines the figures will see that there is a tremendous outflow of members, so we need to do something about that.
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend’s flow, because he is making a powerful speech. I went to a briefing at the Ministry of Defence about the TA and its numbers. Does he agree that it is upsetting to hear that members of the university officer training corps are now being included as part of the overall numbers for our TA, which is distorting the figures that show our true strength?
I agree with my hon. Friend. That practice shows how desperate the situation is. The Government will spin it in any way they can to make the situation look better, but I have spoken to loyal members of the TA in my constituency, who have been extremely forthright—more forthright than I would have imagined—about their concerns.
Lastly, there are huge dangers in European defence co-operation across the board. The European Union wants a common defence force that would act almost as one across the entire European Union. We are the strongest military nation in the EU and we should cherry-pick our closest collaborators and partners. The Europe of 25 nation states has widely varying levels of capability. If I may say so, rather controversially, we can rely on seven countries in the European Union far more than on others to support us in combat. One of those—I do not apologise for mentioning it—is Poland. We should cherry-pick our partners and not have a common European defence force.
I open my remarks by paying tribute to the men and women of our armed forces. Their determination, courage and sheer professionalism ensure that the quality of Britain’s armed forces is second to none in the world. It should be remembered that large numbers of the personnel deployed are members of the Territorial Army. Their involvement is vital to the scale of the commitment of British forces overseas. Our military continue to do a tremendous job, serving their country both here in the United Kingdom and in many deployments overseas.
I am sure the House will join me in acknowledging the debt we owe to all our service personnel who have lost their lives in the most recent conflicts. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and our thoughts and prayers must go to their families and friends.
It is vital to remember the harsh fact that the UK spends just 2.2 per cent. of its gross domestic product on defence. That is the lowest figure committed to our armed forces since 1930. In addition, we must remember the high cost of modern high-tech weapons systems. A modern naval destroyer may be a formidable combat asset, but no amount of high-tech wizardry can get the vessel deployed to two separate locations at the same time.
Our spend of 2.2 per cent. of GDP on defence may be low by Britain’s historic benchmark, but it is higher than that of our European partners. For example, Germany spends 1.4 per cent. of its GDP on defence, Spain 1.3 per cent. and Austria only 0.7 per cent. on defence, although it must be remembered that those nations have very limited overseas deployments. The United States of America, however, spends more than 4 per cent. of its GDP to fund its military.
We all recollect the reports of equipment shortages suffered by our troops in Iraq in 2003. Those were caused by the decision to hold off any preparation until late November 2002, four months before the start of the conflict. Ammunition, body armour and radios were among the equipment in short supply. During the war, members of 7 Parachute Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery were forced to use captured AK47s because their own SA80 rifles jammed. That was a direct result of insufficient supplies of oil to keep them functioning.
The American soldiers and marines in Iraq have access to RG-31 Nyala mine-protected vehicles which enable the crew to survive the blast of an improvised explosive device. Canadian troops deployed in Afghanistan also use RG-31s. British soldiers and Royal Marines need to make do with lightly protected Land Rovers. That is not acceptable. Shortages of vital spare parts mean that tanks, armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles are being cannibalised to keep other vehicles operational. Similar practices are used to keep aircraft operational and ships seaworthy.
Military equipment wears out, it is damaged, or it becomes obsolete, so it must be replaced. In Portsmouth, for example, there are 19 redundant warships. In too many cases, their replacements—we have heard that equipment will be replaced—have not been built or, in the case of aircraft carriers, have not even been designed. Too often in recent years, new equipment has been delivered late or over budget. In a speech at the 2001 Labour party conference, the Prime Minister promised a “strong defence capability”. The reality, however, is that the Government have delivered cuts in service personnel, aircraft, tanks and ships. There are fewer trained personnel in the British Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force than in 1997, despite a significant increase in defence commitments.
According to Lord Guthrie, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, in The Sunday Telegraph on 12 September 2004, the Army is “dangerously small”. Cuts have been made to the Territorial Army, which is at its lowest strength ever, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said. Current operations rely on the men and women of the TA, but the frequency and length of deployments discourage people from signing up to the TA, the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Government cuts in manpower and extra commitments mean that our armed forces are dangerously overstretched. In April this year, the Select Committee on Defence report on the MOD’s annual accounts identified the overstretch in our armed forces as a cause of concern. The rules for minimum gaps between tours are breached in the Army, Navy and Air Force, and critical shortfalls in manpower have had a severe impact on specialist units.
Our military forces are being asked to do more than at any time since the second world war, as major operations have taken place almost every year since 1997. There have been new peacekeeping deployments, including one to Kosovo, and lengthy, ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased our commitments. In addition, the armed forces have had to assist in civil operations, tackling the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 and providing services during the firemen’s strike of 2002-03. It is unfair and self-defeating to keep taking personnel away from their families, and to provide unreasonably short breaks between operational tours, as that imposes an intolerable strain on family relationships and results in a far higher failure to retain experienced recruits.
Finally, I should like to touch on some personal issues. In the first Gulf conflict, I was in Israel when Saddam Hussein launched his Scud missile attacks on Tel Aviv and other Israeli towns. The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) was concerned that Saddam Hussein would not receive a fair trial. Did Saddam Hussein give a fair trial to the tens of thousands of people he massacred or to the people he gassed? He could not care less about any of his citizens. He is receiving a fairer trial than he gave anyone in his country. Iraq is a better place without Saddam Hussein, who was no great philanthropist.
I was not a Member of Parliament when the decision to go to war in Iraq was made. We must weigh up the situation. The loss of civilian life is terrible—I do not believe that anyone in any part of the House would say otherwise—but democracy allows the people to decide their own future. It is pointless to pretend that there will not be troubles along the way. Our involvement could have been better thought out, but that does not mean that it was wrong to remove a vile dictator who could not care less about his own people.
I do not pretend that my constituency is a military one, but many people have contacted me about Afghanistan and the vile trade in drugs that end up on the streets of my constituency. Charitable organisations try to stop our youngsters getting on to drugs, and if youngsters are unfortunate enough to get on to drugs, they help them with rehabilitation. The situation can only be helped by Afghanistan not exporting drugs to Europe, America and elsewhere.
Too often, we hear people condemn our troops for their actions. As has been said, however, we must recognise the tough job that our troops are doing. We are not talking about policing the streets of my constituency, although given the antisocial behaviour that sometimes takes place, perhaps that is what we need. Our troops are in an area in which they are being attacked daily. People are blowing themselves up to kill innocent civilians, and many of the deaths involve innocent civilians being killed by insurgents, who also attack our troops. I, for one, think that our troops are doing a wonderful job and that we should be proud of everything that they do rather than condemning them.
My hon. Friend is making a passionate speech and pointing out some of the concerns, which many of us share, about Afghanistan. We have not covered the responsibility of Afghanistan’s neighbours to challenge the trade in narcotics. My hon. Friend has mentioned China, but does he agree that Pakistan has a role to play in preventing narcotics from being moved into the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend has made a valuable point, and he is correct. I watched this Chamber before I was a Member of Parliament, and I have watched it since I became a Member of Parliament. I have seen politicians of all parties score political points at the expense of our wonderful troops, who protect us and defend our lives. No one wants to see civilians, whether they are in Afghanistan or Iraq, being killed, but what is done is done, and we are duty bound to make sure that Iraq and, indeed, Afghanistan are better places when we leave than when we went in. I think that we will achieve that goal, and I pray that we will. Have wrongs been committed? It is alleged that they have, and if they have, they must be looked into and rectified, but that does not make everything wrong.
In a previous life, I worked for an international charity with which I visited Ramallah. When I went into houses there, the people wanted a roof over their heads, food on the table and a peaceful existence—it is never the majority who cause the problem; it is always the minority. We can all make a difference, whether or not we agreed with the war in Iraq, and whether or not we think that we should be in Afghanistan. The people expect us to make a difference, and if we let them down, perhaps we are betraying what we are here for.
In my year in Parliament, I have not made that many speeches in this House, because I believe that unless one has something relevant to say, one should not say anything—perhaps I am unique in thinking that. However, this matter is important, which is why I am proud to speak in this debate.
In conclusion, our troops are doing a marvellous job. I hope that they are home soon for them and their families, and I hope that there are no more announcements expressing condolences to the families of troops who have lost their lives doing our work. I am proud of our troops—I am sure that everyone else is, too—and I send them my good wishes and wish them a speedy return home.
It is a pleasure to be called towards the end of this debate and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), who spoke thoughtfully and passionately about our debt of gratitude to our armed forces. I am sure that we all share those thoughts.
I join my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) in saying that we have had an interesting, thoughtful and provocative debate, but I am afraid that it has been far too wide ranging. We have managed to cover subjects as diverse as Army barracks, the joint strike fighter, operations in Iraq and the nuclear deterrent, not to mention all the other issues that are so important to us as individual Members or to the nation as a whole. We cannot go into all those areas in sufficient depth in the course of one afternoon’s debate. I hope that the Minister and the usual channels will bear in mind that we need properly to analyse the decisions made by Government and scrutinised by Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman and I have exchanged comments on this before. I take on board his general sentiments, but remind him that this is the third in a series of defence debates, with another one still to come. We try to separate out the various subject headings so that we can concentrate on one at a time. Personnel will be the next subject, while equipment was the previous one. Policy is a very wide-ranging subject. If we do not specify certain topics, Members will mention them anyway, because they talk about the things that they want to talk about.
I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful comment. I have a huge amount of respect for him, as he knows, but he must be aware of my views given my intervention on him at the start of the debate. The proposed subject of today’s business is defence policy and the fifth report from the Defence Committee on the UK deployment to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not solely a military topic, so representatives from the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should be here as well.
The hon. Gentleman makes useful contributions, but I think that he has misunderstood the title of the debate, which is about defence policy. The Defence Committee has tabled its report on Afghanistan—it could have tabled any of its reports—so that becomes a subject for discussion, but the debate is about defence policy overall.
Either way, I think that the Minister understands my point. If we are to do justice to the important subject of Afghanistan, I should like to see not just him on the Front Bench, but his colleagues from DFID and the FCO.
One of the major topics that we have discussed this week is our nuclear deterrent capability. That came about because of the comments that the Chancellor made in his Mansion House speech last night. I found those comments very unhelpful. He sent a confusing message as to what the Government mean by long-term strategy, and a patronising message to the House of Commons about how and when debates on such subjects should occur. A decision has to be made on this important subject, and I am pleased that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench have said that we will demand a vote on it. The nation expects us to debate and to vote on it. It is sad that the Government are putting out messages here and there to satisfy—or agonise—Labour Back Benchers, instead of promoting the debate on this country’s nuclear deterrent.
We have already heard confusing messages on the subject. As the Minister will be aware, we design and make our own nuclear deterrent. The bombs are British; the American component is the delivery vehicle—the D5 missile. Without that, we obviously do not have the ability to deliver. Without the nuclear submarines, we do not have the capacity to move the missiles. All those issues are up for debate because they have a shelf life and therefore need to be discussed in the next year or so. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will give us some idea in his winding-up speech of the official timetable, bearing in mind the Chancellor’s comments last night.
The Minister said that the debate was wide ranging and I want to consider missiles and missile capability. We talk about the subject with passion, whether or not it involves our constituents. We speak about the Royal Air Force, the Navy and the Army, but the advent of new missile technology is changing the conduct of warfare. For example, the radar systems that we now use mean that an aircraft-borne rather than a ship-based radar is required to keep our battleships safe. That is a fundamental change from the time of the Falklands war.
The Storm Shadow missile can be fired from 350 km away. If a missile can be fired from such a position, that changes warfare. It perhaps calls into question the existence of the artillery. I realise that, with that sentence, I have upset a massive chunk of the British Army, but it is a major question that we need to answer. What is the role of the artillery, given that an AS90, which is the standard artillery weapon, can fire only 15 miles, yet requires a battery of troops to provide the facility? Storm Shadow—indeed, any of the weapons systems that now exist—has changed the operational nature of what we do.
We have not held a debate about where we are going in the next five to 10 years because of changes in technology. That is the sort of debate for which I am asking the Minister.
The hon. Gentleman should examine the debates on the consideration that we have given to future Army structure. That consideration is about restructuring the Army away from heavy into medium and light. Much re-roling is happening to deal with some of the issues that he mentioned and, importantly, to return to the Army some 3,000 posts in the specialist pinch points. Those key enablers will strengthen the Army’s capacity. That takes time, but we are investing in it.
I am grateful for that intervention, which provides some clarity. I hope that the debate will not be confined to the Army, but extend to the military as a whole.
A comment was made about disbanding the RAF. I hope that that does not happen but we must bear in mind that aircraft have been divided into two huge sections. A small or medium-sized helicopter is under the umbrella of the Army, whereas a large-scale helicopter or a fixed-wing plane is under that of the RAF. However, a commander wants to have the full array of assets under his command. He does not want to go through another operational level or a separate cell to call on those assets. We need to consider such command structures.
I want to consider the Typhoon—the Eurofighter. The first tranche is due now—I believe that there are 55 aircraft, but I stand to be corrected if that is not the case. However, they were procured during the cold war and they are air-to-air combat aircraft. I do not know with how many nations we shall have dogfights. Again, the technology has moved on, as has the enemy. We need to be ready for any scenario—for any development or future threat—but to devise an aircraft that has only air-to-air capability limits our ability to defend our nation.
The Typhoon has great missile capability: ASRAAM and AMRAAM are medium-range and short-range missiles but, again, they are air-to-air. We need them, especially to deal with threats such as 9/11, but we also need the capability to support our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, where there is a ground threat. We therefore need to be able to take out ground targets.
The armoury of the missiles in our portfolio is not compatible with all our aircraft. Storm Shadow, Maverick, Brimstone and Paveway are our ground attack missiles, but none of them can be used on the Eurofighter. I wrote to the Secretary of State to ask what air-to-ground missile system the Eurofighter would employ. The reply was:
“Integration of air to ground missile systems onto RAF Typhoon, including the Storm Shadow cruise missile and the Brimstone air-launched anti-armour weapon, is being considered as part of the Typhoon Future Capability Programme.”—[Official Report, 17 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 954W.]
That is not good enough. We simply cannot spend millions of pounds on 230 aircraft that are unable to share the array of missiles that we need because the technology and the way in which we conduct warfare have changed. Our Jaguars are disappearing, our Harriers are being sold off and our Tornadoes are coming to the end of their shelf life, but there is no sign of the joint strike fighter coming on line. Our ground attack capability is therefore questionable, yet that is the very capability that we need in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Afghanistan has been the focus of many hon. Members’ contributions today. I had the honour to visit Afghanistan last week, and it was quite an eye-opening experience. The openness of the country was the first thing that struck me. Of course, there is a handful of major cities, but beyond them much of the mountain and desert terrain is inhospitable. Every so often, there is a river basin—such as that of the Helmand river—that is heavily concentrated with villages and towns. Such places are widely spread apart. A tiny village in Helmand province, for example, is extremely remote from what is happening in Kandahar or Kabul. That means that the people there do not hear the advice, the directions or the words of support that are coming from the Afghan Government. They are very much looking after themselves. These villages consist of tribal communities, and their loyalties are to the families and to the tribes of which they are part, rather than to the country of Afghanistan as a whole. Indeed, the word “country” should perhaps be used advisedly in that location. It is clear that, in that atmosphere, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are able to dominate and to work almost without feeling a threat from the NATO or ISAF forces.
While I was in Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to visit the ISAF headquarters and see the co-ordination between the Department for International Development and other international organisations. I am pleased to say that our operations are working very closely together. There is no doubt about that. However, we are now spending about £45 million a year from the DFID budget and about £50 million from the military budget. Where is the accountability? Where is the co-ordination? I called for more than just one Minister to come to the debate today to explain what is happening in that regard.
I also had the opportunity to meet General Jones, the NATO commander, and Sir David Richards, the general in charge of ISAF. Both expressed concern that mission creep was taking place in Afghanistan. On page 25 of its report, the Defence Committee states:
“We remain uncertain of the exact role which UK forces will be asked to play in support of the counter-narcotics strategy and call on MoD to provide clarification.”
That call has been echoed by other hon. Members today, and I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify where the line is to be drawn and what our involvement with that strategy will be. Will he explain how the division of labour is to be determined and who will take responsibility for these matters? If we do not solve these problems now, the move from stage 3, which involves taking over three quarters of NATO’s responsibilities, will be threatened when we move into the final stage to take over all responsibility for co-ordination in Afghanistan.
Caveats have been mentioned, in which the Governments of countries providing NATO troops say that their troops cannot go into combat, for example. Too many countries are doing that and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said, many countries are limiting themselves simply to providing troops in non-combat roles. That is not good enough if we want Afghanistan to work as a nation.
I was impressed by what ISAF is doing. Unfortunately, the footprint that it is creating is extremely limited. It cannot cover the entire country. We have spent a lot of time focusing on Helmand, but it is only one of 30 provinces. The neighbouring province of Nimroz does not contain one international soldier. Where does a member of the Taliban go if things start to get hot in one province? Obviously, he moves next door to the other. Unless there is a larger commitment on the part of other NATO countries, we shall not be able to fulfil our mission.
The mission is likely to come under more question—not because of what we are doing with NATO but because of what is being done under the umbrella of security that we are creating in the reconstruction and development programmes. As I told the Minister during our debate in Westminster Hall yesterday or the day before, there is clearly no co-ordination between the myriad international organisations—the United Nations, the European Union, the non-governmental organisations, and all the counter-narcotics agencies that have gone into Afghanistan. Their hearts are in the right place, but unfortunately the money is being spent as those agencies compete with their overlapping projects, and the lack of co-ordination means that a great deal of money is wasted. Although more than $400 million has been spent on challenging the narcotics trade, last year saw the biggest bumper crop ever: 400,000 tonnes of poppies were produced. That shows that our international effort is failing, and unless we do something about it our mission in Afghanistan will be brought into question.
Our debate has been far reaching and useful, but there are many questions that I should like the Minister to answer. We have not really talked about the Sea Harriers, and the gap that will be created in air cover. We have not talked about the F-35 and the limitations imposed by the United States Government—or, to be fair, a corner of Capitol Hill—on the repair and upgrade of that project, which threatens our purchase of the joint strike fighter in the long term. We have not really touched on what will happen to the aircraft carriers, although there seems to be delay after delay with the announcements. We have not discussed the future rapid effect system. We have not even discussed the A400M, which was once called the future large aircraft, but now that it is so far in the future that we are not going to see it, that name has been dropped. We have certainly not discussed the NATO deterrent to the extent that the nation would wish.
The Minister mentioned policy and I was pleased to hear about some of it, but we could do with an entire debate on the overlap of the EU mission, from a military perspective, with what is happening with NATO. A clash will come, if it has not come already. We need a debate on the procurement of equipment in general. There are also concerns about the future, on a wider and more serious note—
I begin with a question that is not entirely rhetorical. Which Labour politician has described the Trident programme as
“unacceptably expensive, economically wasteful and militarily unsound.”—[Official Report, 19 June 1984 ; Vol. 62, c. 188.]?
Which Labour politician supported
“a Britain not aligned to any major power”
—and therefore presumably no longer a member of NATO? Was it the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), who believes in such things, and has for many years? Was it the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), or perhaps the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)? I have to say that it was none of those. It was, in fact, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Admittedly that was some years ago, at a time when we faced an extremely visible nuclear threat from the then Soviet Union. I am delighted to note that although the imminence of the threat has declined, appreciation of the issues—at least as far as the Chancellor is concerned—has clearly increased.
It is not every day of the week that defence features on the front pages of the newspapers. One would like to think that such an achievement would cause joy and rejoicing, and the ringing of bells in the Ministry of Defence.
A sinner has indeed repented. The only question is: what is the nature of the repentance? The headlines make that quite clear. The Daily Mail says “Brown pledges £25 billion to new Trident”. The Financial Times says “Brown in promise to replace Trident”. The Daily Telegraph headline is “Brown in favour of updating Trident”, while the headlines in The Times are “Brown ready to call the shots by replacing Trident missiles”, and “Britain to buy new nuclear deterrent”. The headline list would be incomplete without the trusty old Daily Mirror’s “Nukey Brown” and “Gordon: I will back £25bn A-bomb”.
The irrepressible Minister for the Armed Forces has claimed that the Chancellor said nothing new but was merely repeating what was in the Labour general election manifesto. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but nevertheless I detected a straw in the wind in the words that the Chancellor used last night. He talked about retaining our nuclear deterrent, but he also used the words
“in this Parliament, and the long term also”.
It is hard to see how the phrase “the long term also” could apply if he was talking only about retaining the present deterrent.
However, we do not have to rely on that exegesis, as The Guardian—which knows about these things—reports:
“Treasury sources made it clear that although Mr. Brown talked about retaining the nuclear deterrent rather than replacing it, the chancellor was giving his personal backing to a new generation of missiles.”
That is a clear answer to the question that my colleagues and I have asked Ministers on many occasions: are they talking only about retaining the existing deterrent, or about a decision to replace it?
If the Minister’s interpretation of the Chancellor’s comments is correct, why has the Chancellor not been rushing to the media today to say, “Chaps, sorry, you’ve got it all wrong. All those headlines are wrong, and I was merely saying what we’ve said all along—that we’re not going to scrap the weapons that we already have. I have no thought in my mind about replacement.”
The Prime Minister’s spokesman has been doing his best to clarify matters—not in respect of replacement, but on whether there will be a vote on the issue. Much to the satisfaction of people like the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen)—
I see that the hon. Gentleman is nodding enthusiastically, because the Opposition have ensured—even if we have to use one of our days—that hon. Members of all parties will have an opportunity to vote on the matter, whether the Government want that or not.
The Lobby briefing document states that, on Trident, the spokesman
“was asked whether any vote in the House of Commons would be a ‘straight yes/no vote’ or would there be a series of options. The spokesman said, ‘What the Prime Minister said yesterday, echoing what he has said before, is that there will be a proper discussion. ‘But would there be a vote?’ he was asked again. ‘There will be a proper discussion,’ he replied.”
Defence Ministers have said today that no decision has been taken, either in detail or in principle, but I believe that they are trying to plug the hole in the dam that the Chancellor has opened up. There is no real excuse for a delay in making a decision in principle. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State outlined with his customary elegance and eloquence exactly why there is a need for a nuclear deterrent in the 21st century. It hinges on one simple concept: the unpredictability of any outbreak of war in the future—and I think that I detect the Minister nodding in some form of agreement with that proposition.
However, we are talking about having a nuclear deterrent between 2020 and 2050. Given that the real justification for that is that we cannot anticipate what threats might materialise from countries armed with weapons of mass destruction, why delay deciding the question of principle? The principle will be unaffected in a year, six months or three months from now. If we are going to decide then that we need to keep a nuclear deterrent because of the unpredictability of future threats, we might as well as do so now. It is interesting that the Chancellor has decided on it now, even though the Secretary of State for Defence and his colleagues who are at least here today are still trying to pretend that he has not.
If I had to summarise the themes that have primarily emerged in the debate, I would say that they are three: Trident and the principles behind it; Afghanistan and the tactics involved in dealing with that issue; and Iraq and what is best described as the political will to win. I have already addressed the first of those issues, and I want to say a word or two about Afghanistan.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) mentioned in passing the practice of reading out at Prime Minister’s Question Time condolences for individual members of the armed forces who have lost their lives. That is honourably motivated, but it is worth remembering that it would have been quite impracticable in most of the wars that we have fought in the past, because there were many more casualties in those wars than are being incurred among British service personnel in the campaigns today.
In a strange way, therefore, the country has perhaps lost sight of the fact that when we engage in armed conflict, there are very heavy prices indeed to be paid. One of the reasons why the country has lost sight of that is that the longest war that we successfully fought and concluded in recent times was the 50 years of the cold war, and it ended without a shot being fired. All those countries that had been held under dictatorship and suppression were able to come out into the sunlight and pick up the reins of democratic practice. That was an exception to the rule of history, and we delude ourselves if we think that we can engage in conflicts, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, and expect that they will be as simple as that involved in substituting a democracy for a dictatorship.
We must look back to the successful counter-insurgency campaign—I have made this point from the Dispatch Box before—that was waged over 12 years in Malaya. That is how long it took. Whether that campaign, which has been widely taken as the model of winning hearts and minds, could be fought to a successful outcome today, with legalistic supervision and 24-hour media coverage, is open to question. As well as winning hearts and minds, the tactics involved were to send armed patrols out to find the enemy and eliminate them ruthlessly, while isolating them from the population at large.
I am relieved that the new Secretary of State for Defence seems to have consigned to the wastepaper bin the absolutely nonsensical description and distinction that his predecessor, whom I much admire—I make no secret of that, but I did not admire him for doing this—tried to draw between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. In any such campaign, if we wait for terrorists or insurgents to come to our armed forces before we react, we will lose. The only way in which such a campaign can succeed is to follow the aggressive strategy against the insurgents that is now being followed, and in which British forces are clearly engaged, whereby they are seeking out the enemy. As a commanding officer, Brigadier Nick Pope, has just said:
“We have put the terrorists on the back foot and seized the initiative.”
That is what must be done, and I welcome the fact that the politicians are catching up with the military—in so far as they are doing so.
I will come to Iraq in my final remarks, but I now wish to turn briefly to the contributions that hon. Members have made from the Back Benches. There were 10 of them—three from Government Back Benchers and seven from Opposition Back Benchers. All of the latter contributions were, for some reason, from Conservative Members, rather than from Members of the self-styled “real” Opposition: the Liberal Democrats.
The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead, to whom I have already referred a couple of times, made a consistent speech in which he talked thoughtfully about the dangers of failed states. He also made a remark that should give all of us pause for thought when, in speaking about the situation in Somalia, he said that one must not react intrinsically against any new Muslim administration without being absolutely certain that they intend to ally themselves with militant Islamism that is hostile to freedom. Such a group might be a potential enemy of that sort, but we must be very careful before we decide that; otherwise, we are playing the game of the terrorists and creating allies for them.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) is a living example of the value of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I am delighted to say that I am on my fourth incarnation in that scheme. I pay tribute to the patience and hospitality of the commandant at the Royal College of Defence Studies, Sir Ian Garnett, and his colleagues, in welcoming me and several other Members on to this year’s course. It is greatly to the credit of the hon. Gentleman that so soon in his parliamentary career, he decided to undertake the major commitment of doing the AFPS course. His contribution made clear the great benefit that he has derived from it.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) touched once again on his concerns about the decision to invade Iraq, but he was absolutely resolute on the vital importance of not reducing our military commitment in Afghanistan. He said that once we decide to go somewhere we must stay, and that sending signals about withdrawals and timetables would be the worst possible thing that could be done for the welfare and safety of our forces.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) made a very strong speech. She made a robust defence of the armed forces in Iraq and touched on the role of the media—an issue to which, if I have time, I shall return at the end. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who is Chairman of the Defence Committee, said that the Chancellor had repeated the Labour manifesto commitment on defence. He also raised the important issue of whether the Chancellor proposes to put his money where his mouth is, if he does indeed intend that the nuclear deterrent should be replaced, by funding it separately.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) asked a series of penetrating questions; I am glad that I do not have time to attempt to answer them all. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)—I was sorry not to be present when he made his speech—stressed, typically robustly, the need for senior officers to stand up for their troops.
My hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) illustrated something that is very true about life in this Chamber: when Members put aside their prepared speeches and speak from the heart about a topic that really excites and inspires them, they can hold the House in the palm of their hand. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) is a persistent campaigner on defence issues and—be it votes on Trident, roles for Typhoon or narcotics in Afghanistan—today was no exception.
My final point relates to the situation in Iraq, where a process of competing political will is being undertaken. I return, as I said I would, to the reference that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North made to the media. Over the 50 years of the cold war, we saw that political will was as important as actual military capability. The attempts that are being made in Iraq to break the political will of coalition forces are indeed being fuelled by selective media reports. There is an answer. The Government need a media strategy to ensure that propaganda from those who sympathise with the insurgents and the terrorists is matched by hard facts from the coalition forces, ably disseminated. I am not yet convinced that the Government have fully got their act together. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister can reassure me.
We have had a wide-ranging debate on defence policy. I point out to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) that we have indeed had a proper discussion, although I note that we shall not conclude it with a vote.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces introduced the debate by talking about aspects of our broader defence and security policy, including the defence industrial strategy, arms control and the role of international institutions. He set out future challenges and how we see our policy evolving to deal with them.
Many Members made great contributions to the debate and first out of the trap was the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who asked us to confirm which nations are currently posted in Helmand province. Denmark and Estonia are currently there.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about service accommodation in Colchester, but since he is not here, I will not give the House a detailed response. I am sure that he will catch me at some appropriate point so that I can fill him in on the detail.
My good and hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) distinguished himself, as ever, by standing out against the crowd. Nothing has really changed, in that he and I probably disagree on absolutely everything he said, except when he quoted President Karzai saying that we need to support the institutions of civic society in Afghanistan. President Karzai has also said we need to deal with narcotics and terrorism, which are the biggest threats to those civic institutions, a theme echoed in the considered contribution of the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot).
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) has distinguished himself by making a big impact in the House in just 12 months. He talked about the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Like others, his experience on the scheme has clearly given him an idea of the front-line issues that our forces face. Tribute was paid to Sir Neil Thorne and we would all agree he does an excellent job in administering both the armed forces and the police schemes. When I completed the police scheme, I gained some understanding of the pressures gone through by people on the front line in the forces and the police. So much of what they do involves split-second decisions, and we can understand that mistakes are made. The schemes assist all Members, particularly those with civilian backgrounds, on the common problems faced by our three services.
My hon. Friend also talked about improvements in our service people’s kit. I was pleasantly surprised to visit Chilwell last week, where we prepare our reservists for mobilisation. The difference over even the last five years in the kit with which they are issued is remarkable. It would be a great fashion item in West Bromwich high street—the services need to keep an eye on where the stuff goes—because it is so well designed now, not just to be practical but to be quite fashionable.
The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) made his usual wise contribution. Much of what he said about what we have to do in Afghanistan was endorsed by many Members. He made a point about the Ministry of Defence having no friends, but I am not quite sure that was the case in the debate, although the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) probably has no friends left at the MOD—
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s comments have been heard.
The contributions of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea must always be observed. He has many protégées, one of whom is standing for election in Blaenau Gwent today. I know he would want me to remind him of her views on Trident. She has expressed great concern about the future of Trident and about the wisdom of our current campaign in Iraq. I guess those points have to be made on a Thursday.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) asked about the introduction of Lynx helicopters. I can tell him that 40 will be introduced for the Army in 2014 and 30 for the Navy in 2015.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving the House that information. Can he confirm the following point—if he cannot do so immediately, I am sure that his right hon. Friend the Minister of State will be able to assist him? Before the delivery of the new helicopters, will the current fleet of Royal Navy Lynxes be upgraded in the meantime, because they are seriously overworked? [Interruption.]
I think that I heard the word “knackered”. We need to deal with the situation as best we can.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) talked movingly about her recent visit to Iraq and stood up for the Navy in Portsmouth. I am sure that all serving personnel in Portsmouth will have been gratified by her words. Members of the Navy can turn their hand to anything. They are not only deployed on current operations but deal with hurricane relief and do important counter-narcotics work in the Caribbean, which I am told is a particularly attractive posting.
My hon. Friend also stood up for her mechanics. A key challenge of my defence brief is to make sure that our serving personnel, who have great skills and are trained to do remarkable things, almost day in, day out, can transfer those skills to civilian life. Sometimes, however, we cannot commoditise those skills into the certificates needed for particular jobs. She raised a good point about the mechanics and I invite her to talk to me about it to see if we can apply some clarity to the situation.
Our service personnel are extremely employable. I was amazed to read that 95 per cent. of them find jobs within six months of leaving the services. Our challenge is to make sure that the remaining 5 per cent. have as much support as possible.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) put a large number of questions, so I hope he will allow me to canter through just some of them. He talked about harmony and pinch points. Over the last year, the number of regular armed forces deployed on operations has fallen to about 18 per cent., but there are pinch points and we are trying to deal with them. We are trying to target recruitment in particular areas, and we are looking at financial retention and re-engagementincentives, flexibility in the rank employed for some posts and how we mobilise reservists, as well as some contractualisation.
The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire made a characteristically wise and assured contribution. He raised many wise points. I look forward to his report on strategic nuclear defence next Friday. If it has already gone to the printers, I wonder whether there will be any addendums. I was delighted that he is delighted with the Chancellor’s commitment reported in the press today. I shall be joining the Chancellor at a veterans event this evening and I will make forcefully the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the need for adequate resources to cover the demands. I am sure that, given the Chancellor’s recent pronouncements, he will want to listen to the Chairman of the Defence Committee with great interest. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Vector vehicle. It is not planned to be available until next March, but it is planned to be deployed with 12 Mechanised Brigade.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) fired off 30 or 40 points that the MOD should be considering over the next few years. It was a powerful contribution. He raised some serious questions that the UK will have to address in future years. In particular, there were his ideas for a department of military planning, the question of whether we are best served by three intelligence services and, perhaps most controversially in the Department, the question of whether we need three services. He commented that someone had suggested that we should abolish the RAF. There are no plans to do that—
I know that the hon. Gentleman did not say that we should abolish the RAF. He said that someone else had said it. There is a point about how we deal with some of the service issues on a tri-service basis. One of the key challenges that we will have to take on in the next few years is to how we train our personnel. The defence training review will look at how we can provide basic training and specialist training on a tri-service basis.
The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) made an uncharacteristically unfair contribution, although a characteristically robust one. I expect nothing less of a revered Whip. The position that he holds in the Whips Office suggests that perhaps he should engage a little less with such allegations. The comment that he made about the Deputy Prime Minister when the Deputy Prime Minister was not in the Chamber was simply disgraceful, particularly given that he had to apologise to General Jackson for a previous allegation that he made.
What I said earlier was not an allegation; it was a statement of fact and I can back it up with witnesses. If the Deputy Prime Minister wishes to say—as he has—that all soldiers are boneheads, that is a substantial accusation that he should answer. That should not result in an accusation against me for stating a fact.
The hon. Gentleman has made that allegation twice and the Deputy Prime Minister is not here to defend himself—[Interruption.] He is not here to defend himself. Given that the hon. Gentleman is an Opposition deputy Chief Whip, I thought that the comments that he made on the Chiefs of the Defence Staff were frankly outrageous. I am sure that they do not reflect the view of Opposition Front-Bench Members.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) spoke up for his constituents in his usual way. He spoke honestly and movingly about their views. He made a particular point about our Polish veterans and I was pleased that he did, because I come from Kidderminster, which is not too far away from his constituency and has a strong Polish community. Many members of that community served in the war and have a distinguished record. I am glad that he has given me the opportunity to get my thanks to them on the record. I am going to come out with a world first and praise a Liberal councillor, Mike Oborski, who has been a powerful advocate for Polish veterans over many decades. I glad that we can recognise the work that he does in Kidderminster and in England.
He is not actually a Liberal Democrat. He is a Liberal—just to reassure those on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench—who was formerly a Liberal Democrat.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the Territorial Army and said that it was in crisis. I do not want to spend too much time focusing on the TA. There is a debate in two weeks’ time on personnel issues and perhaps we can explore the matter in more detail then. The TA has undergone great change in recent years. The Duke of Westminster, whom I did not know before I was appointed to my post, is a really inspiring leader for the organisation. He is literally thinking some unthinkable thoughts about how we can take on some of the challenges that the TA faces in the years to come.
The speech made by the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) reminded me of England’s first game in the World cup, albeit in reverse, in that the second half was inspirational. He made powerful points and held the attention of the House, especially when he spoke about Saddam Hussein and the way in which he treated his people and the people of Israel. The hon. Gentleman made the point that if Iraq is a better place when we leave than it was when we went in, our job will have been done. I think that we can all agree on that.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) made a wide-ranging contribution and I shall try to capture all his comments if I can. I take his point about the need for the Typhoon aircraft to have an air-to-ground capability. The redesign is taking place, although we have to work with our partners to get that done as quickly as possible.
Like several hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman talked about the need to win the propaganda war in Afghanistan. I absolutely agree with him. We need to ensure that our outreach programmes in Helmand province are right and that they have an Afghan front-facing approach.
I was not so much talking about the propaganda war—perhaps another hon. Member mentioned that—but trying to point out that there is no co-ordination on infrastructure, rebuilding and development. There is a call for an administrator to govern all that and oversee the money that comes in.
We need to build up ties with the leadership of the provincial government there, so I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about how the counter-narcotics operation will be conducted. Several hon. Members touched on the need to get that operation right, because if we get it wrong, the area will become more insecure than secure. If the operation is going to be right, it will need an Afghan lead. We must be careful about the way in which we implement the strategy, as many hon. Members said.
When I quoted Stop the War as saying that a death occurs every hour in Basra, the Minister intervened to ask where it got its figures—he was casting aspersions on Stop the War with that comment. I have looked it up. The information came from an article in The Independent of 17 May by Patrick Cockburn, who was in Arbil, which said:
“Majid al-Sari, an adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, describing the situation in Basra to the daily al-Zaman, said that on average one person was being assassinated every hour.”
Will my hon. Friend apologise to Stop the War?
When I intervened on my hon. Friend, I simply knew that he would leave the Chamber and spend night and day trying to find the source of the quote. However, he will know that it is almost impossible that I am going to apologise to Stop the War, given the campaign that it is running to undermine our British forces abroad. Its behaviour undermines confidence in our services, so I will not take up his offer to apologise on this occasion.
In closing the debate, I want to make two points, although I will have to cut them down. First, we need to ensure that our people, who do a magnificent job, are properly looked after. Secondly, we need to ensure that they have the equipment that they need to do the difficult and dangerous things that we ask of them. Our success depends above all else on our personnel. I am sure that hon. Members will wish to join me in once again paying tribute to the courage and professionalism of the men and women of our armed forces—both regulars and reserves. Those extraordinary people are doing extraordinary things in the most challenging circumstances. They are making a unique and valuable contribution to help to bring peace and security to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the world. I know that our debate will have reassured them that we have their best interests at heart and are all working to ensure that they have the finest support from the British Parliament.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.