[Relevant documents: The Fifth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2005-06, on the UK deployment to Afghanistan, HC 558, and the Government’s response thereto (Sixth Special Report, Session 2005-06, HC 1211), and the Thirteenth Report, Session 2005-06, on UK Operations in Iraq, HC 1241, and the Government’s response thereto (Twelfth Special Report, Session 2005-06, HC 1603).]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]
I am grateful for the opportunity to open this important debate on defence in the world. Let me start by paying tribute to the work of the UK armed forces, the Ministry of Defence’s civilian staff, members of other Departments and members of the services, including the police and the Prison Service, who are deployed around the world, working in difficult, often arduous circumstances, defending our interests and security. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.
Rarely in recent years have we had demonstrated so clearly the role that our armed forces play in the world. Right now more than 20,000 personnel are overseas working in the defence of the UK, its people and its interests. We are undertaking two major campaigns and a host of other tasks to deliver security, enable development and reconstruction, build confidence and strengthen the security capacity of our friends and allies. Nowhere are those aims more relevant, or the challenges to them more pronounced, than in Iraq. I was there yesterday—my fourth trip in the nine months that I have been in this job. As ever, I was immensely proud of the work that all our people are doing there, both civilian and military, working together to improve the life of the Iraqi people.
The 12 million Iraqis who voted for peace and opportunity remain resolute in the face of far too many days marred by sectarian murder and terrorist atrocities. The politicians who represent those people tell me that Iraq is making progress—frustratingly slow perhaps, but outside Baghdad and the surrounding areas the situation is far from the hopelessness that is often played out on our TV screens, although it is understandable that those incidents of violence attract the attention of our media. That is not to say that all is well. Security is still the No. 1 problem, but perhaps what people back here in the UK do not realise is that 80 per cent. of the violence is concentrated within 30 miles of Baghdad. That is why I have welcomed the US and Iraqi Governments’ new plan for Baghdad without any sense that it is inconsistent with our approach. The security situation there demands it, whereas in the south the environment is different.
I met Prime Minister Maliki and a number of Ministers from across the Iraqi Government and discussed the new Baghdad security plan with them. Their energy and commitment to making the plan work was both impressive and, to some degree, inspiring. They are behind the plan, and they tell me that the people are behind the plan, but it is up to them to make it work. It has to be an Iraqi-led plan, using significant Iraqi resources, if it is to succeed. While the US is putting in more troops to help support the plan, the Iraqi army is increasing its presence in the city and will be right beside them. In addition, the Iraqi Government are investing $10 billion in reconstruction and infrastructure projects. The investment is crucial because, as I have said so often about Iraq and Afghanistan, the answers are never purely about what the military can do. That is why this plan has to be a plan for all Iraqis, Sunni and Shi’a alike. Consequently, I welcome Prime Minister Maliki’s pledge that sectarian interference will not be tolerated.
I was in Baghdad during the festival of Ashurah and met Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who told me that that morning he had been to speak at a celebration of the festival in a part of the city where a Sunni shrine and a Shi’a shrine are close together. He told me with some pride that thousands of people from both sides of the sectarian divide had gathered to celebrate without signs of trouble. He is a very devout man and has witnessed many festivals of that kind, albeit all too few when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, but it was clear to me that the experience had moved him.
In recent days there has been talk of a split between us and our American allies. That is simply not true. I met several of the top US generals in Baghdad, along with Ambassador Khalilzad. Our goals—the UK goals and the US goals—remain the same: to help the Iraqis build the capacity to protect and govern their society. But Baghdad and Basra are different places. There is less violence in Basra and, by and large, the violence is of a different nature, without the poisonous sectarianism that infects Baghdad.
Operation Sinbad is drawing to a close in Basra. It has had some measurable effects, and public support for the operation is good and reported violence is down markedly. That is not just a glib assessment. I spoke to young soldiers who told me of the measurable difference in the attitude of the people. They are responding to our support and take comfort in knowing that we are prepared to take on the murderous militia, much of which we believe is funded, trained and equipped by Iranian elements.
I agree with all that the Secretary of State has said so far. However, did he not find it alarming that the remarks of the United States ambassador created the impression that there was insufficient communication between the United States and the United Kingdom on whether the UK should gradually withdraw its forces and hand over control to the Iraqis?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. I know that it comes from a substantial knowledge base of what is going on in Iraq. I admit that I was disturbed by the interpretation of the part of the interview with Ambassador Khalilzad that was extensively reported in the UK. I was less concerned when I read the whole interview, and I was entirely reassured when I had the opportunity to spend time with the ambassador and to satisfy myself that he fully understood what we were doing. Indeed, he had been part of a process of discussion over many months about the application of our strategy for Basra. Part of the problem may be that there is sometimes a tendency to abstract parts of sentences or whole sentences from extensive interviews and to over-interpret them. In essence, the problem arose because Ambassador Khalilzad honestly conceded that there was not agreement on the detail of the plan at that point in the discussions. That was interpreted as being disagreement when it was just an indication that discussions were ongoing.
The right hon. Gentleman will probably already know that very senior officers are embedded deeply into the command of all the coalition forces throughout Iraq. They are greatly valued, not just by our American allies but by the Iraqi Government, and they play a significant role. When I was in Iraq General Lamb, the senior British military representative in Iraq and currently No. 2 to General Casey, was in charge of the coalition forces. He was the commando because General Casey was out of the country. Against that background, the idea that there was no discussion and conversation between us and our allies about our operational plans is fanciful. Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman and the House by saying that over-interpretation of one part of a very detailed interview may have misled us all for a short time.
At the start of Operation Sinbad our forces were leading the way, but by the final stages the Iraqi army was out in the lead. That is a sign of progress. It is not a guarantee of success, but it is progress that the people of Basra can see. As well as the improvement in the security situation, thousands of jobs have been created through investment in both short and long-term projects. For example, $12 million has been invested in date palm farming, and Operation Sinbad has created about 25,000 short-term jobs along with the hope of more than 3,000 permanent jobs. More than $30 million has been invested in the improvement of water and electricity supplies. The operation has concentrated on the “last mile”, conveying those vital services to people’s homes and schools. When, in due course, that work is married up with the long-term investment that the Department for International Development has been responsible for making and overseeing in Basra’s water and electricity infrastructure, the benefits will be delivered to homes, schools and other buildings. So things are getting better.
The Staffords—as the Staffordshire Regiment is known—are on their second tour of duty in Basra, and the thoughts of Staffordshire people are with them. We wish them a safe return home. My right hon. Friend has mentioned Operation Sinbad several times. The next major review of our troop levels in Iraq will take place after it has finished. Will my right hon. Friend give us a rough idea of when it will finish and how long the review will take?
When I was in Basra I met the Staffords, and no words are good enough for me to describe my pride in the work that those young people are doing in very difficult circumstances. But—I ask my hon. Friend to convey this to their families and others in his constituency—their morale is high, and they are very proud of the work that they do. They tell me repeatedly, “This is what we are trained to do.” They know that they are the best in the world at doing it, and they are right: they should do their work with pride because they are brave and professional. Of course, their families will want to know when those young people will be coming home. Our wish is that they come home safe. I shall say something about the dangers that they are facing, because I think it appropriate for us to be candid about the difficulties that they face as well as the good work that they do. There will be the normal roulement, and of course they will come home.
My hon. Friend asked me specifically when we will have reviewed and assessed our troop strength following Operation Sinbad. We are involved in the process at the moment. Part of the purpose of my visit at this time was to assess, in the later stages of the operation, its effect and the difference it has made, as far as that is measurable. I do not think my hon. Friend or the House will have very much longer to wait, but I ask Members to be patient. I would rather not give a specific date at this stage, because we are assessing conditions rather than anticipating an event.
Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the confidence of the Iraqi people in their own defence forces has some longevity, and will remain after United Kingdom forces pull out of Basra? Is he sure that they believe in the integrity and honesty of those forces? Might the only reason that they have confidence in them now be that a substantial number of United Kingdom forces are there to police their activities? Is the Secretary of State concerned about what will happen between the public in Iraq and their armed forces once we leave?
The complexity of the hon. Gentleman’s question is betrayed by the time that he took to ask it. It is difficult for me to give a specific answer, but if he will be patient I will say something about the Iraqi security forces and will try to give him an idea of the improvement that I think is taking place. However, the short answer to his question is that it depends on who is asking—as in every environment—and it depends on which forces are being asked about. Some people have confidence in the Iraqi army; some people have confidence in the Iraqi police. One of the problems with trying to test opinion, as we do in that country, is that people tend to be optimistic. When they are asked the simple question, “Are you confident that your own forces can deal with these issues?”, a large number will reply that they are, which is partly an expression of desire rather than of real confidence.
There are still difficulties. Progress is being made, but it is difficult progress in difficult circumstances. We must be honest and candid. There comes a point at which we must transfer responsibility to the troops so that they take it and learn from it when they are in the lead or on their own, as they were in the later stages of Operation Sinbad. As I have said, things are getting better, but they have not yet reached the point at which conditions will be right for transition. Local governance must be strengthened further and the security situation needs a great deal more improvement. While it is encouraging that the Iraqi army has been able to take the lead in Operation Sinbad, we must remember that it is a very new and very raw army that still has much to learn. Our military training teams are doing fantastic work, as I saw with my own eyes. They tell me that there is a problem with absenteeism and discipline, but they also say that every day that they spend training the Iraqi army they see improvement, and every day the army becomes stronger and better trained than the day before. Our troops tell me that they believe that training is one of the most crucial things that they are doing in Iraq, and that it will help the country’s future.
As many Members will know—some have also been to Iraq—we have much to do to improve the Iraqi police, and in particular to reduce corruption.
There is no doubt that there has been infiltration of the police force by militia elements in the south-east of Iraq. That is why an important part of Operation Sinbad, as we moved across the city, was to concentrate on attempting to clear out those elements police station by police station. Only two days ago, I spoke at some length to the head of the police training team, an assistant chief constable by the name of Dick Barton. [Laughter.] I do not find anything amusing in that. It is the man’s name, and he does a sterling job.
Mr. Barton certainly has special talents. I have engaged with him on my visits, and I now have significant confidence in his assessment. He made an interesting observation to me about—this will be counter-intuitive to most Members—the value of the involvement of one lawyer in improving the rule of law in Basra. Police officers probably do not do this often, but he was effusive in his compliments for the contribution that that lawyer had made in putting backbone into the judicial and prosecution processes. Perhaps as a result of my professional background, that chimed with my view that building up the justice system and the rule of law is crucial to our ability to make, in particular, the police forces effective.
I have digressed, but I shall now address the specific question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham). He wanted to know about the level of infiltration. That was high, but the assessment of the very experienced police officer I mentioned was that currently 90 per cent. of the police are good officers who are willing to serve the people of Basra and Iraq, although he also said that 10 per cent. of the police still needed to be dealt with.
Our police teams have been systematically visiting police stations, helping to bring them up to scratch. There has been significant improvement. It must be said that on Christmas day we disbanded the notorious serious crimes unit in Basra, which was the most corrupt part of the police and was at the heart of the death squads. We demolished the police station as a physical and visible sign to the people of Basra that that unit had gone. There has been significant progress—it has been difficult to achieve, but we are moving in the right direction. However, as I always say, there is still a long way to go.
I agree that between 80 per cent. and 90 per cent. of those in the police force and military want a safe and secure Iraq, but is the Secretary of State aware of a Pentagon report that states that about 80 per cent. of the make-up of both the police and the military are former Ba’ath party members? Does he concede that it was a mistake to disband the Ba’ath party in the way that was done after the invasion, not least because that got rid of not only good police officers and soldiers, but 80,000 teachers and 80,000 doctors?
Anyone who knows anything about Iraq knows that the de-Ba’athification process has been retrospectively regretted for its zealousness. There is an ongoing process with the Iraqi Government in respect of how that process can be tempered, or how people who have significant talents—particularly those with deployable skills that are necessary for Iraq in the future—can return to public life. However, we should not underestimate how difficult that is for a substantial number of the people of Iraq. We should thank God every day that we did not have to live through the process that many Shi’a people had to live through. It is difficult in such circumstances to get the balance right, and we should understand that and not be so quick to judge some of the errors that were made. However, the hon. Gentleman is entirely correct that part of the consequence of de-Ba’athification and of how it was carried out was that it took out of public life people who were capable of making a positive contribution. Getting the right balance on that through the process of reconciliation is one of the great challenges that the Iraqi Government face. We need to support them through that, and we are doing so in the best way that we can.
Hon. Members might be interested to learn that some of the people who have knowledge of our experience over the past 10 or 15 years in Northern Ireland have been going out to Iraq to speak to Iraqi politicians—and in particular to Ministers and Prime Minister Maliki—about the lessons that we have learned from the processes of reconciliation in which we have been involved. The Iraqis have expressed gratitude to me specifically for the information that they gleaned from those meetings.
I said last year that we would be in a position to draw down a substantial number of troops this year, and I am confident that that remains the case. We are in the process of looking at reposturing our forces in Basra to reflect the shift away from taking the front-line security lead and towards strengthening the Iraqi security forces. An announcement will be made in due course, when we have worked through the detail of the plans. However, I say now that draw-down does not mean that we are leaving Iraq and under no circumstances should be interpreted as such.
Finally, I wish to comment on the increasing threat to our bases from indirect fire, principally rockets and mortars. I discussed that with commanders in Basra on Tuesday. The increase in indirect fire is a worrying trend. The threat is becoming more sophisticated and dangerous, and the links to Iran and Hezbollah are more evident. Our forces are not standing idly by as the threat develops—they are taking steps to deal with it by targeting the terrorists through intelligence-led operations, and with some success. We are also always looking to strengthen our defensive measures, but Members will understand that for reasons of operational security I am not in a position to say much more than that on the subject, other than to assure the House that we take it very seriously and that we acknowledge the risk our brave men and women face.
I do not want what I am about to say to be misinterpreted, but I am not going to give specific and hard assurances on such matters at the Dispatch Box. I will need to take advice as circumstances develop. We are in a coalition and we do not depend for air cover entirely on the Tornadoes, but the Tornadoes provide a very important element of our air cover, and they are in demand not only by our troops but on occasions by others because of the Tornado crews’ abilities and skills. I cannot currently envisage a situation arising such as that which my hon. Friend describes—that the Tornados will not be there when our troops are in Iraq. However, circumstances change and we will need to continue to look at the changing circumstances.
My answer to my hon. Friend’s question also depends on what he means when he refers to our troops in Iraq, because in future we might well be in a long-term relationship with the Iraqi Government and in a much more benign environment than is currently the case.
Can I take the Secretary of State back to his point about the seriousness of the attacks on our bases? As he will be aware, there is a system called the Mamba which is able to track incoming mortars and provide an accurate fix on their source. Can he reassure us that sufficient such devices are available to our armed forces in Basra to ensure that we have the maximum protection?
That question deserves an answer, but I am not currently in a position to give the hon. Gentleman a specific answer to it. However, I will write to him and make sure that the House knows the answer. Let me reassure him that this matter is at the top of commanders’ priorities—as the hon. Gentleman can imagine, as he knows about these particular circumstances. We are looking in detail at this matter to ensure that we are doing everything that we can to protect our forces. I should add that, clearly, the best thing that we can do to protect our forces is to deal with the threat where it arises, rather than with the consequences of it. However, I will write to the hon. Gentleman on the specific point he raises.
Can I mention an issue that I might need to find a way of dealing with? I am keen for Members to get specific answers to the questions they ask when they are legitimate questions to ask, but we must also be careful that we do not put into the public domain information that the enemy can take advantage of. Drawing a line between my inclination to be candid and straightforward and putting information into the public domain that jeopardises operational security has to be considered. We might need to find a way of properly dealing with this issue.
The Prime Minister has said several times that we all want to get the troops out of Iraq as soon as we can but that that can take place only after we have handed over responsibility for security to the Iraqis. Do the Government still anticipate that the remaining provinces will be handed over this spring, and can the Secretary of State give, in broad terms, an indication of what British troops will continue to do in Iraq after that has happened?
The process of handing over, or provincial Iraqi control as it is known—or PIC as it is known to those who love to use only the first letters of words, as the military do—is a condition-based process. We are only one of several parties who are involved in making the decision on that. Part of that process is that the Iraqi Government must not only have a willingness to take over control, but be in a position to do so.
The point about our troops in Multi-National Division (South-East) is that we are making progress along the strategic path that we have set and we are not deviating from it, which means that in the near future, we will be in a position to re-posture our troops. Exactly how we do that will depend on the commanders’ advice on the ground as to what the specific operational plan should be. That will then affect the number of troops that we need, because protecting static bases is more expensive in terms of troops and manpower than collecting people together. However, there is of course a consideration as to whether collecting people together in that environment makes them more vulnerable, and as to how we can protect them there. All those matters have to be decided by operational commanders.
The intention is to get to the point where we can hand over control not just to the Iraqi security forces, but to their local government and politicians, so that they can run that part of the country independently of us and we can adopt a posture of over-watch. We will do, for example, what the Australians do in Dhi Qar and al-Muthanna, the two provinces that have been handed over: stand by, ready to go to the assistance of the local security forces, if necessary. Interestingly, in both those provinces the political situation and the security situation have remained stable. Although there have been incidents, on both occasions it was possible for local politicians and security forces to deal with them. They did so in a perhaps more Iraqi way than we would have, but through a mixture of exactly the same factors as we would use in dealing with disturbances on the streets in any of our communities. In other words, the local political leadership and the security forces— the police, or others—deal with them and try to calm the situation. That is the position that we are trying to reach. I hope that that has been of assistance to the hon. Gentleman. Some people become obsessed with the specifics of the assessment, but in our view we remain on course. However, we have to make sure that the conditions are right and that everybody is able to move at the same pace with us along this route.
In Afghanistan, the challenges are different and the environment is different, but many of the basic principles are the same. We cannot succeed by military force alone, but at the same time, progress is impossible without basic stability and security. As a result of our efforts, basic security is improving but it is still under threat. In one of the world’s poorest countries, where development is desperately required, the Taliban stand in the way, callously indifferent to the interests of the local people.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way; he is being very generous. He is absolutely right to say that progress has been made in Afghanistan in recent months. Part of that progress is down to the strong leadership offered by international security assistance force IX, the headquarters, led by General Richards, which is changing over. Is the Secretary of State aware, however, of the genuine concern that, as we move to ISAF X, there is a complete lack of capacity and that many of the systems being put in place will be lost? Can he confirm that a trawl is being made of British staff officers who are likely to deploy in April to bolster ISAF X?
The hon. Gentleman, who served in Afghanistan and made a contribution to the improvement there, obviously knows what he is talking about. He will have noticed that I made a written statement today about the normal roulement of the forces in Afghanistan, and he will see from it that we intend to make a contribution to the replacement for the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps, which will be led by General McNeil. So the hon. Gentleman is correct in suggesting that we will make a contribution, and we will of course look for officers with the talent to do so. As he knows, providing such leadership is one of the great contributions that we can make. It is very highly valued and sought after by our NATO allies—and, indeed, beyond that, across the world. Everywhere I go, Ministers of Defence ask me whether their officers can train with ours in our officer training system in the United Kingdom. We should be proud that we are able to do that. That we can give our senior officers the opportunity to show their expertise and to make that contribution internationally is an enormous positive. I see no reluctance to go among those who are candidates for such jobs; indeed, some who have done so ask me whether they can stay longer than was planned.
It is precisely because of Afghanistan’s clear and overwhelming humanitarian need that the international community is united in its support. That unity, embodied by NATO’s military presence, has delivered real change in the last five years, and I make no apology for restating that. Not only is that point often lost in the urgency of immediate events; it is also the clearest demonstration of the role of defence in the world that I could hope to give.
In the past five years, the terrorist training camps have gone and in their place is a democratically elected Government. Of course, we can find criticisms of that Government, but we should be honest with ourselves about where they have come from and the circumstances of that country; we sometimes set an unrealistic standard against which to examine them. Education is spreading. Some 6 million children are in school, and more than 13,000 primary and secondary schools have been reconstructed. School enrolment has quadrupled. The schools are full of girls, and women are able to teach once again. New health clinics are opening and vaccination programmes are saving lives. Most importantly, according to the UN, nearly 5 million refugees have returned home, believing that their country has a future.
That future now hinges of the fate of the south and east. It is here that the struggle with the Taliban is being played out, and where the needs of the Afghan people are most acute. If we can support the Government in extending their influence into these previously lawless areas, build the capacity of the Afghan security forces and deliver demonstrable progress to the local people, the Taliban’s complete lack of any positive alternative vision for the future will be exposed. Only then will they finally and completely be rejected.
I will, but after that it is probably time that I exercised a little discipline regarding giving way; otherwise, I shall start biting into the time available for Back Benchers.
The Secretary of State has outlined the achievements and we commend them, but the poppy crop has not decreased; in fact, it has increased. The United States announced last week that it is committing another $10 billion to military and development support in Afghanistan. The Secretary of State for International Development has estimated the poppy crop to be worth some $600 million. Could we perhaps be a bit cleverer and seek to withdraw the poppies from the market by spending on this issue just a small proportion of what we are prepared to commit militarily?
I assume that the hon. Gentleman is saying in an indirect way that we should buy the crop.
I have read about recommendations of this nature from a number of sources, including from people who have extensive experience in dealing with these issues. If I thought that that was a solution to the problem and was persuaded by the argument, I would readily agree. It seems such a simple thing to do, but the flaw in that proposal is that we could never be assured, in a country that lacks basic administration, that we were not simply encouraging the doubling of the crop. Until we can get an administration in place that can assure us that we are not, by putting more money into poppies, simply saying to the farmers, “You can grow some for us, but you can continue to grow them for the dealers, as well, and make twice as much money,” I would not be prepared to spend money in that way.
We have to recognise that dealing with narcotics in such an environment requires us to put in place the basic parts of the rest of our drugs plan. We need to improve the ability to administer these regions. We need a justice system—an issue that I was talking about earlier, but in a different context—that works. We need police forces, particularly anti-narcotics forces, who can arrest people—the key middle-ground people—in the confidence that those people will go into the justice system and stay in it. Once a basic administration is established and the pressure on, and intimidation of, the peasant farmer is relieved, it will then be possible to adopt some of the more sophisticated approaches. However, until then, we need to concentrate on building up the basic parts of the infrastructure that are needed. Having said that, this is a very serious problem. The crop that is currently planted in Helmand and in the south of the country was planted and in the ground before we got there.
One does not have to disagree with the Secretary of State’s response—that it is not only a simple solution that is required—in order to state nevertheless that there is no excuse for pursuing the strategy, to which the US State Department seems wedded, of actively destroying, suppressing and even spraying the crops from the air, at a time when the basic principle of counter-insurgency means that we should be doing everything that we can to divide the insurgents from as much of the population as possible, not creating a natural alliance between the insurgents and the one eighth of the population who depend on the crop.
I know that many hon. Members—and the hon. Gentleman is one of them—know and understand the component elements of this issue well, and they know the detrimental effect that precipitate anti-narcotics action could have on a broader anti-insurgency strategy. We should not underestimate the intelligence of the US, which also knows and understands those points. There is no expectation that aerial spraying of the crop will take place. Indeed, all the analysis of the risk associated with various methods has been done, and in the end the people who will make the decisions on how to proceed are the Government of Afghanistan.
I know of no plans for aerial eradication. Indeed, I know of no plans for ground spraying in Helmand province either. However, that does not alter the fact that with the support of the governor, using the structures that we have in place and recognising that we need to find an alternative livelihood for the people whose crops we destroy, we need to begin to address the issue of narcotics. We need to send the message that a narcotics-based economy is not the future for Afghanistan. It is a delicate balance, but we take into account all the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentions.
The Secretary of State will be aware that I take an interest in this issue and have pressed for action along the lines that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) mentioned. The Secretary of State will also be aware that a third of the world’s opium production comes from Helmand province, the very area in which we are trying to work. He will also know that the UK has G8 responsibility for the counter-narcotics strategy and he may be aware that the Afghan Parliament has passed a statute that allows the licensed production of poppy crops. I have evidence from a parliamentary written answer that we have a shortage of diamorphine in this country. It is not rocket science to work out that Afghanistan, which is the fourth poorest country in the world and is unable to get off its knees—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall try to exercise some discipline, too, by not taking interventions.
All the points that the hon. Gentleman makes are factually correct and I accept them. I do not dismiss his suggestion out of hand, but given our inability at the moment to ensure a level of administration in Helmand province that would prevent the farmers from simply doubling the crop, the balance of the argument comes down in my favour. But that does not mean that in the future, when we are in a position to do so, we will not look at some of those suggestions.
The most important thing that we can do is prevent opium production becoming the economy of the country, whoever is buying it. We have to get the pariahs off the backs of the peasant farmers. By the pariahs I mean those who demand that the farmers grow the crop and use extreme violence against them if they are not prepared to do so. We need a system of justice that prevents such people from behaving in that way with impunity in those communities. Diverting our attention to another issue when we should be using our resources to achieve that is, arguably, the wrong thing to do, but we can continue to have the debate and there are valid arguments on both sides.
It is only by securing the south and east against the Taliban that we will safeguard the wider progress already made in Kabul, the north and the west. It is for that reason that we took on this difficult task alongside the Americans, the Canadians, Dutch, Danes, Romanians, Australians and Estonians. We knew that it would be tough and so it proved to be. But we also knew we had the robust, professional armed forces that could deliver in that environment. Over the summer they faced down the Taliban, beating them in every tactical engagement. They released the Taliban stranglehold on many parts of Helmand province and allowed us to begin the vital tasks of reconstruction and building local capacity. Over the winter they have continued to keep the Taliban on the back foot.
The work done in Kajaki exemplifies that. The Royal Marines have been taking on Taliban forces around the Kajaki dam, which has the potential to deliver power to much of Helmand’s population. They have challenged the Taliban’s control of the surrounding area and have cleared the cave complexes they previously used as a base. In doing so, they have started to open the way for reconstruction work to take place to renovate the dam. That will be a long-term task, but it serves to illustrate the connection between security and development. I urge hon. Members to bear in mind examples like that, and many others, when they are tempted to question whether our mission is really one of reconstruction.
There is, however, a long way to go in Afghanistan, and particularly in the south. The Taliban have been knocked back but they are not finished. Even now the Royal Marines are keeping them under constant pressure, keeping them off balance, to protect the reconstruction taking place in Lashkar Gah and elsewhere. Hon. Members will, I am sure, have seen and read the stories of their bravery in recent weeks.
The task is not ours alone, but one that belongs to NATO and to the international community as a whole. In Seville next week, I will continue to press this point on our alliance partners. I will emphasise that the UK is playing its part, as NATO’s second largest contributor in Afghanistan after the US. Earlier today, I issued a statement confirming our continued commitment, with the roulement of forces in April and the extension until 2009 of key capabilities such as Harrier, Apache and the Royal Engineers. As ever, we will keep our forces under review, but the next step is to push NATO as a whole to review its force levels and force generation, which I will be doing in Seville. I will keep the House informed of progress and any implications for the UK’s own force structures.
Afghanistan has illustrated in the boldest terms the need for flexible, expeditionary armed forces. We have one of the few forces in the world that has a balance of sheer military capability, immense operational experience, and flexibility across a range of roles. Even so, no one tells me more regularly than military commanders that success in many of the operations that we undertake cannot be delivered by force of arms alone. There is absolute recognition of the need for a comprehensive approach, one that combines all levers of power—economic, developmental, diplomatic and military. In Afghanistan, we have honed that approach, starting with our first provincial reconstruction team in Mazar e Sharif in 2003, and now embodied in the strong cross-Government team working in Helmand.
We must continue to strive to do more, and to strengthen our ability to work as a team in difficult, insecure environments. The armed forces can tackle some non-military tasks. Engineers can help with reconstruction and the military’s organisational flair has wide utility in times of crisis, as we have seen in a wide variety of situations, from humanitarian relief in the Pakistan earthquake to dealing with foot and mouth disease back in the UK. But we also need to develop the ability to deploy specialist skills that the military cannot provide, such that they can be there, on the first day of a new operation, making a difference.
We must also get better at finding local solutions to the problems we face, which reflect the culture and mores of the societies we are trying to help. Our aims are driven by principle, but our implementation must become far more practical, in building local politics free from corruption, and especially in the sphere of law and order. A working supreme court is an admirable thing, but it may take 10 years to deliver. A working local court is essential and may take only months to set up. Ask an ordinary Afghan or Iraqi which gives him the greatest sense of progress and he will say the local court every time. Our problem is that many of us in the west charged with development often seem to start from the opposite end.
I have dwelt on Iraq, Afghanistan and NATO for much of this speech. I believe that they represent most clearly what our armed forces can and should be doing to promote peace and stability. I had intended to turn briefly to our other activities, but given the time I suspect that it might be better if I left that for my right hon. Friend the Minister when he responds to the debate, in which those issues will almost certainly be raised.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, and I realise that he has a problem with time, but will he be able to say something about his Department’s plans to replace the Trident nuclear submarine system and the associated costs? When will a decision be taken?
The White Paper published some months ago contained most of what I want to say about Trident, and I have also answered parliamentary questions and spoken extensively outside the House on the matter. My hon. Friend knows that the Government recommend that we should invest in new platforms and boats for the Trident system, so that future generations can benefit as we have from that deterrent. The world is a very uncertain place, but the indications are that the future threat could be similar, if not identical, to the one that we face. I know that he disagrees: I know why he adopts his position, and I honour it, but I believe that the balance of the argument lies with those who wish to make the investment that I have described.
As to when the decision will have to be made, I can tell my hon. Friend that the Select Committee has been looking at that question with some intensity. We should wait for its report before we have a debate on the matter in the House, but I anticipate that that debate—when hon. Members will have an opportunity to make a decision—will take place some time in March.
We ask a lot of our armed forces. They work in the harshest environments, in a huge variety of roles and situations. When called upon to do so, they fight like no one else, but they also do much more. They uphold Governments and help to build nations. They are a genuine force for good in the world and are admired as such internationally.
The work that our armed forces do is not about forcing western values or structures on others. It is about helping people build their own societies, drawing on their own traditions. Security, stability, and the rule of law are not western values: they are universal, and our armed forces promote and exemplify them.
We are proud of the work that our armed forces do, and the manner in which they do it. They are a credit to our nation.
I begin by associating myself with everything that the Secretary of State said about the bravery of our troops, and the commitment of the civilian staff and others who maintain their efforts worldwide.
We are all aware of the courage and professionalism of our armed forces as they face the trauma of combat in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere, but we should not forget the role played by service families. They too show great courage and commitment, and they bear much of the problem associated with separation or injury. Sometimes, we in this country should remember the maxim that an injured serviceman is an injured family. Our society should be more aware of the sacrifices that our armed forces make, and the problems that they face.
Those of us in this country who enjoy the protection provided by our armed forces have a duty to support them. The news that emerged overnight shows that some people in our society are prepared to kidnap and kill forces personnel. Whatever their background, that is vile and repugnant. The mediaeval savagery that we have seen in recent times in the middle east has no place in this country, and I am sure that the whole House will want to congratulate our security services on stopping what appears to have been a disgusting and dastardly plot.
We welcome this debate, and hope that a wide range of issues will be discussed—for example, how we have arrived at our current positions and force sizes, the threats that we face in Afghanistan and Iraq, the threats posed by Iran and the potential threat posed by Russia, the need to maintain our alliances, and the need to deal with changing global realities.
First, how did we get to the position in which we find ourselves today? Over the Christmas holiday, I spent some time looking at the defence reviews held since the second world war—just the sort of sad thing that our jobs sometimes require us to do. They included the reviews conducted by Sandys, Healey, Mason and Nott, as well as “Options for Change”, “Frontline First” and this Government’s strategic defence review. I was struck by the fact that most of them lacked a foreign-policy baseline. With two exceptions—“Options for Change” and the SDR—the stamp of the Treasury was clearly evident.
In “Options for Change”, there was a genuine attempt to look at the new strategic reality following the end of the cold war. Moreover, I would commend the SDR undertaken by the current Government’s SDR perhaps above all the others: it was an extremely good review and came to very sensible conclusions about the sort of threats that the UK was likely to face.
I returned from Washington this morning—and I apologise in advance for any lapses of concentration this afternoon—and it was interesting to hear there the growing view that all western powers were too keen to seek a peace a dividend at the end of the cold war. They did so too quickly, and did not pause to think about the possible threats that could arise from the fragmentation of the Soviet Union.
In medicine, we used to say that the most useful instrument would be a retrospectoscope, and we would do well to take something of a reality check so that we can work out why this country and the US face some of our current problems—and I remind the House that the US Government have just announced a substantial increase of 95,000 in their armed forces, precisely to deal with some of those problems.
The SDR was reasonable in its expectation that the UK should be able to carry out one medium-sized and one small operation simultaneously, plus an occasional additional small operation, but the defence planning assumptions that flowed from that have been exceeded in each of the past four years. We cannot maintain that approach for any length of time: it leads inevitably to overstretch, and to problems such as restrictions on leave and training and increased separation from families. The one sure way to create retention problems is by making servicemen and women unhappy, and the way to do that is by making their families unhappy. I am afraid that that is what is happening at the moment.
Service families already face problems with education, housing and health care, so it does not take much to make a life in the services seem much less attractive than what is available outside. As has been noted in the House before, we need to examine those difficulties, taking account of the demographic and labour market statistics, because the trend of the last couple of years—with substantially more people leaving the armed forces than joining them—cannot be allowed to continue. Even if we are able to replace the personnel who leave, the problem of skills dilution will remain, and that cannot be in our armed forces’ long-term interests.
It is important to understand where we are in respect of our armed forces but, when we review expenditure, we must understand the realities of the increased tempo of their activities, and the effect that that has on them.
The Secretary of State spoke about Afghanistan and Iraq, and I shall turn to those subjects now. His announcement of the roulement in Afghanistan contains a shift in the pattern of our troops’ deployment, with the focus moving from Kabul to Helmand. Only 100 extra British troops are going to Afghanistan, but there will be 600 more in Helmand, because the number in Kabul is to be reduced.
We support our troops, and therefore we support the mission. Although people who say that they support our troops in the abstract but do not support the mission may find that their approach goes down well in the House of Commons, it certainly does not go down well with our troops or their commanders. However, serious questions need to be raised in this House about why the British armed forces must shoulder yet more of the burden in the south of Afghanistan.
It cannot be acceptable that British taxpayers are funding a greater proportion of the cost of those operations, or that the British military should have to shoulder more of the burden in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan. Where are our NATO allies? They spend substantially less on defence than this country. We spend 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product on defence: we can argue about whether that is too much or too little, but it is substantially more than many of our NATO allies. For example, Germany spends only 1.4 per cent. of GDP, while Spain spends 1.2 per cent., and the Netherlands around 1.4 per cent.
That is simply not acceptable in the long term. I know that the Secretary of State is forced by convention to be diplomatic about such matters, but I certainly am not. It is absolutely outrageous that, when we have the concept of shared security, we do not have properly shared risk. It is not acceptable for countries to reduce their defence expenditure and still expect us to give them the umbrella of NATO protection. It is not acceptable for them to operate according to caveats that mean that they serve in the safest parts of Afghanistan only or according to rules of engagement that are so restrictive that they can barely cross a road without phoning their national capitals. It cannot be in the long-term interests of NATO for that pattern to be repeated. If we want shared security, we have shared risk and shared burden-carrying.
I am not unsympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he not recognise the contribution made by some of our allies in the same region? I am thinking in particular of the Canadians who have taken larger losses proportionately than we have.
I promise the House that this is not a contrived double act; that is the very point I am coming to.
Some of our allies are making exemplary contributions, for example the United States and the Canadians who are the unsung heroes in Kandahar, who have done so much with so little recognition. The Canadian Government have done a remarkable job in keeping Canadian public opinion on side and they deserve widespread international recognition for that. Another example that I would cite is Poland, which is increasing its expenditure to match the risk that it sees in both its immediate environment and more widely. If more countries followed that example, recognising that they have to match their rhetoric with expenditure, NATO would be in better shape.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s remarks on finance, although I suspect that the imprint of the Treasury applies in France and Germany as it does in this country. I believe that our defence budget of 2.5 per cent. of public expenditure is too low. How would my hon. Friend ensure—we have to negotiate to ensure it, particularly given the historical perspective and the fact that the current arrangement has applied for some 50 years—that France and Germany in particular pay their way in NATO?
May I make a constructive suggestion from the sharp end? One of the biggest problems with NATO is that the procurement cycle works so slowly that in their haste individual nations end up spending money themselves rather than waiting for NATO to catch up. At Kandahar airport, for example, we have no fewer that four different points of departure to get on aeroplanes from individual nations because we have been waiting so long to get a NATO asset in place.
I am always ready to bow to the voice of experience. To augment what my hon. Friend said, in my time in this job I have been amazed at the ability of defence departments worldwide to duplicate what is happening elsewhere and to spend vast sums reinventing the wheel. Better co-ordination in deployment and procurement would not go amiss. That needs to be considered under the wider NATO question.
My hon. Friend’s point about our eagerness to take from the cold war dividend is not a political point because the dividend was taken by a Conservative Treasury, strongly egged on by a Labour Opposition. When he was in Washington, did he discover that the Americans have as low a view of our defence spending as of the NATO allies whom my hon. Friend has been, rightly, castigating?
No, I did not, nor did I give any time in conversations for such a criticism to come up. I heard a non-stop welcoming of the UK commitment to the relationship with the US and of their deep debt of gratitude to us for standing alongside them even when the political going got tough. Although it is true that the US would like to see expenditure rise across all their NATO allies, the UK comes in for the least criticism and rightly so.
The Secretary of State talked about the roulement and the 600 extra troops in the south of Afghanistan. That begs some questions which I hope the Minister of State can answer. If more British troops are to be deployed in the south—the most dangerous area where we are most likely to see casualties—what extra equipment will we get for them? Will we get more helicopters and armoured vehicles to give them support and protection? If the Government are saying that there will be more troops but the same level of equipment, many people will think that we are carrying not a fair share of the defence burden, but too much and asking too much of our troops with too little given in return.
When the Minister of State replies can he tell us about the medical facilities envisaged for the increased number of troops in the south? Along with many colleagues and Labour Members, I have been in the field hospital at Al Shaibah in Basra where the level of medical care is exceptionally good. That is partly because they have a CT scanner available at all times. Are there plans to have such equipment put in place in southern Afghanistan? Without it there is a big gap in the ability to diagnose and treat. Is it true that we still have no neurological services based in Afghanistan, notwithstanding the risk that our troops are facing there? It cannot be acceptable that the nearest place to treat neuro-trauma would be hospitals in Pakistan. If we are going to put our troops at increased risk and send increased numbers of troops into battle zones, the least we can do is ensure that we provide the level of medical care that they may require, should they be injured.
The Secretary of State dealt extensively with Iraq. Again, I discussed this subject widely in Washington. All hon. Members would like to believe that the troop surge that President Bush is trying to achieve will be successful and bring greater stability to the area in and around Baghdad. Many of us will be sceptical about whether or not it will be successful, but we hope that it will. It is essential to recognise one of the basic weaknesses of our position in Iraq. This takes me back to an example that I may have cited in the House before: a commander in Basra who said to me, “Forget the briefing you have had up to now. If you want to understand the situation in which we find ourselves, just imagine 1920s Chicago in the desert. We have gangsters, racketeering and militias. The big problem is not the level of democracy in Baghdad, but the lack of non-corrupt policing and a functioning judicial system.” We still fail to grasp that institution building is essential for any chance of democracy taking hold in the longer term.
On frequent occasions the point has been made in the House that Britain is a liberal democracy, but we were liberal long before we were democratic. There were 150 years between Adam Smith and universal suffrage; and 100 years between abolishing slavery and women getting the vote. It was our liberal institutions that allowed our democracy to be stable. They underpinned and gave structure to our democracy. If democracy were simply the exercise of electoral mechanics, Gaza would be the beacon state in the middle east. I hasten to suggest that it is not.
We need to understand the need for realistic time scales for the noble aspirations that we have in trying to bring some of these countries up to the level of expectations in terms of the market economy, human rights and judicial freedoms that we take for granted. We need to be frank with the British people about the potential future of Iraq. By providing troops and training and by trying to build institutions we can buy the Government of Iraq some time. We can buy them time to provide stability for the growth and strengthening of their governmental structures, but we cannot guarantee them success. Ultimately, they have to find a political solution whereby both the Sunni and Shi’a populations recognise that they must have mutual co-existence or face mutual destruction.
There is a limit to what we can achieve, even with the best will in the world and whatever commitments we are willing to make in terms of manpower, military resources or financial assistance. A reasonable recognition of our limitations in the real world alongside realistic expectations about the time scale would go a long way towards reassuring the public that we are not trying to bite off more than we can chew.
Will my hon. Friend elaborate on his point about realistic time scales? All too often, there is a risk that the time scales for our military involvement, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, are driven by political expediency. What education should we be giving the public at large about precisely what we have to do in the years ahead?
I was thinking more in the generality. We should be saying that we will not be able to fix a broken country such as Afghanistan in five years. It could take 10, 15 or even 20 years to achieve what we want. People believed that things in Iraq would get better much more quickly than it was realistic to expect. The consequence has been disappointment domestically and resentment abroad. We need to be more realistic about long-term time scales.
I entirely agree with the Government that to put a timetable on the reduction of our forces is asking for trouble, and would give insurgents the green light to try to disrupt it. We need to try to make judgments on the ground, in light of the prevailing circumstances, but that is a matter for our commanders. The House of Commons cannot set an artificial timetable, because that would fail to take account of what is happening in the real world. I would very much oppose any attempt by politicians to set an artificial timetable that did not take into account the reality encountered by those at the sharp end.
I want to say something about Iran, and were it not for the time constraints of the debate, I am sure that the Secretary of State intended to do the same. The House and the country need to understand and confront a number of issues that relate to Iran. The bottom line is that it is not acceptable to the UK, in either the specific or the generic case, for Iran to become a nuclear weapons state.
In the specific case, it is not acceptable because of the nature of the Iranian regime, especially its president. Furthermore, some of the rhetoric of the current Iranian president and his association with a particularly aggressive fundamentalist type of religious interpretation of Islam makes it extremely unacceptable in the region that Iran should become a nuclear power. Iranian rhetoric and the country’s involvement in Iraq—to which the Secretary of State alluded—and potentially further afield means that there is a danger of middle east conflict shifting from the historically rooted Palestinian-Israeli conflict to a wider one between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims throughout the region. That would be a dangerous escalation of tension in the region.
The more generic case against Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state is that such acquisition of nuclear weapons would be the end of non-proliferation as we understand it. If Iran has nuclear weapons, other states in the region will want them, too. If we fail to control Iran’s aspirations in that direction we are likely to live in a far more dangerous world than we do now—although when looking at that region, that is sometimes hard to believe. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said yesterday, it is incumbent on all western powers to put up a united front to the Iranian regime and to demonstrate that it cannot hope to have a divide-and-rule policy, and to tighten our financial sanctions to make it clear that we are serious about stopping its aspirations.
However, even during the most difficult times of the cold war, we in the west kept a substantial diplomatic presence in Moscow. Even when the Soviets were pointing new and larger numbers of nuclear warheads at us, we continued our process of diplomatic engagement. It is not sensible to say that just because we do not like a regime we will not talk to it at all. Taking the perspective of international opinion, it does not help the west’s case if we are seen as intransigent in dealing with Iran. Of course, we may not get anywhere with the current regime—I would be extraordinarily naïve to suggest that we might—but when we dealt with the Soviets we were always trying to find the next Solzhenitsyn, and the reasonable voices from the next generation.
We must make it clear that our current problems are with the regime in Iran not with the nation of Iran. Our conflict and quarrels are not with the people of Iran, so diplomatic engagement—the carrot and the stick—is the sensible way to proceed and would have widespread support in the region. It will not be easy and there will be obstacles to overcome, but if we are to be involved in a complex regional situation, and more generally, we must fully understand the concept of soft power—as the Secretary of State said—as well as hard power.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the nature of the Iranian regime, in particular about its oppression of human rights and its rejection of what we would regard as normal democratic politics. However, I think his position is that the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons is indispensable for its security, so what is his answer for Iran, which is surrounded to the north, west and east by nuclear powers—by America in the Arabian sea and the eastern Mediterranean and by Israel, China, India, Pakistan and now North Korea? On what basis can he say that, in terms of Iranian security, the country is not entitled to have nuclear weapons?
The situation may not be as simple as the right hon. Gentleman portrays it when we consider what President Ahmadinejad has said—his open declaration that he wants to
“wipe Israel off the map”.
That attitude is not prevalent in any other nuclear weapons state. The right hon. Gentleman may correct me, but I know of no such state that has openly said it wants to use its nuclear arsenal in an aggressive way. The Iranian regime wants to do that. In the UK we are discussing the next generation of our nuclear deterrent, but with fewer warheads than we have at present. We are within the letter and the spirit of the non-proliferation treaty.
Iran, too, has obligations under the treaty. We cannot accept one country breaking out of the treaty—especially when it has a regime such as the current one in Iran—and do nothing about it. Iran is threatening not only to possess nuclear weapons, but, for the first time, designating the target for them. That is an extraordinarily disturbing development.
We need to look at the other half of the equation: the build-up of Iranian naval forces. In the view of many western intelligence analysts, that is taking place to internationalise any dispute that may arise after the tightening of sanctions as a result of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and to disrupt maritime transport through the Strait of Hormuz. It would be strange if we did not make it clear by positioning forces that we would respond to such a threat. When dealing with the current Iranian regime, it is essential that we make it clear that nothing will be ruled out in our responses to any actions that Iran may take.
I hope that the regime will see sense. I hope that political opinion in Iran will persuade the regime that the Iranian people do not want a conflict with the international community, and that its actions are to the detriment of the ordinary people of that country. I hope that a political way through can be found, but we should give the Iranian regime no comfort by ruling out any specific responses to any military action that they may take, or threaten to take.
The Secretary of State mentioned the role of Iranians in Iraq. It is sufficient to say that increased Iranian involvement in the Iraqi conflict will be to the detriment of all parties concerned, and would severely damage the chances of a peaceful resolution in Iraq. It would be likely to inflame tensions, way beyond the borders of either Iran or Iraq, and the Iranians are already raising considerable fears in the wider region.
It may or may not turn out to be correct, but increasingly, noises are coming from Iran suggesting that Iran may want to change its position not only on the conflict in Iraq but on the conflict in Afghanistan. Until now, the Government in Tehran have never thought it to Iran’s advantage to become too involved in what is happening in Afghanistan. For historical and religious reasons they are no friend of the Taliban, and they have not wanted a sustained NATO presence on their border. However, there are those in Iran who now say, “Well, the greatest threat to us is a potential military strike as a result of our nuclear programme, so it would be all the better for us to tie up the NATO forces, and the Americans in particular, in a prolonged and more difficult conflict in Afghanistan.”
That may or may not be what the regime is thinking, but it is worth stating that view, because if Iran were brought into conflict with the entire international community—and it would be the entire international community, because we are talking about a United Nations-sanctioned mission, carried out by NATO—there would be a tremendous escalation of tension in the region. If people in Tehran, and Iran’s representatives in this country, are listening to today’s debate, I hope that they understand the strength of feeling in this country about any meddling by Iran in Afghanistan, especially as we heard only today that there are to be more British troops in part of Afghanistan.
The hon. Gentleman knows that there is, and has been for a long time, a strong trend in American Government circles to support a military strike against Iran. Rather than parroting the allegations emanating from Washington, will he tell me which of its neighbours Iran has attacked?
One need not look far beyond the borders of Iraq to see substantial Iranian influence, and to see Iran using as a proxy those who seek to do damage to the coalition troops. If the hon. Gentleman considers Iran’s influence on Hezbollah, he will see just how much Iran was influencing events in Lebanon. Anyone who is naive enough to believe that Iran is a peace-loving country, and that the regime does not pose a threat to the region, is not looking at the same information as the rest of us. Disruption in Lebanon, and in Palestine via Hamas, control of Hezbollah, and insurrection in Iraq are all testaments to a regime that is certainly not to be trusted.
I turn to an issue not often debated in the House: the substantial rearmament programme taking place in Russia. There has been such a focus on the middle east in recent times that very little has been said in the House or in our media about the growing and accelerating rearmament in Russia. The Russian national armament programme for 2007-15 will cost about $183 billion. Let me give the House a flavour of what the Russians intend to do with much of the money—and, it has to be said, with the many petrol dollars that we contribute to them. At the tactical level, they want 1,400 tanks, 4,100 infantry fighting vehicles, 3,000 armoured personnel carriers, 1,000 combat aircraft and helicopters, and 60 theatre quasi-ballistic missile systems. At the strategic level, they want 69 Topol-M missiles with between 70 and 200 nuclear warheads, five nuclear ballistic missile submarines and 60 Bulava intercontinental ballistic missiles, with an increased number of warheads—that is, between 400 and 600.
I mention that because the subject of what we are doing in terms of our nuclear deterrent has been raised in the House. We are set to introduce our next generation deterrent, which will have fewer warheads than at present, but the Russians are already investing heavily in more warheads. Not only that, but they have been careful to ensure that funds remain available, so that they can keep that expenditure going. As their oil and gas exports have increased, and because of the rise in the price of oil—every $1 rise in the price of a barrel of oil provides another $1 billion for the Russian exchequer—they have, through their stabilisation fund, built up large reserves that enable them to keep spending on defence, right through until 2015. As of 1 September 2006, they had in their central bank’s gold reserves almost $65 billion, and in their currency reserves they had $259 billion. While we are discussing our overstretch and what we can afford to spend on defence, Russia has been extraordinarily clever in ensuring that it will continue to improve and expand its capability, all at a time when the eyes of the west have been elsewhere.
I mention that because it goes hand in hand with an increasing resource nationalism in Russia, and its increasing willingness to use natural resources, fossil fuels in particular, to achieve political ends. We saw the warning signs in the Baltic states, in Ukraine, in Georgia, and in Belarus. We now need to be aware of the potential threats posed by the Russian Government. Of course their forces were degraded, and of course until 2003 they were experiencing a vast reduction in their capabilities, especially their army and naval capabilities, but they are now building them up. I simply say in this debate about defence in the world that that is something that our country needs to keep an eye on. When we plan for our expenditure in future, we need to take into account the fact that a new and growing risk is posed in an area in which many of us had hoped there was a declining risk, following the end of the cold war.
I shall mention one other subject before I end: the need for alliances. I have for some time held the view that politicians love the upside of globalisation. They love the prosperity and the trade, and they like the potential security. What politicians do not really like, and do not like to talk about, is the downside of globalisation: the shared risk—the increased risk exposure to asymmetric threat, for example. If we live in an interdependent and sensitive global economy, we cannot be isolated from the risks of events in any other part of that global economy. Some of my American colleagues are barely capable of giving a speech without saying, “America will be energy-independent,” but that is a fat lot of use if al-Qaeda take down a supertanker in the Malacca strait, creating not only an environmental disaster but a potential crisis in confidence for the Japanese or Chinese economy, and a shock to the oil price.
In future, we will all live in a much more interdependent world, but we are trying to deal with a properly globalised economy with political structures that were designed for the end of the second world war, and with military structures that were largely designed for the cold war. We require leadership that brings those international structures up to date, so that we can find ways of co-operating to deal with shared risk. That is why the Riga summit was such a disappointment and such a failure. At that summit, we needed to get a redefinition of NATO’s role, looking well ahead into the years to come. We needed to talk about the decision-making processes that NATO might have, to talk about the funding and the mechanisms, and how we would get countries to make the appropriate commitments to funding for NATO. EU-NATO relations are at an all-time low, and that needed to be addressed at the same time.
The NATO alliance should continue to be the primary military structure for the United Kingdom’s security. Our alliance with the United States is the most important alliance that we have. The size of the American defence umbrella could not be matched, even in the medium term, even if our European partners were dramatically to increase their expenditure. America, by virtue of heritage, culture, language and history remains our ally of choice. I have no problem with the European Union’s being able to act as part of the delivery arm of NATO—for example, through the Berlin-plus arrangements—if that is what is desired, but I have a problem with the EU wanting to supplant NATO rather than to supplement it. All those arguments should have come out at the Riga summit.
There is one other issue that Europe and NATO need to deal with: Turkey. It was deeply disturbing to see the passing of the Armenian resolution in France, which was almost certain to alienate Turkey at a time when Turkey is of enormous importance strategically to this country, NATO and Europe. Purposely to set out to alienate Turkish opinion is extremely dangerous. To have Turkey move into the arms of either fundamentalist Islam or the new-found, newly nationalist Russia would be to fail to recognise that throughout the cold war we attempted to stop a sulking and resentful Turkey moving towards the Soviet Union.
There is the potential for Congress in the United States to pass exactly the same resolution as the French. That could result only in a hugely adverse reaction from Turkey. Turkey is one of the main allies of NATO and a country of enormous geopolitical importance. We need to keep it on good terms. If those in some European countries—France, Germany and Austria—think that they would have problems incorporating Turkey into the European Union, they might want to think what an unfriendly fundamentalist state on the border of Greece would mean for European security. That may be the choice that they face.
Defence in this country has traditionally been a bipartisan issue, and it would be of enormous benefit to the country, to our process of government and to our security if it continued to be so. For that to happen the country needs to have a genuine debate about its level of commitments and its level of resources. If we want to maintain our current commitments, it is impossible to keep exceeding our defence planning assumptions and to continue with the same budget for any length of time. Of course, our armed forces will cope. They have a can-do mentality. They will try to do whatever they can with whatever we give them, but if we are genuine about the role of the United Kingdom, we will have to look at the resource base if we are going to continue at this tempo. Alternatively, if we feel that we cannot afford the resources, we have to look at the level of commitment that the United Kingdom is able to make within the wider alliances that we have.
When the Government undertake the comprehensive spending review, they must take into account what was said in the strategic defence review and how defence planning assumptions have been exceeded. Are they still committed to the SDR and do they still wish to act within the DPAs? Those are important questions and this side of the House will want to get clear answers when we get further details of the comprehensive spending review. Things cannot go on as they are. If the Government will not change their approach and insist on carrying on with things as they are, despite all the difficulties that have been so clearly enunciated by so many of those who have been in charge of our armed forces, the only conclusion will be that we have to change the Government.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). When he referred to the danger posed to us by Russia, I at first thought that he was using an old Conservative party speaking note, but as he developed the argument I could see that he was referring to contemporary circumstances. My judgment of the current situation is not the same as his. The 20th century has not been kind to Russia and I urge him to try to look at things from Russia’s point of view, rather than from the point of view that he adopts, namely, that we always have to think the worst of the Russians and to fear their intentions. Russia is a state that is in transition from a very difficult historical background and we should give it a chance to make that journey, rather than always looking for the worst and asserting it as a new threat. I do not see the situation in the same way as he does.
The communities that I represent in Newcastle and North Tyneside have a long association with the armed services. As well as building warships for the Royal Navy at Swan Hunter and fighting vehicles for the Army at BAE Systems in Newcastle, our community has service personnel in each branch of the armed forces. We are particularly strongly represented in the artillery, the infantry and the Royal Marines. I identify myself and the community that I represent with the remarks made by the Secretary of State and the hon. Gentleman in applauding and honouring the bravery of our service personnel. Today’s debate is an opportunity to discuss what we expect of our armed forces and what support we give them to undertake their tasks.
The cornerstone of the debate is our membership of NATO, which I strongly support, and the question of how best to make an effective contribution to NATO, bearing in mind our other obligations. We need to ask what it is we are setting out to do. What are the budgetary constraints? What are the capacity constraints? Those questions have not changed. I was first elected to the House of Commons in 1983 and arrived just in time to take part in the great debate about the original Trident programme. My view then was that we should do what other European members of NATO do and rely on America’s strategic deterrent, and not duplicate it ourselves. There is only so much money that can be spent on defence. My view then was that our money would be better spent on supplementing NATO’s conventional capacity, which we were more likely to use, rather than duplicating the strategic nuclear capacity. I could envisage no circumstances in which we would ever use that capacity, let alone independently of the Americans. Back in 1983, that was regarded in the Labour party as a very right-wing view, because it was pro-American and showed both a commitment to and confidence in NATO. Unlike other recently elected MPs at the time, I would not join the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament because of its opposition to NATO. I hold the same view now, and it is one of the small ironies of Labour politics that that view is now regarded in the Labour party as a rebel left-wing view.
All the key features of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent—the platform, the delivery system, the warheads and even the onshore-based support—depend in part on our relationship with the United States. The Trident II D5 missiles are leased from the US missile pool. They are manufactured, tested and serviced in the US. The warheads are US-designed, and several crucial components, without which they would not work, are manufactured in the US and purchased off the shelf. The system is reliant, too, on US software for all aspects of targeting.
I think that those working relationships with the United States are beneficial, but the logical next step is to integrate the whole thing into NATO’s strategic deterrent. It is the case for having a strategic deterrent that the British Prime Minister can fire separately of the Americans that has just not been made. No Minister has been able to describe to the House the circumstances in which the United Kingdom would be completely isolated from our NATO partners with only our deterrent to fall back on. The major security threat facing Britain is not an enemy state with a strategic nuclear deterrent of its own threatening Britain alone, but not our NATO partners—the main security threat facing Britain is terrorism. The Select Committee on Defence recently concluded that the
“strategic nuclear deterrent could serve no useful or practical purpose in countering this kind of threat.”
The money that the Government plan to commit to the programme could be more usefully spent on conventional armed forces and on specialist anti-terrorism units, which could do something to make us safer against the most serious threat.
In his statement to the House on 4 December 2006, the Prime Minister said that
“the investment required will not be at the expense of the conventional capabilities our armed forces need.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 23.]
I take issue with that view—the money can be spent on upgrading our strategic nuclear deterrent or it can be spent on something else. The cost of Trident in the 1980s had an impact on the budget for conventional defence equipment, and nowhere more so than on the procurement of warships and fleet auxiliaries for the Royal Navy. There are also substantial continuing revenue costs.
I remind the House of the words of Coroner Selena Lynch at the inquest into the death of my constituent, Mr. Anthony Wakefield, who served with the Coldstream Guards in Iraq. He died instantly from neck and chest wounds when a bomb exploded close to his Snatch Land Rover near al-Almarah on 1 May last year. He was wearing standard body armour, but not Kestrel kit, which has added neck and arm protection. The coroner’s finding was that Anthony Wakefield may have survived the roadside bomb blast if he had been equipped with Kestrel body armour. That is not my assertion—that is the coroner’s finding. Recording a verdict of unlawful killing, she said:
“it is regrettable that our soldiers cannot all be provided with what they need immediately”.
There are choices facing the House today. I believe that our first priority is the immediate well-being of our service personnel. We should ensure that front-line troops get all the equipment that they need—and that should be our priority.
Strategic defence systems do not exist in a vacuum. If the argument is that Britain must have an independent strategic nuclear deterrent as well as the security of NATO’s American deterrent, surely it is open to other nation states to argue that they, too, need a similar independent strategic nuclear deterrent. The hon. Member for Woodspring referred to the situation in Iran. Its near neighbours—India, Pakistan, China and Israel, and now America in Iraq—all have some form of nuclear weapon capability, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) pointed out. Our contribution is to say that we need to upgrade our weapons system and that Iran should not have those things at all. I do not see anything in that argument that would make the people of Iran feel more secure or less isolated. If ever there was a case for renewed diplomatic activity and for trying to find a peaceful way forward, surely this is it.
The real argument for Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is not military at all—the real argument for the possession of an independent strategic nuclear deterrent is that such a deterrent is vital for Britain to maintain its “big power” role in the world, including our permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council.
I hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that I can make a speech and deal with some of those issues. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that evidence taken by the Defence Committee suggested that it is not essential to retain the deterrent to maintain our seat at the Security Council? There are other strong reasons for doing so, however, as I hope to explain.
I fully understand and acknowledge my hon. Friend’s constituency interest in these matters, and I accept what she said about the Defence Committee’s views. I shall make a similar argument myself.
It is also argued that the independent strategic nuclear deterrent affects our status in the European Union and with America. Although I think those are the real arguments that underpin the views of those who believe in the independent nuclear deterrent, I also think that they are the worst arguments of all. There is a pretty strong case for reforming the way in which the Security Council works and who sit on it as permanent members, and reform should not be driven by who has and who does not have nuclear weapons.
Our relations with our strategic partners in the European Union and the United States have very little to do with Britain’s military capabilities and everything to do with mutual self-interest, bound together by trading and commercial relationships and a shared belief in international conventions and the rule of law. Britain will punch above its weight in the world if we spend money on the threats that actually confront us, rather than on those that do not, and spend money on things that those who are poorer and more disadvantaged than ourselves really need.
I welcome the opportunity to have the debate today. I welcome the Defence Secretary back from his recent trip to Baghdad, safe and able to give us an up-to-date account of events there. I quite understand that he has had to keep an important commitment elsewhere, which means that he has left his place. I also welcome the speech from the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), which was thought-provoking and covered a wide canvas in a balanced way. It invited us, in a constructive tone, to debate issues that we must debate now and on future occasions.
There is no doubt that our role in the world and the role of our armed forces have moved a great deal in a relatively short time. Although it seems a long time, it is not so long ago that we were still in the atmosphere of the cold war and the Soviet threat. One of the points that the hon. Gentleman made was that in a global era, we are in every sense in a state of interdependency. The solutions to the problems that we face can be arrived at only through our international alliances and by working with others, particularly with NATO, the United Nations and, on occasion, the European Union. All those institutions have major faults and flaws, but the UN is the only show in town, so it is essential that we all work together to rebuild and develop further the authority of the United Nations and its capacity to help bring and maintain peace in various parts of the world.
The 1998 strategic defence review identified the role of Britain’s armed forces as acting as a force for good around the world. In many respects, the Prime Minister’s recent speech in Plymouth updated that commitment and looked forward to Britain continuing to do that. No doubt hon. Members in all parts of the House agree and see that as our role in the future.
As the hon. Gentleman said, if we have that lofty ambition for ourselves, there is without doubt a mismatch between the amount of commitments that we are taking on and the amount of resource that we are devoting to them. We need a debate about making more resource available. I am sympathetic to those who suggest that that is necessary, but even if we arrived at a consensus, and even if the Treasury were part of the consensus and we moved in that direction immediately, there would be a time lag between that decision and the additional capability that might result. Whether we put extra resources into manpower or into more and better equipment for the future, each of those would take time to feed through to our fighting capacity.
The problems arising from the mismatch, the stretch, the impact on families, the result of acting beyond the defence planning assumptions, and the effect of not adhering to the harmony guidelines are all immediate problems. That is why, in the short term, achieving a better balance between the commitment that we are taking on and the resource that we have at our disposal to carry it out must entail some reduction in our commitment.
I therefore welcome the Secretary of State’s further explanations of the ongoing situation in Iraq. I believe that the Prime Minister is right when he says that we would all like to see troops coming back from Iraq as soon as possible and that that can be done only after we have been in a position to hand over responsibility in the provinces that we are continuing to run.
The Government have said that the intention is to hand over the remaining provinces in the spring. I recognise that “spring” is necessarily an elastic term. Ministers frequently say that they are going to introduce a White Paper in the autumn, which then goes right through November and December so that we do not get it until well into the following year. I am not attempting to pin the Government down precisely as to the definition of “spring”, but the fact remains that the Secretary of State confirmed that that, broadly speaking, remains the intention. The question that I am keen to probe concerns the ongoing role of British troops thereafter. Our party leader has outlined a policy on what should take place, part of which is that British troops should continue to be part of the nation-building programme and to take part in training operations as part of NATO, so that in no sense are we turning our back on the long-term challenge of rebuilding Iraq.
Let us be serious. On the Government’s own estimate, by some point in the middle of this year the number of British troops actively deployed in Iraq will fall to 3,000 or so. Meanwhile, the United States has increased its deployment to 145,000. I understand why people have concerns about the policy stance that we have recommended. However, will it really make much difference if 3,000 troops leave Iraq and 145,000 continue the task? As a consequence, we will be better able to carry out our duties in Afghanistan, where we have a long-term commitment in an alliance with the United States and will be better able to assist alongside it if we take a more sensible view as regards trying to continue to operate in significant numbers on two fronts.
It is the objective of the Liberal Democrats that after the provinces have been handed over, we then, over a period—we suggest between May and October, but if the handover was delayed, withdrawal could have to be delayed—get our troops out of Iraq. In my view, that is the only way, in the short term, that we will be able to sustain our efforts in Afghanistan. During the recent debate on Iraq, some Members suggested that we cannot set a timetable for withdrawal, but at some point or other that is exactly what the Government will do, and all the arguments about its unfeasibility will melt away. We have proposed a time line within which it might happen, although circumstances may mean that it works out differently.
The essential point that I am making to the House—
I would suggest that the hon. Gentleman should not be allowed to move on, as this is an interesting debate. Can I sum up what the hon. Gentleman is saying and perhaps comment on the evolution of Liberal policy? The withdrawal strategy that the Liberals are proposing is going to be conditions-based, which is exactly the Government’s position. That being the case, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the Government’s position on Iraq.
Any policy will always depend on the conditions. It is part and parcel of what we have explained—[Interruption.] Right hon. and hon. Members heard what they wanted to hear rather than what was said. Of course any withdrawal from anywhere is going to be conditions-based, but our suggestion was put forward to explain to the public as much as anyone else the sort of time scale that should obtain. I do not really believe that there is much distance between the parties on this point; there are just different ways of putting it.
I would like to assist the hon. Gentleman. There is a difference in concept and we need to know which of the two he adheres to. It is the difference between setting a timetable before the conditions for withdrawal exist and getting to the eventual point, which he seems to refer to, when the conditions for withdrawal are acknowledged to exist so that a timetable to withdraw safely can be set. Which of those two is he advocating?
I say again that hon. Members may have heard what they wanted to hear. It was made perfectly clear—and I make it perfectly clear again—that all actions taken at any given time obviously depend on the conditions. What we were suggesting was an illustrative time scale of what could be achieved—[Interruption.] Be that as it may, let us look at the situation in Iraq.
As the Secretary of State described it, further progress is being made in Iraq. I welcome that and I absolutely accept that there is a difference between the prevailing security situation in the south, for which we are responsible, and the situation in Baghdad, for which the Americans are responsible. The suggestion that, because we have different views and a different anticipation of what commitments we might need to make in the future, we are somehow clashing or falling out with the Americans is simply not the point at all. I repudiate that. We are allies of the Americans—allies in what we are trying to achieve in Iraq and allies in what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan—but when Britain is so stretched in terms of our resources, I believe that we would be better able to honour that alliance by concentrating our efforts more clearly on Afghanistan in the future. I think that that is what the British public believe and certainly what our armed forces feel. The point has already been made that we should respond to what the armed forces themselves say and want—and they have made that clear to me and my colleagues again and again and again. There is no doubt whatever in my mind that that is the situation.
Before we paint too rosy a picture of what is happening in Iraq, where there have undoubtedly been some achievements, we need to recognise that the situation is still very bloody and that people are still losing their lives at an alarming rate. There is still an awfully long way to go in persuading the Iraqis that what we are trying to achieve there is actually having any sort of benign impact. Without raking over the whole debate about how we got into the Iraq war—we all understand which side we come from in that debate—there must surely be some acknowledgement that pre-invasion planning was lax, short-sighted and superficial and that if we had made better estimations of the domestic situation in Iraq, fewer lives might have been lost. British loss of life, tragic though it is, has been mercifully smaller than it might have been, but the loss of life among the Iraqi population has been absolutely woeful. I sometimes hear the Prime Minister moving the goal posts about the rationale for going in, and talking about regime change and how despicable Saddam was—none of which was presented as an objective at the outset. Appalling though Saddam and his killing regime were, the number of lives lost was nothing in comparison with what has happened in the four years since we went in.
We must remember that, apart from the inestimable cost in lives, the war has also cost a fortune in money. It is no wonder that our resources are so stretched. The war has cost us approximately £24 million a day, which will total £5 billion on 5 April. The huge black hole in our defence figures is therefore unsurprising.
It is essential to remember what the Baker report said about the necessity of engaging with neighbouring states. I regret that the Bush regime appears to have chosen to forget that. I have not heard as much as I would like from this country about trying to get the idea back to centre stage. It is essential that we engage and form a rapport with Iran. I agree with the hon. Member for Woodspring that, even at the height of the cold war, we sustained our efforts and dialogue with the Soviet Union. It is vital to step up and sustain our dialogue with Iran. It is also crucial to engage with Syria and other neighbouring states.
Was my hon. Friend surprised to read in today’s newspapers that Israel had made overtures to Syria about perhaps reaching an agreement on the Golan heights, but that that rapprochement and discussion were curtailed by the Israelis because America did not want Israel to discuss anything with Syria?
If those accounts are true, it is amazingly foolish and misguided on the Americans’ part. If the Israelis had got to the point of being ready to sit down and have such discussions, what possible strategic benefit does the United States regime imagine is being served by preventing them? One can merely hazard a guess. It seems foolish.
We are in for the long haul in Afghanistan. Britain is committed to that. There is a political consensus here in favour of it and a distinction to be drawn between our actions in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We are part of a much wider coalition in Afghanistan, where we are needed. If we were not there, the Taliban would soon re-establish themselves. There is clearly much wider acceptance of the presence of foreign troops by the Afghan population than by the Iraqis, and there is nothing like the appalling death toll of Iraq.
One must not however underestimate the difficulties that we face in Afghanistan. Our forces are stretched, our funds and troops are spread in two places, our mission there requires land and air power and there is a serious shortage of helicopters and specialists who are needed for more technical operations.
The interesting observation was made in a letter to The Daily Telegraph a couple of weeks ago that there are more personnel from the Royal Navy than from the Army in Afghanistan. I do not know when the Navy last fought a war for us in a landlocked, mountainous country. However, the action is a credit to the Marines and the others who are fighting there at the moment. Indeed, 1,000 or so of my constituents are serving there until April. I hear from them directly and their families the genuine difficulties that they encounter.
Some of the reporting of the shortages is misguided and some points get exaggerated. However, there is no doubt that, on arriving in the autumn, troops were shocked to discover how bad some of the equipment at their disposal was and the amount of cannibalisation of parts that had taken place. The Taliban have proved to be an effective adversary: they know the terrain, and if we leave them unchallenged, they will return in great numbers. They retreat into the hills over the winter months, and from previous experience we know that there is a real risk of their coming back and making themselves known in the spring. The peace will not come easily, and the nation building that will be needed to make Afghanistan secure and stable for the long term will take many years.
On equipment shortages, would the hon. Gentleman expand on what equipment we are short of?
Armoured vehicles and helicopters are two of the most obvious examples. The helicopter situation has been well rehearsed—[Interruption.] I did not say anything about body armour. Clearly, there are not only shortages; according to the accounts that I have heard, the condition of some equipment is at full stretch. I acknowledged that some of the reporting has been exaggerated and misguided, but it is equally important that the problems should not be swept under the carpet. No rational person doubts that there are such problems.
I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I am relaying accounts that have come direct to me from constituents who went out to begin their action in September. They were prepared for what would be coming their way by the accounts that they had heard and read, and they reported to me that, in many respects, things were not as bad as they had expected. The state of the equipment handed over to them, however, had been worse than even the worst case scenarios had led them to expect.
I was in Kandahar last summer, as were other Members, and many of the shortages were not necessarily of the sort of equipment that perhaps the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) was using day to day, but of vital parts for aircraft repair and maintenance, for which there were long waits. To give a good example, one of the Nimrods went out with an instrument missing—a risk assessment was taken before it did so—while we were in Oman. That sort of equipment is not coming down the line quickly enough.
The example given by my hon. Friend is consistent with the sort of accounts relayed to me. There is no point in anyone pretending that all is as it could be, because that is not correct. It would be altogether more constructive to be candid about the matter, to face up to the fact that there are shortages in certain areas, and to take all steps possible to do something about that.
I applaud the efforts of our fighting men and women in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. We should be proud of what they are doing. Given that the operation might go on for 10 or 15 years, I share the concern that the current balance of relative responsibility accepted by different NATO member states is not sustainable. We will have to keep campaigning for other NATO member states to make a more serious commitment to help us to achieve what is necessary over the long haul.
We need more resources for our armed forces. We can see clearly where some of the pinch points are coming. We have heard recently about forces’ housing, which has a significant impact on service families. We know that the more frequent call to deployment than should be the case is taking its toll on families and on children’s education. When people come back from deployment needing treatment for something dramatic, the medical services available for them are absolutely first-class. However, the longer-term after care available for physical, mental and psychological problems is a long way from what it should be and from what we would want it to be. That is not to knock the efforts of any of those who are involved in providing those services, but rather to acknowledge that there is a long way to go.
On the forthcoming debate in the House on Trident, when the Conservative Government came to the Dispatch Box with the proposal to go ahead with the current Trident system, it was after the research and design work had been done. They had a clear proposal of what the system was going to entail, what it was going to cost and when it was going to come into service. It is to this Government’s credit that they have been much more open this time around at a much earlier stage. At the same stage in the mid-1970s, the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary ordered all the initial work without sharing the information with their Cabinet, much less publishing a White Paper and sharing it with the country.
I welcome the fact that we have had a White Paper and that it has been put into the public domain, but even on the basis of the White Paper, the Government are not anticipating a main gate final decision until about 2012 or 2014. Do they believe that Parliament’s debate in March this year is meant to be the last say, or will it be the first say and they expect it to come back here for a decision later? The world can change a great deal in five or seven years, and Parliament should be able to take a view in the future when it knows exactly what it is that it is being asked to take a view on.
The British armed forces make a huge contribution to international efforts to improve security and peace around the world. When all the press coverage focuses on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to forget that there are also significant deployments of our forces in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Cyprus. It is not just on major operations that our armed forced make a valuable contribution. They also provide massive support in terms of peacekeeping, training and advice to other countries around the world. As I have said time and again, we owe our servicemen and women a debt of gratitude, and I join right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House in paying tribute to the courage, dedication and professionalism of Britain’s armed forces.
Joining the armed forces is a special commitment; it is not like taking up a job with Tesco or Barclays bank. When people join Britain’s armed forces, they are joining an organisation that at some time may ask them to put their life on the line in the defence of the country. I took the view when I was a Defence Minister that we should demonstrate how much we value the whole defence family, which hon. Members have touched on. We should demonstrate that we value our servicemen and women, our reserves and their employers, our cadets, our veterans, their widows and all the families associated with them in that way. In particular, the care and support that we give our veterans who have served our country around the globe over many generations is very important.
I have been greatly encouraged by the fact that 160 Members have signed early-day motion 356, calling on the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals to reverse the advice which denies 35,000 British servicemen who served in Malaysia the right to wear the Pinjat Jasa Malaysia medal. I hope that more right hon. and hon. Members will sign it.
The Secretary of State gave a wide picture of defence in the world, and the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) was right when he said that in defence terms we have always sought, as much as we can, to be bipartisan in our approach. I want to focus my remarks on the care and support that we give our servicemen and women and those who leave the services having served our country around the world.
Ex-servicemen and women become veterans the moment they leave the armed forces. It is important that we remind the public of the contribution that they have made. At the same time, we must ensure that the veterans who have served our country know that help, advice and support are available, and in my view that should be available for the rest of their lives.
For me, the bedrock of that is the work done by the Veterans Agency. I should like it to become the first point of contact in giving information, help and advice on issues of concern to veterans and their families. The agency does a superb job. Its work includes giving welfare advice, and its helpline on 0800 169 2277—I have been to the headquarters and listened to calls—gives tremendous support to those who have served Britain over the years.
I welcomed a Ministry of Defence initiative to pilot an advertising campaign promoting the work of the Veterans Agency so that those who serve in our forces, and those who have already left, know that there is a point of contact for them to receive help and support. Our ambition should be to make the agency as well known to the British public as, say, the BBC.
The health and well-being of servicemen and women is of the utmost importance. Our forces deployed around the globe deserve only the best. I pay tribute to the tremendous job done by Defence Medical Services in ensuring that those who serve on the front line, in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else, receive world-class medical care and treatment. Its personnel serve alongside our troops wherever they are deployed, and work alongside colleagues in the national health service to great effect. I saw that for myself when I visited the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at Selly Oak.
No one would deny what my right hon. Friend has done in promoting the work of the Veterans Agency, but does he agree that it is the voluntary sector that takes care of disabled ex-service people? An example is Erskine, in my constituency. The work of the voluntary sector in looking after people who are disabled as a result of conflict is one of the imponderables of life.
Indeed. No matter how good the Government think they are—or local government think it is—at delivering services, without the voluntary sector in Britain many people’s quality of life would not be as good as it is. I pay tribute to those who work in that sector.
When I visited Selly Oak I met NHS personnel, and we saw a field hospital in operation. Every member of the NHS to whom I spoke was greatly impressed by the way in which Defence Medical Services takes medical support, help and care to our services in the front line. However, I am concerned about the increasing gaps in Defence Medical Services personnel, and the pressure to call up medical reservists working in the NHS.
I know that recruitment is always a challenge for the armed forces at a time when our economy is strong, especially when we need more staff for Defence Medical Services. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give us some idea of what the Department is doing to fill the gaps, because those Defence Medical Services personnel are very important to the support and sustenance of our troops, wherever they may be serving.
There is common consent that troops on operations around the world receive first-class care and attention, and it goes without saying that that is crucial to their well-being. It is long-established practice, however, that responsibility for the medical care of ex-servicemen and women passes to the NHS. I do not detract from the wonderful work that the NHS does, but I think we should do more. That is relevant to what was said by my hon. Friend about the voluntary services. If we truly value the men and women who are currently serving around the world in support of Britain, when they become veterans they should be able to receive specialised medical provision when they need it, and in my view that service should be provided by the Ministry of Defence. It is important for Defence Medical Services to continue treatment and support after service when people are demobilised, in partnership with the NHS.
I know that there is a view in the MOD that our servicemen and women can obtain priority treatment in the NHS when they have left the services, but I see little evidence of that in practice. I know how difficult it can be. One way in which the MOD could provide aftercare is through the reserves mental health programme, details of which were announced by my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), Under-Secretary of State for Defence and Minister responsible for veterans, in a statement to the House on 21 November 2006. The programme is open to any current or former member of our volunteer or regular reserves who has been demobilised since 1 January 2003 following overseas operational deployment, and who believes that it may have adversely affected his health. He can ask his GP to refer him to the programme. The GP is then kept informed of the individual’s progress to ensure that both he and RMHP staff are in possession of all the facts about the individual’s continuing health needs.
That was a groundbreaking development, but although it is a step in the right direction I believe that we should go further. I would like to hear that the Ministry of Defence is progressing work to offer that after-care to veterans who have been in the regular forces. I looked into that when I was in the Department and I know the difficulties and problems involved, but I hope that that work is being progressed.
Many Members will be aware of the excellent work done by Combat Stress. It does tremendous work in supporting veterans suffering from psychological disability as a result of their service in the British armed forces around the world. I recently spent some time with one of the workers for that charity, visiting veterans in my constituency; some of them are in their 20s, and they are suffering terribly as a result of incidents that took place during their service in the British armed forces.
I was hugely impressed by the commitment of Combat Stress, and I praise the MOD, which provides about £2 million a year to help it; it is worth every penny of that. However, it is time that the Government took on the ongoing role of supporting those who have left our armed forces. To do that would send a good message to those currently serving Britain on the front line around the world. Such work could, perhaps, be done in partnership with Combat Stress.
In terms of the issues that I have touched on, benefit would be gained from there being a much enhanced Department for Veterans with a wider remit to take responsibility for veterans’ health care and welfare and employment issues, and to ensure that the Veterans Agency becomes the first point of contact when people need help after demobilisation. Again, if that were done it would send a good message of care and support to our troops around the world.
There is such a Department in the United States of America. Since 1989 the Department of Veterans Affairs has had a Cabinet-level position in the US Government. I am not suggesting that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should engage in a reshuffle at the current time, or that we follow the American example, but I know from my own experience that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who is the Minister for veterans, is responsible for everything from the Met Office to the Hydrographic Office, from MOD police to low-flying aircraft, and from recruitment and training to reserves and cadets.
The Government have done a great deal to demonstrate that we value the 10 million people in the veterans community. We created the first ever veterans Minister, but it is time that we take the next step and create a Department for Veterans Affairs. In terms of the wider debate, I hope that that would send a positive message to the men and women serving in the British armed forces around the world that when they return to this country, they and their families will be cared for, and that that care will be ongoing—that as long as they need that we will be there for them, as they are currently there for us.
The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) has just done an extremely good job in singing the praises of the help that is available to those outstanding men and women who have served their country. I commend him for the work that he did when he was in government to improve those services, and I commend the Veterans Agency for the work that it does.
Members who serve on the Defence Committee are very lucky because we have the chance to visit our troops in the theatres where they are deployed. Although we read in our newspapers stories of poor equipment and demoralised men and women, we have the good fortune to see the reality. There are problems—as the Secretary of State was the first to acknowledge. We on the Defence Committee consider there to be problems with strategic lift. When we were in Iraq, we experienced problems both with lift and with armoured vehicles—those that we have there are old and hot.
The pressure on our armed forces leads to all sorts of pressures in terms of reductions in training. On that point, I congratulate the Secretary of State on his constructive response to my concerns about the future of Bordon as a result of the defence training review. It is essential that the Ministry of Defence works closely with the community of Bordon to ensure that that review is good for it as well as for the MOD. I thank the Secretary of State for assuring me that it will be.
Despite all the problems that we have read about in the newspapers, when we visit our troops in theatre, we meet people of quite extraordinary quality and with very high morale, because of the way that they are led, the job that they are doing and the fact that they are extraordinarily busy. They also have better personal equipment than they have ever had, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) confirmed in his intervention on the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). The disparities between personal equipment and larger equipment are the reconciliation of the little debate that they had. Our troops are not only the best in the world; they are, I believe, the last remaining institution in this country that has the deep respect of the country and of the world, so they must be doing something right.
Last June, the Defence Committee visited Iraq—we debated that last week, so I will not spend too long on it—and we were most impressed by the work being done in Basra then by the 20th Armoured Brigade and others. There is a real difference between Multi-National Division (South-East) Basra, and the rest of Iraq. We came away with the impression that the south-east of Iraq is not a hopeless case. The Iraqi 10th division was rapidly becoming more capable, and it should be possible to hand over more responsibility to it and to be confident that it will acquit itself well.
I welcome what the Secretary of State said today about the remarks last week of Ambassador Khalilzad, who reminded us all that we have two roles. One is to run MND (South-East) and to hand it over as soon as is feasible to the Iraqis; but the other is as a coalition partner of the United States. For that reason, in that latter role the Defence Committee visited not only Basra but Baghdad. Again, we came away with the conclusion that the situation in Baghdad and in Iraq as a whole was not hopeless. We were impressed by the courage and determination of the politicians there, especially those who have been targeted and who have lost family members to terrorism in Iraq. They want to run Iraq themselves and they want to do it well; we must give them that opportunity. The question must be whether they are going to be able to do so.
I am not convinced that the United States’ plan is going to succeed. I am not convinced that 20,000 extra troops will be enough to cure the grievous mistakes that were made in the first two years. I am not convinced that the plan is supported even in the United States of America, let alone in Iraq. I am dismayed by the wholly different tones of the Iraq study group report and of the Kagan report, on which the United States’ plan has clearly been based. I am confused by the British Government’s support of both. How can one run a coalition when there is such a completely different approach to constructive engagement with Iran and with Syria? I do not know the answer to that question, and we do not get one by simply pretending that there is no difference. There is one thing that I am absolutely sure of: we should not be committed to an arbitrary date for the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, notwithstanding the utterly charming and delightful defence of his position by the hon. Member for North Devon. I gather that we have now moved to an illustrative timetable for leaving Iraq.
The Defence Committee also visited Afghanistan, last July. Again, we met some extraordinarily impressive British people serving their country, not only in the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps and the 16th Air Assault Brigade, but—crucially to the efforts of our forces in Helmand—the wonderful Chinook crews based in my constituency in Odiham. We also met the Apache crews. I am pleased to say that I had a hand in buying those fantastic helicopters some years ago. Little did we think that they would be pressed into the role of tactical lift helicopters, as we saw in that outstanding attack on the Taliban stronghold. That is only one example of the imagination and courage shown day in and day out by British men and women in theatre.
In our report, we express concerns about national caveats from NATO rules of engagement. I repeat those concerns now. We expressed concerns about the commitment of other NATO allies towards an engagement for which they voted. I repeat those concerns now. My Committee will hold an inquiry into NATO to see whether it is doing as well as it could and what its future might be. I hope that we might be able to fill the gaps left by the Riga summit, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring rightly referred. The Committee expressed scepticism that rebuilding Afghanistan could be achieved within three years. I do not express that scepticism now: it has turned to utter disbelief.
For all of those reasons and more, we will hold a second inquiry into the deployment to Afghanistan this year. To put it in a nutshell, I am becoming increasingly worried that we are trying to bring to Afghanistan the concept of the rule of law and of central government, concepts that the country has never actually had or wanted. We are trying to do that at the same time as we are destroying the livelihood of many Afghans. That is not a recipe for success, and we see the consequences in the radicalisation of British youth here at home. There is no sense of any co-ordinated campaign plan to win the hearts and minds of people in Afghanistan, Iraq or even in the United Kingdom.
On the way to Afghanistan, we also visited Pakistan, where I was left with one strong impression. It is all very well for us to criticise Pakistan for not doing enough to bear down on the Taliban, but the border is porous because, decades ago, the British insisted that it should be. It cannot be closed now because Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot agree on the line, so Afghanistan will not allow the fencing of the border that Pakistan has proposed. Pakistan has also deployed and lost more troops than the whole of the rest of the coalition put together. So before we insist on President Musharraf submitting himself to yet further assassination attempts, let us appreciate what he is up against and what he has already done.
British troops are deployed not only in Iraq and Afghanistan. The right hon. Member for Islwyn mentioned the fact that they are deployed all over the world, including in Cyprus, which the Committee also visited. A tour in Cyprus is widely regarded as a sunshine tour. All I can say is that we arrived in Cyprus in pouring rain. We visited soldiers who were part of the theatre reserve battalion who were either just back from or just about to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. Our forces serving with the UN were living in appalling accommodation, doing their best to solve a truly intractable problem. The countries involved should get a grip of themselves and stop putting burdens on the rest of the international community. It is no sunshine tour.
Of central importance to our future defence is the subject raised by the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown)—the decision on the strategic nuclear deterrent. My Committee is engaged in the third of its inquiries into that issue, this one on the Government’s White Paper. We intend to produce a report in time to inform the debate in the House, which we expect to have in March. As I said at the beginning of my speech, the Defence Committee is very lucky. We are truly busy, and likely to remain so.
First, I want to add my voice to the House’s expressions of admiration for our servicemen and women, both those who are in the field now and those who were active in the past. It is important to put that on the record, because it is often assumed that those of us who take a view different from the consensus evident in the House are somehow less patriotic or supportive of our armed forces. That is patently not true.
I urge the House to look at the amendment that was tabled to the motion for the war in Iraq. I wrote that amendment, and had the honour of moving it in this House. People tend to remember the first half of the amendment but not the second, which extended our support for and recognition of the courage and dedication of our professional servicemen and women. It is important that that be recalled.
This debate is entitled “Defence in the World”. I cannot think of a more euphemistic misnomer, especially given that the Secretary of State’s contribution seemed to revolve around the offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Afghanistan deployment was legitimate and received international approval, but all of us now know in our heart of hearts that the Iraq offensive was an illegal campaign to effect regime change—an action specifically outlawed under the UN charter. Perhaps we can debate that on another day, but I am sure that that is view taken by the majority of people.
I hope that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) does not take exception when I say that the tone of his remarks when he described the threat posed by Russia and Iran reminded me a little of Dr. Strangelove. I endorse what various other hon. Members said when they pointed out that Iran, which is increasingly besieged by nuclear power nations, does not share the British perspective on the matter. Again, Russia sees NATO encroaching further into the east and the US establishing a string of bases around its southern flank, so it is not surprising that it does not feel especially sanguine about the disarmament that the rest of us aspire to.
Most of all, I want to speak about the Trident programme. I was disappointed that the Secretary of State devoted only 2 minutes of his 51-minute speech to that programme. I understood the reasons that he gave, even though they had to be prompted by an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). Without that intervention the Secretary of State would not have mentioned Trident at all, but it is too important a matter for us to pass over lightly, although we had a debate on it recently.
The report from the Defence Committee published last June said that there was no need to embark on the Trident programme before 2014, and that matters were being undertaken with undue haste. I have read the White Paper a couple of times and, like a lot of people, was rather confused by the arguments being presented. However, I held in mind what the Prime Minister told the House on the subject. He said:
“Ultimately, this decision is a judgment—a judgment about possible risks to our country and its security, and the place of the deterrent in thwarting those risks.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 21.]
The Prime Minister was absolutely right, and I could not disagree with that sentiment. However, in reply to a question from me he said that he relies heavily on experts. We all have to do that, but it is a commonplace to say that one man’s expert is another man’s dupe. There are certainly plenty of both around, so I went to my own experts. I sent each a copy of the White Paper and asked them what they made of it.
I should be happy to share with Ministers the response that they produced, although they may feel that it is beneath them. The seven-page reply to the White Paper, entitled “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent”, was written by four people: Dick Garwin, who was in the House recently and chaired the President’s Science Advisory Committee; Philip Coyle, Assistant Secretary of Defence and director for operational testing and evaluation; Ted A. Postol, the scientific adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations and the man who instituted the Trident II programme; and Frank von Hippel, who was Assistant Director for National Security of the White House Office of Science and Technology. Their credentials stand up to scrutiny, even for someone like me. They went through the arguments in the White Paper and made, in my view, extremely valid points which even I, a layman, can understand.
In summary, the reply concluded that the decision on Trident was premature. That echoes in part the June 2006 report of the Defence Committee. The reasons are straightforward and simple to understand. First, it is argued that the lifespan of the existing submarines is longer than presented because of operational changes that have taken place since the cold war. If equipment designed to last 30 years on the basis that it may be at sea for 18 months in every five years is at sea for only 12 months in every five years, obviously the stresses and strains will be reduced. Secondly, when the Government talk about the lifespan of the Vanguard class submarines, which are the platform for Trident missiles, they have changed the goalposts. Now they speak of a lifespan of 25 years with perhaps a further five. It has been asked whether the vessels can last longer if they are refitted. The answer is no, the Vanguard class cannot have its lifespan extended. It has been pointed out that the Ohio class submarines, which do a similar job, can have their lifespan extended by up to 30 years, so somehow there must be different laws of physics.
I am listening to my hon. Friend carefully. May I suggest that he wait for our next report, which goes into this matter in detail? May I point out, however, that the Ohio class and Trafalgar class are different designs, and that the American operational methodology—that is, the time for which they are deployed—is different from ours?
I accept that difference. By the way, I made a slip of the tongue. The extension is from 30 to 44 years, not an extension of 30 years, for the Ohio class. Nevertheless, that is a considerable extension.
There are arguments about replacing parts. There is a cogent response about steam generators, for example. It is cheaper to change parts than to change the whole vessel. What I do not understand is this: if the strategic objectives of the submarines and their missiles have not changed, in extremis could we not just replicate the same design? Could we not just have a replacement consisting of a second generation of Vanguard submarines if it is necessary, which I do not believe it is? Why do we have to design a new submarine and a whole new fleet at an exorbitant cost? If, in accepting the comments of my hon. Friend about the report that is to come, we put the tender out to BAE Systems, which produced the last submarine, yet its technical specification does not match up to the advanced specifications of older American submarines, would it not be foolish to have the same company making the same product when we know it will be inferior? The real question is: why are we being forced into an early decision? Do we have to decide now? No.
I had the opportunity to visit HMS Vanguard only a week ago, and it was clear that much of the equipment on board the submarine had had to be replaced within its lifespan. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, we could build the same thing again—but would we want to, when technology has moved forward? We can cut into a hull and replace a steam generator or a nuclear reactor, but it would probably cost more than building a new vessel.
I am grateful to accept the hon. Gentleman’s advice. It adds strength to my argument: we need much wider debate before we rush in and make a decision. I do not say that as a member of CND like my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown). I have never been a member of CND—it is bad enough keeping up with the Labour party, never mind CND—but we need to engage in debate.
Why are we being pushed into an early decision? I may be a little paranoid, but I see a Prime Minister who has been supportive of the defence establishment coming to the end of his term of office, and I see pressure being brought to bear on him by the industrial military establishment to get the decision through now. That establishment knows full well that a successor Prime Minister might take a more enlightened view—in my opinion—of what is needed for a British nuclear deterrent. That does not mean that there will be no deterrent, but that all other options will be explored, so that people are not bounced into a decision that they may come to regret.
Much as I would like to speak about strategic and procurement issues, I shall defer that to another occasion, because I want to talk about personnel—the men and women in the armed forces. Everyone is unstinting in their praise of those who serve in the armed forces. I was fortunate enough to be a member of the Defence Committee for a while, and like its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who is in the Chamber, I very much enjoyed visiting our service personnel and was impressed by their work. They are outstanding.
The civilian world has moved on, but the armed forces world has not done so to the same extent. Doctors who used to work in the evenings and at nights and weekends no longer do so. The working time directive limits the working hours of heavy goods vehicle drivers. Health and safety rules mean that, to assist baggage handling, there are limits on the individual items that can be carried on board aircraft. In many ways the civilian world has become a more regulated and protected place.
The armed forces, however, have not become better regulated or better protected at all. When there is an emergency, health and safety go out of the window and the working time directives has to be forgotten. I recall a visit to troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina shortly after they had moved into Vitez. We were impressed by the brilliant job they were doing; their living accommodation impressed us in a different way—it was appalling, and we admired the resilience with which the troops withstood their abominable living and working conditions.
A year later the Defence Committee was back in Vitez, but the living conditions had not changed at all. We were disappointed about that and told the armed forces that they must give higher priority to the living conditions of their men. By that time the Dutch had turned up, and were living in perfectly acceptable accommodation—it even had flower beds outside—whereas our people were in exactly the same accommodation as before.
In parts of the armed forces there seems to be a feeling that it is a sign of virility that troops can put up with almost any conditions. In Northern Ireland, for instance, living accommodation for our troops was absolutely abominable, in many cases. One of the reasons given for not improving it was that it would give a misleading signal to the local population—that we intended our troops to stay in Northern Ireland to assist the civil powers for a long time—so we needed to keep the accommodation as bad as it was to show that we were intending to leave. The idea that real men do not notice whether they live in a slum is wrong, and it is not the right thinking for the 21st century. Our troops deserve better—think of the lives that they live and the risks that they run. Hon. Members who have been to Northern Ireland will know that people there live from news bulletin to news bulletin. Families of people in the armed forces have to learn to put up with real, grinding anxiety, especially if they live in a dangerous area. Our servicemen and their families deserve and need special treatment, but too often they do not get it.
So far I have talked about serving troops, but different circumstances apply when the military and civilian spheres overlap. Even in normal circumstances there are risks, hazards and problems for service families. Moving house inevitably causes disruption, and it is sometimes difficult for the wife or husband of a person in the armed forces to get a job. There are also problems for the children, who may have to change schools. In addition, some Ministry of Defence housing is substandard. The Government should try to understand the problems faced by service families. One example of the Ministry not taking account of those problems is its proposal to focus training in St. Athan in south Wales.
Some 60 per cent. of service ships are based in Portsmouth, and most naval families have decided to make their homes in the south Hampshire area, so that they are near the place where their ship is based, and where they do their training, as that minimises domestic disruption. Moving engineering training to St. Athan will tear the heart out of the Navy, because service personnel undergoing training will be based in St. Athan during the week, but at the weekend they will need to travel back to their homes, which will probably still be in the Portsmouth area. That will place an intolerable burden on naval families.
The worst problems of all occur when things go wrong. Sometimes, service personnel and their families are exposed to totally unacceptable conditions, and I shall give three examples. It is well publicised that there is a huge backlog of inquests in Oxfordshire because service personnel who are killed overseas are brought back to Brize Norton, and the inquest needs to take place in the Brize Norton area, which falls to the Oxfordshire coroner. It is intolerable that there should be a three-year delay in holding inquests. Three extra coroners are being drafted in, but there are still 70 cases outstanding. Think of the grief and distress that that will cause to families.
That would be one way of solving the problem. Another way, although it might require a change in legislation, would be to enable the inquests to be held elsewhere—for example, in the area that the serviceperson came from. As I will say later, what the Ministry of Defence should do, both in respect of that problem and others, is take on other Departments, such as the Home Office, and find a solution. I do not know what that solution is, but a solution must be found.
My second concern relating to service personnel is about Defence Medical Services. The subject was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who once had responsibility for it. Many a time, the House has heard me explain how distraught the population of Gosport and south Hampshire is that the only remaining military hospital, the Royal hospital Haslar, is to close. The Ministry of Defence is withdrawing funding from 31 March, and it is pinning its hopes on a move to Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham. The move is not working well—and it will not work. There are staff shortages—in some cases, of as much as two thirds or three quarters—in some medical specialties, particularly general medicine, orthopaedic medicine, general surgery and anaesthetics.
Although it is possible for the Ministry of Defence to recruit people to the armed forces to train as doctors—their training is paid for, of course, by the Ministry—retention is a major problem. The overall plan was to move Defence Medical Services to Selly Oak and to build a £200 million centre for defence medical personnel, accommodation and training. That was cancelled, and the plan now is to use RAF Lichfield, which is 15 miles away, on the wrong side of Birmingham. That is not working, and I forecast that it will not work. I asked to visit Selly Oak hospital because I was told by the Ministry of Defence that the plan was working fairly well. That is not what I hear elsewhere. I was told that I could not visit the hospital, and instead a briefing would be given in my constituency to people who are concerned about the issue. I have reiterated my request because I think that it is my duty to go to Selly Oak to see how the hospital is functioning.
There is an alternative solution to the problem—a south Hampshire solution. We should retain Haslar hospital, which is needed for civilian purposes anyway and can also be used as a mess and training centre, and we should link Haslar not only with Portsmouth, with which it is currently linked, but with Southampton university hospital. That would give medical training to the personnel who require it, across a broad spectrum, and would solve the problem of retention and morale in Defence Medical Services.
The third area where the Ministry of Defence is letting down its personnel is housing. I want to argue from the particular to the general. The particular case involves a constituent of mine who served for eight years in submarines. Because of a defect in the air conditioning system in the submarine he was poisoned, developed pneumonia and was seriously ill for some time. It was thought that it might be possible to transfer him to surface ships, so he was moved from Scotland to Gosport, but then it was decided that he would not be put into surface ships. Instead, he would be medically discharged from the Navy. He has residual asthma from his experiences in the Navy.
My constituent applied for housing through the facilities available to service personnel. The description of the process involved makes the prospects seem quite cheerful. It explains how service personnel should apply to the joint service housing centre, and how accommodation will be found in one of the 180 areas in which that centre operates. My constituent applied, but was not successful. The Department of the Environment circular 14/93, “Housing for People Leaving the Armed Forces”, with which I was associated many years ago when I was campaigning on behalf of former service personnel who were having difficulty obtaining housing, states:
“authorities should not impose residential qualifications which put Service personnel at a disadvantage compared with other applicants; and personnel who are returning after several years’ absence to a locality in which they lived before joining the Forces have a special claim to sympathetic consideration.”
My constituents put that point to the local authorities in Nottingham and Plymouth, where they came from originally, but neither Nottingham nor Plymouth wished to know at all.
Gosport is the current local authority. It accepts a responsibility, but the responsibility that it accepts under the law is that it must provide accommodation when a family is homeless. That means that they must be, in effect, on the street. The Ministry of Defence has taken proceedings against my constituent. It has obtained a possession order for the house, and in doing so has applied for costs, so my constituent had to pay £220 to the Ministry of Defence for the privilege of being evicted from his own house.
The situation as it stands is that, in due course, the bailiffs will turn up at that man’s house, he will be evicted and will then be given bed and breakfast for himself. He has a wife and four children. He also has furniture, which presumably would need to go into storage, and two dogs, which might go into kennels at a cost of £8 a day. I put it to the Minister that it is totally unacceptable that an individual, through no fault of his own, should have been put in that situation. In parenthesis, I mention that one of his daughters was in Ministry of Defence accommodation when the boiler was noticed to be defective. That was reported, but, before the boiler could be repaired, it scalded the daughter, who requires skin grafts. That kind of situation is completely unacceptable.
All three issues—the delay in inquests; defence medicine, which interrelates with the national health service; and housing—involve the Ministry of Defence overlapping in its responsibility with other Departments. The Ministry of Defence has had good service from individuals, but at the end of that period, for one reason or another, the individual cannot get the treatment that he or she so richly deserves. I put it to the Ministry of Defence that there should be a new understanding between it and other Departments whereby service personnel are not disadvantaged in that way, but given the kind of treatment that they merit on the basis of their service.
In a wide-ranging debate, the Front-Bench spokesmen concentrated, quite naturally and properly, on the issues that face us in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to those continuing hostilities, two issues of overriding importance affect our stance on security. First, there is the question of our response to the growing evidence that the United States or its proxy, Israel, may unleash a military strike and possibly a nuclear one against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Secondly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) mentioned, there is the decision on Trident. I shall comment briefly on both issues.
I assume that if there was a US military attack on Iran there would not be any UK military involvement whatsoever, but I am not wholly convinced that our participation has been ruled out, so we must consider how a decision on the UK response would be made. As we learned from the Iraq war, it is astonishing that the decision to go to war—the gravest decision facing a nation—is still taken by one person alone in this country, namely, the Prime Minister of the day. There is no requirement to seek parliamentary approval and, even more astonishing, if the Prime Minister allows a parliamentary vote, and that vote is against war, he would still be within his rights to ignore it, as he has absolute power to commit the nation to war. That may be unlikely, but it is, none the less, an untenable position.
Under the royal prerogative, which dates back centuries, the powers of the Crown exercised by the Prime Minister, without consultation in Cabinet or in Parliament, include the right to make war, to make peace and to sign and ratify treaties. The democratisation of prerogative rights is being actively sought by all political parties, and in opposition the Labour party stated that it would ensure
“that all actions of government are subject to political and parliamentary control, including those actions now governed by the arbitrary use of the Royal Prerogative”.
It went on to emphasise the fact that the decision to go to war and the ratification of treaties were special areas of concern, and that is clearly the case.
It is high time that those pledges were implemented. We urgently need a convention that requires the approval of Parliament to be sought before British armed forces are deployed and take part in military action. The Prime Minister should be required to lay before both Houses of Parliament a report setting out the proposed objectives of the action and its legality, including—and we remember the Iraq affair—the Attorney-General’s full advice about the legality of any such action. That would still allow the Prime Minister, if he deemed it urgently necessary, to deploy troops before the approval of the House is given.
In such circumstances, which are likely to be rare, the Prime Minister should still have to lay the report before Parliament within seven days after troop deployment had begun. Such demands are not out of step with constitutional practice elsewhere. In the US, for example, the war powers resolution of 1973—more than 30 years ago—requires that if the approval of Congress for waging war is not secured within 60 days, the President must withdraw US forces within a further 30 days. For all these reasons, will my right hon. Friend make it clear in his winding-up speech what plans the Government have to abolish, as we promised to do before 1997, the royal prerogative to commit the country to war, and in its place—I believe that this has wide support across the House—to regularise a democratic procedure by requiring a parliamentary vote of approval on a substantive motion?
The second issue is Trident. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he has already taken the decision to replace the system. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend said so eloquently, at present the biggest danger that we face is the threat of terrorism on our mainland. For that, of course, nuclear weapons are useless. The only argument to justify Trident replacement, to which the Government always resort, and I think this also applies to the Opposition— when one is opposing both Front Benches, one feels confident of the rightness of one’s cause—is that although nuclear weapons are irrelevant to our current security concerns, and even though we are now in an utterly different post-cold war environment, we may at some future point, inevitably unspecified, face either a rogue state, a re-emerging nuclear Russia or a nuclear-armed superpower like China.
I want to examine that argument because, in the last analysis, it is the only serious bottom-line argument that is advanced. It is seriously flawed on at least three counts. First, as is or should be widely known, our nuclear deterrent is not an independent British nuclear deterrent—again, my right hon. Friend with whom I had not collaborated before the debate, made the point excellently. We depend on the Americans for the warheads, the fuse and firing systems, the nuclear explosives, the warhead casings and the guidance systems. We cannot fire the missiles without US-supplied data and satellite navigation. As my right hon. Friend went on to say, we do not even own the missiles. They are leased to us by the Americans from a repository on the east coast of the United States under a system which, I believe, is known as rent-a-rocket. If we ever needed to stand alone in a situation where we did not have US approval, we would not be able to do so.
I do not wish to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman’s argument; I merely offer a word of clarification. My understanding is that once the missile is fired, it leans on no other technology whatever. There is no satellite navigation. If the Prime Minister decides to press the button, no other mechanisms are involved. It is an independent deterrent.
I would dispute whether that is the case—whether there is no satellite navigation involved. Irrespective of that, there are several other aspects of the system which are clearly dependent on the Americans. That is the key point. It is in no sense a genuinely independent British nuclear deterrent.
Secondly, we get all that kit at a political price. The Americans offer it to us not because they depend on us for the defence of the west, but—this is why they are so happy to do it—because it makes us subservient to US foreign policy, as we have seen, tragically, over Iraq, where we apparently felt obliged to follow them, over Lebanon; and perhaps in future over Iran. To continue with that subservience for the next 30 or 40 years, which may well be the implication of this decision, is far too high a price to pay.
There is obviously a distinction between the two, but if we are going to have a genuinely independent British nuclear deterrent, we need independence both in procurement and in firing and navigation.
Thirdly, the central argument that is advanced is that however marginal and remote may be the contingency of some future nuclear attack on the UK, the possession of nuclear weapons is still absolutely indispensable for our security. If that is assumed to be so for us, the same argument will naturally be used by others to justify their possession of nuclear weapons for the purposes of their own security. Indeed, the logic of the Government’s position, as possibly shared by the Opposition, is surely to provide a strong incentive for the proliferation of nuclear weapons in many other regions across the world—particularly, I fear, unstable ones. If that were to happen—I think that in the long term it is likely—would we have a safer world or a less safe world? The answer must be the latter.
First, I have indicated that I do not think that it is an independent British nuclear deterrent. I have never taken the view that if we were to abandon the nuclear weapons that we have, Iran would immediately do the same. That argument does not hold. However, it could be argued that within the new international conference that I would like to see, we would have the moral and political authority that we do not have under the current proposals to press the case for preventing nuclear proliferation from going further.
To put the argument in the context of today’s situation, how can we insist that the UK must maintain its nuclear weapons to guarantee its security and at the same time lecture Iran to the effect that it does not need nuclear weapons for its own security and that the safety of the world will be compromised if it is allowed to go down that route? The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made a good, balanced and thoughtful speech, but I was not impressed by his argument that the situation in Iran is very different because of the wild rantings of President Ahmadinejad. I agree, of course, that that inflammatory rhetoric is extremely unhelpful, and it would be much better if he did not use it—[Hon. Members: “But he has.”] Yes, but the point about Ahmadinejad, which is perfectly well known to the British Government, is that he does not have the power in Iran—that lies exclusively with Ayatollah Khamenei and the senior ayatollahs around him. It would be quite wrong to take the view that we are justified in preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons and, apparently, quite justified in attacking the country militarily just because Ahmadinejad made a statement—an extremely unwise one—about Israel.
Irrespective of the argument that there is all the difference in the world between constitutional democracies having weapons of mass destruction and dictatorships that make explicit threats to annihilate other countries having those weapons, the right hon. Gentleman has to recognise that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty makes a distinction between five countries, including ours, and our obligations and many other countries, including Iran, and their obligations. We are observing our obligations and we are not undermining them by continuing to have a minimum strategic deterrent, whereas Iran is threatening to break its obligations.
As I have already made clear, I am critical of Iran for its abysmal record on human rights and in other respects. I was just about to come on to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The truth is—of course, and as we all know—that the NPT was built on a deal whereby the non-nuclear countries would agree not to seek nuclear weapons on the condition that the nuclear countries would proceed in good faith towards full nuclear disarmament. That is what the deal says, and it will not convince anyone that we are genuinely fulfilling our side of the bargain if we replace the Trident system. I am glad that the Government are cutting the available operational warheads to fewer than 160 and making a corresponding reduction in the stockpile of warheads. I agree with that, but to claim that it is consistent with the NPT is, I fear, sheer casuistry.
The case for Trident replacement simply does not stand up. It is based, I suspect, on the aspirations for top-table status among the military and political top brass and perhaps—I genuinely recognise this—on an irrational fear in the aftermath of the cold war. The truth is that none of our wars was ever won by nuclear weapons. None of our enemies was ever deterred by them. General Galtieri was not deterred from seizing the Falklands even though we had a nuclear bomb and he did not. The US had nuclear weapons, but that did not prevent it from being defeated in Vietnam or now in Iraq. The French had nuclear weapons, but it did not save them in either Indochina or Algeria. Israel had nuclear weapons, but it was still chased out of the Lebanon by Hezbollah in 2000 and again last year.
Very briefly, my last point is that it is important to remember that more nations have actually given up nuclear weapons over the past generation than have developed them. For example, Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine—and other former Soviet states—and South Africa gave them up and they do not regard themselves as any less safe now than they were before. That sets a precedent that we should follow.
I give notice that I am going to impose the short-speech rule as close to 4.30 as possible, in order to ensure that hon. Members who have been waiting will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate. I anticipate that, at that stage, the limit will be about eight or nine minutes.
The Prime Minister says that he wants a national debate about what sort of defence forces we should have. I welcome that. I suspect that the conclusion will be that we have no choice. Against the current position of overstretch and underfunding—in respect of people and procurement—we need to take a long view of how we got to where we are and where our nation and our military want to be in the future.
Our history and our heritage teach us—and economic necessity today demands—that we must sustain and pay for armed services trained and equipped for high-intensity warfare, with global reach and complemented by a strong diplomatic service. Both should be underpinned by increasingly sophisticated security services and intelligence networks.
In the nave of Salisbury cathedral fly the regimental colours of proud Wiltshire units that have served down the centuries all over the world. One is a tattered flag that was carried up the Potomac river in 1814, when our troops sacked the White House in Washington. Today—this very day—sees the sad end of that great military heritage as the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry, like many other regiments, ceases to be, but we welcome the birth of a new regiment: the Rifles. I wish it a great future.
The British have taken our language, ideas, trade and armies across the entire globe. Gone are the days of empire. The legacy is there—but we are not going to stop now. However, defence must start with the homeland. Some people thought that that was all over after the allied victory in the second world war. The slaughter in Northern Ireland rarely spilled over to us on the mainland. However, 9/11 changed all that. The Conservative party called for a dedicated homeland security Minister some years ago. The Government now look as though they might oblige by splitting the Home Office in two.
British forces are needed to protect the United Kingdom’s global interests in trade and shipping. More than 90 per cent of our imports come by sea. Those trade routes and vessels must be secure from foreign state intervention as well as from terrorism and piracy. That is why our forces must have global reach and power projection by land, sea and air. That must include amphibious capability, unmanned maritime systems, increasing use of unmanned combat air systems and space-based remote sensors. In other words, we must spend more on defence-based research programmes and do more collaborative work with our allies, including Australia.
Keeping the peace is also a legitimate function of Her Majesty’s forces. They are good at it—they are the best. I have seen that for myself in Bosnia and Kosovo. In Afghanistan, they are fighting a war as well as keeping the peace. In Iraq, our forces are in harm’s way, suffering the consequences of little or no post-conflict planning by the Government and our major allies. However, British forces should not be forced to become a gendarmerie, which is a different function from peacekeeping. They are in danger of becoming one because of the disruption of training schedules for high-intensity conflict in the UK and elsewhere. Their skills are being blunted—and it will not do.
I suspect that the British are genetically predisposed to belligerence. However, if we want a gendarmerie, let us create one. The British are brilliant at peacekeeping because of our national temperament. After 1,500 years of fighting each other in these islands we learned the hard way the virtues of tolerance and fairness, liberty and justice—all in the spirit of Magna Carta in 1215. We have been successfully invaded only twice—by the Romans and by the northern French, led by a Norwegian, but we were never subjugated.
I pay tribute to all my constituents who work at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down and at the Health Protection Agency, which is also based there. They are a vital and increasingly important part of Britain’s defence at home and around the world—they may deploy anywhere at a moment’s notice to defend our people and our interests.
I also salute those at the Defence Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Centre at Winterbourne Gunner in my constituency, who train our servicemen and women, and the staff of the police national chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear centre, which is also in my constituency, who have trained more than 7,000 police officers from every police force in the United Kingdom and other emergency services in the country.
Of course, at Boscombe Down, the Qinetiq team supports the Royal Air Force. It produces remarkable avionics in addition to maintaining the Empire test pilot school, which trains all our fast jet pilots and those of our allies. However, I ask the Minister to press harder for a solution to the problem of the eight Chinook helicopters which were delivered to Boscombe Down in 1982. I was told in October that a deal was being done with Boeing to bring them back into service. I had hoped that it would be completed by the end of November, but we have not heard a word. Will the Minister tell us in his winding-up speech what is happening to those eight Chinook helicopters?
We could not do without the Ministry of Defence police. They were originally founded by Samuel Pepys as royal dockyard police, and their officers now have full constabulary powers and extended jurisdiction in the UK to protect service personnel and their families as well as sensitive units and locations. They are currently deployed in Kosovo, Bosnia, Cyprus, Iraq, Sudan, Sierra Leone and the Pitcairn islands. The Ministry of Defence police, with their special skills, are currently the subject of two reviews into their future—the review of community policing inland and the armed guarding review. Both those reviews impact on my constituency. In winding up, will the Minister say when the reviews will be concluded and the results announced, because the effects on the Ministry of Defence police are serious?
Defence in the world has changed, and we must move on too. The old certainties of the cold war have gone and led to wholesale reappraisals of the role of NATO and co-operation between European nations on defence. In March, the House will debate the proposed replacement of our Trident nuclear deterrent. The Defence Committee is embarking on its third report on that so that we are all better informed before we decide on the issue. I urge the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) to wait for that report before being so definite about some of the technicalities that they described.
At a time of nuclear proliferation, I would take some convincing that we should not legally—I am sure that it is legal—upgrade our systems and build new submarines. There has been no evidence to suggest that unilateral action by the UK would make the slightest difference to others who are not signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and who are developing new nuclear weapons capabilities. We will continue to need a nuclear deterrent deployed at sea somewhere in the world. Those submarines must have global reach to defend British interests—trade and otherwise.
Britain will have to spend more on defence as a proportion of our gross national product. We must be able to pay our forces more, equip them better and deploy them with the weapons and equipment to do the job. We must also think afresh about why we and other European nations need to define defence in new terms. Homeland security and territorial defence are vital. Increasingly, protection of energy infrastructure, from gas and oil pipelines to wind farms and nuclear power stations, will be seen as important. The politics of energy may dominate, but there are parts of Europe where the politics of water and food are also increasingly important. As the climate change crisis climbs the political agenda, carbon emissions will also threaten peace and stability. Poverty and economic migration already cause great friction between states: even Portugal and Spain have their problems, as do Italy, Greece and Turkey.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) spoke about Turkey, and so will I. Turkey will become an even more important defence ally in future. The Turkish people, descendants of the Ottomans who ran a great European empire, are vital to the interests of peace and stability in their region, and vital to our interests too. I am astonished at the negative attitude to Turkey in Germany and France in particular. I am also gravely disappointed by the antics of some Members of the European Parliament who seek to block Turkey’s logical and welcome membership of the European Union. Turkey is a member of NATO and vital to western interests. We should welcome Turkey and thank her for many years of solidarity, through dark and difficult times in Europe and the west, from her position on our continent.
Given the absolute necessity of increasing financial, trade and manufacturing partnerships with China—a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty—and India, which is one of several nuclear powers outside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, we should work hard not just on our diplomatic relations with those great nations, but on our military collaboration. Time after time, we have seen that close military relations and exchanges of service personnel yield huge dividends for Britain and improve our security. I also commend the Australian Government, under Prime Minister Howard, for deploying Australia’s excellent military forces, not only in their natural sphere of influence—the Pacific—but for bearing their share of coalition operations in the middle east and elsewhere.
The challenge for this Government and the next—Conservative—Government will be to convince the British people that our future prosperity depends on matching defence requirements with defence resources. As the fourth largest economy on the planet, we can well afford to reprioritise our national budget in favour of our defence in the world, and we should do so.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this important and—at least until now—interesting debate. We have heard a number of far-ranging speeches. I particularly welcomed the contribution by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I pay tribute to him and the work that his team is doing in securing defence in the world for this country.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the contribution of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). He made a good and balanced speech. Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I did not agree with all of it. I certainly did not agree with his comments on NATO and the Riga summit. I attended Riga and my impression was quite the opposite. The commitment given by our United States allies in particular and all our European allies to the future of NATO was strong and welcome. Although they did not extend the remit or future goals of NATO, they made one thing clear: our success or failure in Afghanistan will determine the future success of NATO and its role in this country’s defence. I welcome that.
Similarly, I did not agree with some of the hon. Gentleman’s threat scenarios, but he was right when he said that we should keep all our options open when we consider the security of this country in an ever-changing world. It is not simply a case of the very new threats, which are real and great, but the need not to take our eye off the ball afterwards. I was concerned to read, as everyone else did, that the Chinese succeeded in taking out a disused weather satellite with what I understood to be an intercontinental ballistic missile. I cannot speak for anyone else, but it sent a shiver down my spine because it enhanced the strategic threat that China poses to the world when we have always considered it to pose a tactical regional threat. The traditional dangers are always out there.
Clearly, the biggest threat we face—this is why we are fighting on two fronts, with two sustained conflicts, in Iraq and Afghanistan—is the direct strategic threat to this country from international terrorism. We have no option but to tackle that problem at source. Again, the hon. Gentleman was right to say that we should start looking afresh at our defence strategy. Indeed, the Prime Minister recently said that we should have a new debate on defence, and I agree.
The hon. Gentleman was generous in pointing out that the Government’s strategic defence review was a welcome document. It was foreign policy-led and identified some of the threats that we faced in the future and some of the things that we needed to do to address them. We then had the new chapter, following the 9/11 attacks, which added to the SDR, and the White Paper, which set out our capabilities for the future.
It is my belief that there has been a paradigm shift in the nature of the threat away from what we historically looked at to the new invidious and horrendous threats from an enemy that places no limit on the weapons it is prepared to use; nor does it place any limit on the number or type of people, including non-combatants, that it is prepared to kill. It is also prepared to die in the process. That is an unprecedented and qualitatively new threat. We should look at our defence policy in relation to it. Perhaps we should consider a new covenant with the armed forces, arising from that threat, setting out what we expect them to do now that we did not expect them to do in 1997, when the scope of the SDR was first drawn up.
Most members of our armed forces—who do a magnificent job every time and wherever they are deployed—did not join the forces to fight on a regular basis; they joined the forces to prepare to fight, as and when it was needed. The vast majority of servicemen and women did not actually fight between 1945 and the present day, but that is now changing. A large proportion of our service personnel are not only expected to fight but end up fighting, not just once but again and again in the most difficult circumstances, and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan but in west Africa, the Balkans and all over the world. That is a new arrangement, and we must recognise the commitment that our soldiers are now making.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The problem is particularly acute in the case of the Territorial Army, many of whose members did not expect to fight at all. Now their families and employers are being asked to tolerate a second or third tour, which is making things impossibly difficult for many Territorial Army units throughout the country.
I agree. We changed the role of the Territorial Army—rightly—under the strategic defence review to make it more relevant to the changing threats that we expected to arise all over the world, but I do not think we expected the level of commitment and the operational tempo that are now required.
This is not intended as a criticism of where we are, because we are where we are because we have to be there, but the present position may be a signal that we should start to think again about what the overall strategic defence requirement of the country is as a result of the shift that has taken place and the tempo at which we now find ourselves operating. I believe that that tempo has detracted from some of the other business in which we should be involved at present.
Let me give an example. It is drawn from personal experience, but it worries me. We agreed, by and large, on the future platforms under the strategic defence review, and we agreed, by and large—although with some argument—on future force configuration. However, I am afraid that we will be blown off course and major procurement requirements will be sidetracked because of the pressure of existing operational commitments.
How can we refocus on future needs and capability unless we consider again—10 years after we considered it the first time—a 10-year review? The Prime Minister has said that he wants a 10-year review, not just of defence but of other Government objectives. I think that some of the speeches today, particularly that of the hon. Member for Woodspring, indicate the need for a serious debate about what our defence needs are and what our future direction should be.
I am proud of our handling of the defence budget over the past 10 years. We have maintained expenditure. I know that that is largely a result of our recent operational requirements, which have necessitated contingency expenditure; nevertheless, we have done well. But can we continue with a peacetime budget when some might say that we are in a wartime situation? I do not know what the answers are, but I think we may need to think about that in the fairly near future. It ought to be recognised that we have engaged in more conflicts recently—five major conflicts—than at any other time in the last 30 years.
Let me end by referring to a matter of great importance which is part of the covenant that I think we should have with our servicemen and women: the provision of training, including future training, for military personnel. I congratulate the Ministry of Defence team on the announcement on 17 January that all technical skills training, phases 2 and 3, would be completely transformed and restructured for all three services. That will ensure that within five years—or a little longer—we will have one of the best military training regimes in the world. The defence training rationalisation programme—which commenced in 1999, following the strategic defence review which was part of the thinking on what our future requirements would be—concluded that the vast majority of training should take place at the old RAF St. Athan site in my constituency.
St. Athan is a 600-acre site, and it was the largest military base in the United Kingdom. The intention is to provide a new purpose-built academy for the young men and women of our forces. There will be brand new facilities: brand new classrooms; brand new accommodation for both single and married people; brand new leisure centres; brand new sports tracks and gymnasiums; and there might be swimming pools, too. There will be the best such facilities anywhere in the world, and our servicemen and women deserve nothing less than that for the future.
I just want the hon. Gentleman to be aware that the Ministry of Defence has spent £100 million in the last four years on creating precisely such facilities at the Defence College of Communications and Information Systems at Blandford, which now will be abandoned.
There is bound to be resistance to the RAF St. Athan move; I heard the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), whom I respect very much, express concern. However, the concern about that will be no less than the concern that was expressed about the creation of the tri-service military academy for our officer corps in Shrivenham, but I do not think that any Member doubts that that was one of the best moves that the Government ever made and that that academy is one of best additions to the training provision of our officers in the history of the MOD. It is so good that officers from around the world are queuing up to get into the facility and take advantage of the training—and I am sure that it will be even better now, as I recently discovered that warrant officers are being trained now at the academy and I am certain that they will put many middle-ranking and senior officers in their place.
We will now provide such training for all other ranks in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. There will be training in mechanical engineering, aeronautical engineering, electrical engineering, computing, information technology, intelligence, logistics, photography and languages in one of the largest military academies in the world. That will add value to our covenant with the servicemen and women of this country, who do such a magnificent job, and I thank the MOD Front-Bench team for making this courageous decision. I am sure that that had nothing to do with the fact that St. Athan has been a centre of training excellence for decades, so much so that I understand that the Minister’s father trained and developed his skills there in the late 1930s. That tradition will continue.
This is a huge investment. It will mark a step change in the quality of training. There will be the modern approach to training that we desperately need to meet the changing security environment. However, this move will also present challenges for the local community, which is 110 per cent. behind it. I am aware that contract negotiations are currently taking place, but I hope that the Minister will, when it is appropriate to do so, meet me and representatives from the Vale of Glamorgan, who want to work tirelessly to make the move succeed and to make sure that we address some of the issues involved.
Order. I am now going to invoke the short speech rule. There will be a nine-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches for the remainder of the debate. I call Mr. Mike Hancock.
Some Members might be under the impression that the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) was lukewarm on the idea of the training centre being sited in St. Athan; I have surely heard him speak with a lot more enthusiasm on that subject. I want to echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), who spoke with real concern about the way in which service families are treated. The Minister has made it clear in the past that he is understanding of those problems, but sadly, the cases that the hon. Member for Gosport identified are not unique. Given that 58 per cent. of the Navy’s married quarters are in the Greater Portsmouth area, he and I, along with other Members representing the region, know only too well the ongoing problems that many of our service families face.
The same point emerged from the speech of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who said that the general morale of the forces is closely linked to the way in which service families are treated. That was a very important point to make, and I had a lot of sympathy with what he had to say—except on Russia. The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) was right to point out to the hon. Gentleman that he had over-exaggerated the threat, and that he had failed to realise that some of the things going on in Russia have caused the Russians to do what they are currently doing. However, I share 100 per cent. the hon. Gentleman’s view on Turkey. This is an awful situation. The decision that the French took in passing their motion on the Armenian genocide problem could be repeated in the United States. I simply do not understand how that can be beneficial to the future of NATO or to the harmony that we want to create.
I do not want to discuss the nuclear deterrent in detail today, but I want to put a marker down. A one-day debate on that issue in this House would be wholly unacceptable. Given the level of interest in it, such a debate ought to last at least two days, preferably three. This issue is vital to the country, and a six-and-a-half hour debate on it would be simply unacceptable. The House should be given the opportunity to have a much wider debate, so that more Back Benchers have a chance to contribute.
I thank the Secretary of State for the time that he took and the generosity and good humour that he showed during his visit to the Portsmouth naval base. It was good to see him there. I had a few words with him before this debate started, and he was full of admiration for the base. He said how much he enjoyed the visit and seeing the new shipbuilding going on, and he noted the commitment of the work force, the Royal Navy and the city to maintaining the base. Other Members will doubtless make the same point about their constituency interests in this issue.
I was delighted, as many Royal Navy personnel doubtless were, that the Secretary of State expressed the view that newspaper stories about six or seven ships being taken out of service this year were complete nonsense. He said that he had just come from a meeting with the commander-in-chief, who had not asked for ships to be taken out of service. The Secretary of State reaffirmed his position and gave a full commitment, saying that he was in no way contemplating that, and that no such suggestion had been put to him.
No one can fail to have admiration for the men and women who serve in our armed forces. Those of us fortunate enough to have service establishments in our constituencies regularly meet service people who have returned from, or are about to leave for, other countries. That our nation has more than 20,000 personnel serving in some pretty dangerous parts of the world is a tribute to the training, dedication and commitment of those young people to doing that job. None of us should be anything but grateful for what they are doing on our behalf; we should appreciate what they are doing.
The question that I posed earlier about the reliability or otherwise of the trained Iraqi police and army is one that one hears repeated when talking to service personnel who have been there. Their problem is one of confidence. They are concerned about what might happen if the braking mechanism of the UK forces—or the US forces in other parts of Iraq—goes. Our forces act as a brake on much of the violence that is perpetrated by some of those we have put back in uniform. In answer to an intervention, the Secretary of State mentioned what had happened in Basra with the serious crime group, which has now been broken up. However, nearly every member of that group took their weapons with them when they left their post. Where were those weapons going? Were they going straight into the hands of the insurgents? We should have considered total disarmament in that situation, as we should have done in Afghanistan when we first invaded it.
Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I am highly cynical about and critical of the US’s new plan for Iraq. For them, it is a do or die situation. They have not been able to control the area thus far, so what will they do now? It will need to be an all-out war in that part of Baghdad, but what will happen if they are not successful? When the Secretary of State gave evidence to the Joint Committee recently, he likened the situation to squeezing a balloon—a squeeze in one area means a bulge elsewhere. I had some sympathy for his answer that the squeeze would not necessarily be felt down in Basra.
We got our intelligence hopelessly wrong about the state of Iraq. We disbanded the Ba’ath party organisation and the armed forces from day one, because intelligence supposedly told us that that was the right thing to do. No one in intelligence gave us any clue about the infrastructure in Iraq and how much of it had been shot away during the Saddam years. We got it wrong.
In Afghanistan, we have the appalling situation of young service personnel dying there while young people are dying on the streets in the UK from drug addiction fed by the very poppy crops that our armed forces are not allowed to eradicate. We are part of a community that is paying farmers billions of euros every year not to grow anything. Would it not have been possible to eradicate the poppy crop and pay the farmers to do nothing? The Secretary of State suggested that that might double the poppy crop, because the farmers would take the money and grow the crops elsewhere, but we are supposed to be in control of that part of the country. Surely we owe it to those men and women whose lives are on the line in Afghanistan to allow them to do something that would save lives in the big cities of Europe, including the United Kingdom. It is a tragedy that we have not been able to do more on that issue. We should be able to do more.
Is it seriously suggested that we can put a timetable on our involvement in Afghanistan? I am sure that hon. Members recognise that Afghanistan is a much more difficult problem than Iraq, but the very reason we should eradicate those poppies is, as I have said, to prevent the deaths that they cause and to stop the financing of the very fight that is being taken to us. Without the financing from the poppy crop, the Taliban would not have been able to do what they have done. We should not allow it to continue. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to what has been an important and, I hope, helpful debate.
I wish to address three areas, namely, some domestic issues that relate to my constituency; Iraq, which I have visited three times; and the strategic nuclear deterrent. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) made a very good speech, and I am sorry that I missed some of it. As a Minister, he had responsibility for veterans’ affairs and I echo much of what he said on that issue. It is important not only that we value the veterans, but that we use the opportunities we now have, with the mechanisms that the Government have introduced, including veterans’ day, to link them with younger people so that they may come to value and understand the contribution that others have made, as well as the context of our political democracy, which has been fought for and has to be maintained. That development is hugely welcome.
On another matter, the Arctic Emblem medal is to be award posthumously to a late constituent of mine called Bill King. It is a disgrace that the contribution made by the merchant marine in the second world war has been left unvalued for so long, and I am very pleased that that is being put right at last.
I turn now to Iraq. I have read the counter-insurgency plan put forward by General David Petraeus, and the doctrine from Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute that goes with it. They have been melded together in the current overall US plan. I am less enamoured with the Kagan doctrine than I am with the Petraeus doctrine, as I can see where some of the latter has come from. The British contribution to the discussion gave US forces a better understanding of how to approach counter-insurgency warfare.
When I was last in Iraq, a member of the US forces told me that Britain trains soldiers and not just warriors. That is the difference: the British forces are able to achieve a roundness of response that sets them apart from the Americans. We know that, to make the plan work, all the different elements must be put together.
However, I fear that the overall counter-insurgency plan will not work. It is strapped together with the Kagan doctrine, which is hugely flawed because it does not recommend that the US engage with the rest of the world, and especially Iran and Syria, to resolve the problems that face us in Iraq.
I believe that we will have another debate on these matters in 12 months, and that we will have to deal with the problems caused by the US approach. We will have to take account of both the military context and the political circumstances. A broader international conference is needed to examine Iraq’s internal political development, the reconstruction effort, and the military consequences of the war. Those problems will not go away. One Opposition Member spoke of the Americans’ “do or die” attitude, but that will not be good enough. The present difficulties are likely to return, albeit in a different form.
British troops in the south-east of Iraq are doing a lot of good work. Our plan is to draw back and let the Iraqis take control. When I met General Latiff, the current commander of the Iraqi army’s 10th division. I was able to look him in the eye and make a judgment about him. He is clearly a capable and brave man, and the Iraqis want to take over responsibility for the area. Our forces set them a good example, although it should be said that the circumstances are not as difficult as they are elsewhere in the country.
My fear is that the British plan will be disturbed. An analysis has been made of the effects that the US plan for Baghdad will have, and I hope that we are not shown too many red cards by the Americans. That would lead to the failure of our plan to let the Iraqis take control, and that would be wrong.
Like it or not, Britain is part of the coalition and is bound to respond when attacked. I was very unhappy with our response to an attack on Falluja much earlier in the conflict. I do not want British troops to be put in a similar position again, either by default or by design.
At the time, I spoke to soldiers of the Black Watch as they emerged from confronting that attack. They said, “Don’t put us into situations like that. We can handle them, and we did that very well here, but we didn’t have the intelligence that we needed. If you’re going to commit us, then commit us, but we can’t be expected to be rat catchers who get bounced around for a while. We can do the job, because that is what we do, but it isn’t what we should be doing.”
We cannot solve the problem in Iraq by adopting the approach that was adopted in Falluja. We will not win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people like that, or set them an example of how to build a country. If the situation in Baghdad deteriorates, I hope that we do not allow similar problems to arise by default.
I wish the counter-insurgency plan well, but it is only partial, as it takes no account of regional politics. As a result, I fear that no solution will be achieved in 12 months, and that we will have to have another debate on these matters then.
We on the Defence Committee are discussing strategic nuclear defence. I am trying to let the facts and information inform my prejudice, even if I do not let them change it. At least I am going through that process, and the Government should go through it too. They should let the House inform them. My fear is that everything in this debate is conflated into one thing. I wrote a list for debate that includes matters relating to the construction work; the question of nuclear powered submarines as opposed to nuclear powered and nuclear armed submarines; diplomacy, our position in the world and whether we get a seat on the United Nations; the question of capability, its retention and whether we should keep the boats; legality; the question of time for the changes; and whether equipment can be refurbished rather than replaced. The arguments are hugely complicated in themselves, but together they make a picture. We need time to sort out all those different aspects and debate them. I do not believe that the debate in March will do that. That suggests to me a predetermined position. Okay, the Cabinet has a position and has told us what that is, but it does not have to be right. We should have the debate. We need time for the political calendar to turn. We do not need to make the decision in March, nor even in 2007. That might not be convenient for certain people who will leave, but they can always sit on the Back Benches and join the discussion. They do not have to be sat on the Front Bench, do they?
There needs to be time for a debate in Parliament and in the country, and for the political calendar to turn and party conferences to take place. Otherwise, there will not have been an open, proper discussion about all the aspects that come together in a complicated final decision that commits vast sums. My judge in all this is not the Prime Minister; it is my godson who is three and a half. I look him in the eye and I think, “What am I going to say to you, boy, about my part in this decision that will commit you and your future?” That is my determinant in all this. We all need time. This is not CND pleading or pleading from another interest group. I do not represent that. I speak for the ability to have proper, informed discussion about the issue, not simply a reaffirmation of predetermined and prejudiced positions.
The last two weeks have been a sad time for my constituency as a result of Government defence policy. In fact today is a sad day, because at midnight last night the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, which goes back to 1685, ceased to exist. We wish all the men well in their new incarnation in the Rifles.
Of more impact have been the Government announcements of 17 January that the Metrix Consortium was the preferred bidder for the £16 billion defence training contract—one of the UK’s biggest private finance initiatives. It intends to relocate the Defence College for Communication and Information Systems, including the Royal School of Signals, from Blandford to St. Athan. That means that defence training will cease at Blandford around 2011, affecting some 60 per cent. of activity at Blandford camp. The news was a blow for Blandford and the wider community. The camp provides state of the art facilities for communication and information systems training, employs around 3,000 military staff, civilian staff and trainees, and supports a further 1,000 jobs in the local economy. The South West of England Regional Development Agency has estimated that the economic footprint of the camp is worth around £300 million a year to the local area. Thus any move is significant.
I want to emphasise to the Minister that my main concern now is for the future of the camp after 2012. On 17 January I asked the Secretary of State to tell me whether the headquarters of the Royal Corps of Signals would remain at Blandford, and whether the Signal Officer in Chief would continue to be based at the camp. I would like confirmation in the wind-up that there is a firm commitment for Blandford to become the natural home of all Signals regiments when they are in the UK, with the technical support facilities that go with that role. As I mentioned earlier, the Ministry of Defence has spent £100 million on new facilities at Blandford over the past five years; it is definitely a centre of excellence and I want it to continue as the core of all Army communications and IT activity.
The main focus of my remaining remarks will be on the relationship between the EU and NATO member states. I have been involved in that relationship as Chairman of the Defence Committee of the Western European Union—the inter-parliamentary European security and defence assembly. I want to destroy a few myths about European defence structures, which inevitably involve current EU military capability.
Next month we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the treaty of Dunkirk—as Michael Caine would say, “Not a lot of people know that.” On 4 March 1947, France and the United Kingdom signed a mutual assistance pact, which was set in the post-war climate of friendship and co-operation and openly targeted at a vanquished Germany to forestall new aggression on its part. The French Government wanted to guard against what they considered a possible threat from across the Rhine.
The United States made known its preference for a regional pact that went beyond mere military matters, and in March 1948 five countries—the UK, France and the Benelux countries—signed the Brussels treaty, establishing what was then called the Western European Union, designed to guard against any armed aggression in Europe, not just aggression from Germany, against its members. The treaty organised co-operation among the five signatories in military, economic, social and cultural spheres, and a collective military high command of combined chiefs of staffs was created. However, the Brussels treaty was left devoid of its newly expanded authority when a succession of other treaties was signed establishing the Council of Europe, the European Coal and Steel Community and, of course, NATO itself. In April 1949, 12 Foreign Ministers gathered in Washington to sign the NATO treaty, which incorporated the Western European Union.
In 1955, after the failure of the European Defence Community, West Germany officially joined NATO, along with Greece and Turkey. At about the same time, the Brussels treaty was modified to create the successor WEU structure, which played an important role not only in integrating West Germany in the Atlantic alliance, but also in the restoration of confidence among western European countries and the settlement of the Saar problem.
The WEU did not have much of a role in the early years, but by 1984 Ministers had recognised the continuing necessity of strengthening western security, and that better utilisation of the WEU would contribute not only to the security of western Europe but also to an important common defence for all countries of the Atlantic alliance. The commitment to build a European Union in accordance with the Single European Act was signed, which brought a much stronger role in defence matters. There were operational roles for the WEU in the Gulf, the Balkans and on the Danube. That situation continued until 2001 when those roles were transferred to the EU, with the military staff, the satellite centre and the western European armaments group.
I stress that there is nothing new about the EU’s defence architecture, which under the provisions of the Maastricht treaty remains very much intergovernmental—a subject for co-operation between member states. That is the key point. As debates in the Bundestag authorising the recent German-led force in the Congo demonstrate, no soldier from a European state will be deployed in a conflict situation without the express approval of his national Government or Parliament. Any talk of a supranational European army deployed by Brussels is extremely premature. EU deployments of military force will continue to be made on an intergovernmental basis among willing nations, as is the case for NATO and the United Nations.
When considering NATO-EU relations, it is fundamental to remember that 21 of the 26 NATO members are also members of the EU, so relations between the two organisations are, to a large extent, relations between the same set of countries. Obviously, the United States is a major player, but if there is to be enhanced political dialogue, it must be among equal nations. In a speech on Monday, the Secretary-General of NATO asked:
“Why are NATO-EU relations still so problematic?...My answer to these questions is clear and unambiguous. NATO-EU relations have not really arrived in the 21st century yet. They are still stuck in the ’90s.”
That is the problem, but we have to move on. Reform is needed if we are to create and maintain Euro-Atlantic co-operation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) mentioned the genuinely disappointing Riga summit. We have to create a strong European pillar of NATO, and although the European Union is there to provide a framework, that must be done within the context of the Atlantic alliance and the wider global security system. Where appropriate, there can be a common approach within the EU. We must encourage all member states to invest in the necessary military capability, and we must make sure that their policies will strengthen the north Atlantic alliance by making a credible and effective European contribution to it.
Just last week, the Select Committee on Defence published its fifth report of the Session, the result of the Committee’s work in 2005 and 2006. That report reminded me why I have particularly enjoyed my parliamentary work this year, and of the breadth of our inquiry into past, ongoing and future policy. We considered a range of matters, ranging from the Met Office to the education of service children, as well as strategic issues such as the defence industrial strategy, and the strategic nuclear deterrent, which other hon. Members have mentioned. The latter two issues are of great importance to thousands of my constituents, as were our inquiries into troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, where some 1,000 servicemen and women whose bases are in Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall are deployed.
I pay tribute to those servicemen and women for the remarkable job that they do, and the service that they give on behalf of us all, and I pay tribute to their families, too. The fact that they do a remarkable job is reflected in the number of new year honours given to local men. Lieutenant-Colonel David Reynolds of the Parachute Regiment received the Queen’s volunteer reserves medal. An award was also given to Lance Corporal Nick Coleman of D Company, Devon and Dorset Regiment. As we have heard, that regiment recently came to an end with a moving ceremony in Exeter cathedral. He is now a corporal, and received a medal for the heroic rescue of his colleagues in a “hearts and minds” operation. Soldiers were giving out footballs to children when things suddenly turned nasty, and insurgents attacked. More recently, Sergeant-Major Colin Hearne and Captain Dave Rigg, local men, were involved in an astonishing rescue of a fallen comrade, which involved their being strapped to the stabiliser wings of an Apache helicopter.
In the time available, I want to discuss issues of concern to those working locally to support the provision of equipment for defence in the world, including the provision of the strategic nuclear deterrent. My right hon. Friend the Minister will know of the considerable uncertainties arising from industry consolidation, the defence industrial strategy, the naval base review, and the ownership of DML. As their MP, I am confident that the skilled men and women working at DML and the naval base will continue to play an important role in supporting the Royal Navy, but I know that we cannot afford to be complacent. Since December 2005 I have chaired the strategic group that brings together people in the company and in the naval base, the management and unions, senior people from Plymouth city council, the regional development agency, the Department of Trade and Industry and Jobcentre Plus to respond to the fast-changing circumstances.
At the employee briefings last February, we heard of the potential loss of 900 to 1,200 jobs, as we go down from two nuclear submarine refitting streams to one. The naval base review is developing
“a rigorous and objective fact base…to ‘right size’ our waterfront and logistic support infrastructure to that of the future Fleet.”
“The Case for Devonport” sets out how the facility there—the base of the strategic nuclear deterrent, with unique capabilities—can operate with unbeatable cost-effectiveness if the economies of scale that it is capable of offering are fully exploited. There is a track record of delivering multi-million pound annual savings—for example, £45 million from the submarine upkeep improvement programme—and we reckon that further savings of more than £120 million per annum could be released. We urge the Secretary of State and his ministerial team to look at fully realising value for money for the Ministry of Defence in the review.
We are satisfied with the framework that has been developed, except in one respect. That has been taken up with the review team, but I will take the opportunity of drawing it to the attention of Ministers. The socio-economic impacts, like the employment impacts, need a common framework. Through a comprehensive and professional study, we need to ensure that things are receiving a like-for-like evaluation. That is essential if we are to be confident that important options are not going to be arbitrarily dismissed or marginalised.
Finally on the naval base review, in Plymouth we realise the importance of obtaining value for money in relation to the overall MOD budget. We heard in many earlier speeches about how hard pressed that budget is. We need to get the procurement issues right because, as I have mentioned, we have many men and women who are serving on the front line and who need the right kit, in the right place. We are confident that what we have to offer at our naval base does just that, and we do not want the opportunity that the review offers to be fudged. We do not want a decision that is not clear-cut, or that is open to challenge. We want fairness, not favour. I urge my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister of State to take that clear-cut decision.
In the last few minutes I shall turn to the important decision on the strategic nuclear deterrent. The Defence Committee is on its third inquiry, on the White Paper. Our aim is to have a series of inquiries producing factual reports that will inform the debate. We have looked at the strategic context and the timetable. In particular, we have looked at the skills base. Next Tuesday we will have the final session, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We have previously met with non-governmental organisations, academics and lawyers. The Committee will set out and clarify some of the questions that colleagues are asking, such as, “Do we have to do this now?” and “What points in that direction and what doesn’t?” The single thing that does point in that direction is what I have just been talking about: maintaining the skills base in the different bases that contribute to the building and maintenance of the submarines. I remind colleagues that it takes up to 12 years to train a fabricator. That is aside from all the senior, complex work done by the design team. The teams cannot be reconstituted overnight.
What will the costs be? One of the reasons why we make our own submarines is that—I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) is not in his place to hear this—it is cheaper than buying them from America. There are other costs that have to be factored into the debate when thinking about what the real savings would be. People want to redeploy those savings on other expenditure—in this audience it would be on defence, but many others would argue for health and education. However, there would be decommissioning and economic regeneration costs. In Plymouth those economic regeneration costs would be astronomical. We are on the edge of what was the only objective 1 area in England. As another colleague has said, there would be costs attached to maintaining nuclear-powered, as opposed to nuclear-weapon-carrying, submarines. I hope that all that will come out clearly in the Defence Committee.
Indeed, what is the impact on the UK role in the Security Council and our contribution to the non-proliferation treaty? I recommend that colleagues read annex A of the White Paper, as it sets out how much we have done to reduce our nuclear arsenal, which represents only 1 to 2 per cent. of the world’s nuclear weapons. I would like what constitutes a minimum deterrent to be defined, as lawyers tell me that that has not yet been done. We can maintain our political and moral authority and keep our place on the Security Council—I have said that we do not need nuclear weapons to do so—and we shall return to those issues in March. It is an important decision, and I hope that the work that the Defence Committee has done will allow us to conduct the debate with more light than heat.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) for her commitment to Devonport. Unfortunately, such is the state of the Navy that there is competition between the three main service bases as to which will remain intact. That is a debate for another day, but the hon. Lady spoke about her constituency with commitment and intellect.
We have had a frank, open and educational debate, which has rightly focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, as those are the areas in which we are heavily involved. The backdrop to the debate is the Prime Minister’s comment on board HMS Albion on Friday 12 January:
“Britain has to choose whether to be on the front line of the global fight against terrorism or to retreat to a peacekeeping role.”
Perhaps we should mention that choice to our NATO allies. We have committed more than 7,000 troops to Iraq and 5,700 to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, however, the Prime Minister’s words stand in stark contrast to our military capability because, since 1997, there has been a dramatic fall in the size of our Army, Navy and Air Force and the procurement process has changed drastically: the number of aircraft carriers has been cut from three to two; the number of T-45 destroyers from 12 to six; the number of infantry regiments from 40 to 36; and the number of Eurofighters has been reduced, too. Will the Minister make a commitment to maintain the Red Arrows, as there is a shadow hanging over the pride and joy of the British skies? Will he assure the nation that there is a future for that important asset in his winding-up speech? There has been a great deal of discussion about the procurement process and its effect on equipment, notably the Snatch Land Rovers, which are inadequate in both Afghanistan and Iraq, so perhaps the Minister would be gracious enough to comment on that, too.
We are approaching the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and I am afraid that I do not agree with the glossy picture that has been painted in an effort to suggest that things are going well. I am pleased that General Dannatt was able to expose the reality of the situation, because only three of the 18 provinces in Iraq have been handed over to Iraqi control. Depending on which figures one uses, about 600,000 people have been killed since the 2003 invasion, and an average of 3,500 individuals are killed every month, according to a recent UN report. In fact, Baghdad has built a second morgue that can accept 250 bodies a day. That is the state of affairs in Iraq: we face civil war, so we must address the problem.
I have said many times that I never supported the war itself, which was a distraction from the real concern—Afghanistan. However, we are where we are. We have heard important voices such as Carne Ross, the former first secretary of the British delegation to the UN, who testified to the Butler inquiry that there were no weapons of mass destruction. We heard, too, from 52 diplomats, including former ambassadors to Baghdad and Tel Aviv, who questioned the Government’s middle east policy, which has caused us to endure many problems. A fundamental flaw in our ability to deal with Iraq stemmed from the fact that the previous Secretary of State for International Development, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), refused to participate in post-conflict work. We therefore missed the opportunity to win over hearts and minds and begin work on the reconstruction projects that were very much needed in the first few months after the main conflict.
The second fundamental error was the disbandment of the Ba’ath party. I intervened on the Defence Secretary and I was pleased that he finally acknowledged that that was a schoolboy error. It should not have been done. We immediately got rid of the army and the police force, but 80 per cent. of the current army and police force are former members of the Ba’ath party. Not only that—we also got rid of all the doctors, nurses and teachers. They all went home because they were not allowed to work, yet the majority of them wanted nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. They were simply working as best they could in the environment that existed then.
The biggest problem is the friction between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis. The bombing on 22 February last year of the al-Askari shrine, the Shi’ites’ most holy site, was the tipping point. Since then, Sunnis and Shi’a have found it harder and harder to work together. There is a growing insurgency. Many of the political groupings are linked to militias, and that is taking the country further into civil war.
Will the Minister comment on the growth of the militias, particularly the Mahdi army, which is one of the largest? I cannot see the leaders in Iraq disbanding these groups. First, they do not have the power, and secondly, the militias are helping them to remain in power. On 6 October last year, an entire Iraqi police brigade was taken out of service because it had links with death squads and looting, turning a blind eye to such activities.
On training, we were supposed to have reached a target now, four years after the invasion, of 400,000 trained Iraqi security personnel. We are not even close to 275,000. The Pentagon has stopped releasing assessments of the number of trained Iraqi soldiers, because they are not accurate and the numbers are in decline.
The blueprint that we have for Iraq is wrong. The US is in a quagmire, and erroneous assumptions have been made about the readiness of the Iraq Government to take over. We are in denial if we believe that. There is corruption and looting, and al-Maliki has little interest in disarming the warring factions. We are not winning hearts and minds, as we should do, and there is a growing opinion that ethnic tensions have gone too far.
We are obsessed with keeping the original borders. Tens of billions have been spent to try and avoid civil war, but that has failed. We could easily move a third of the population of 28 million, build houses, roads and all the infrastructure that is required for towns and villages, and divide the country in three on a model similar to the United Arab Emirates. We have a choice. We can change the blueprint and consider that option, or we can continue as we are doing and end up with a divided country anyway, but one divided by war.
I conclude with some comments about Afghanistan. Iraq played a huge role in what is going on there. Too few troops went in—30,000 to begin with. Only four years later, in 2005, did we get to the heart of the Taliban’s operations in Helmand province. Even now, in neighbouring Nimruz province, there is not a single NATO soldier. I ask the Minister to shout to our allies, “Where are you? Why are you not with us fighting the battles out there? Please come and join us in Afghanistan, but leave your caveats behind.” The British are doing most of the work, along with our colleagues, such as the Canadians and the Americans, but where are the French, the Germans and the Turks? We will not win in Afghanistan unless we have more troops there and a more co-ordinated effort.
My final point relates to the shortage of diamorphine in the United Kingdom. It seems ironic that when we have G8 responsibility for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, a shortage in the UK of a commodity that is made from poppies, and responsibility for Helmand province, where a third of the world’s narcotics come from, we cannot come up with a solution that involves licensing the poppy crops and preventing the terrorists from gaining from that income.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) referred to the speech made by the Prime Minister on 12 January on HMS Albion. I read that speech closely and repeatedly, because it filled me with dismay and concern. I would not be concerned were it merely the speech of a Prime Minister beginning his valedictory tour, but it presumably also reflects some of the thinking in the Ministry of the Defence and among the current ministerial team. The problem was that he painted a canvas divorced from the need to match our resources, capacity, service personnel strength, equipment and logistical capability with our foreign policy goals. Regrettably, he failed to recognise the political reality that in future the United Kingdom’s main bailiwick—the sphere in which our writ will run in terms of maximising our influence in military and foreign policy terms—must increasingly be the Euro-Atlantic region, the Mediterranean, the so-called “stans”, and the vital energy-producing areas of the Caucasus and nearby Asia.
Of course, if there is genocide in the world I want the UK to use its good offices in every way possible to minimise and prevent it. However, in the troubled area of Africa, for instance, we must be realistic in recognising that the regional powers are now Nigeria and South Africa. People might not like it, but we must, to a large extent, defer to them as regards maximising our influence on despotic regimes and our ability to intervene.
The Prime Minister did not reflect that reality in his speech. He tried to draw a distinction by saying that some countries do peacekeeping and some countries do war fighting—a peculiar phrase. I do not see it in those black and white terms. Clearly, we have an obligation—we are a significant power in the world, and long may that be so—but we need to decide how and where we can have the maximum impact on the world and match that to our military resources. At the moment we are over-committed—demonstrably so. If something happened in our political backyard—perhaps in Kosovo or in Transnistria—where a major problem required intervention, the UK would find it very difficult to act on it, yet our constituencies would feel the greatest impact in terms of refugees and so on. I say to the Prime Minister, to the current ministerial team and to those who will succeed them in a few weeks’ time that we need to cut our cloth appropriately and bear in mind the fact that we must temper our ambitions in respect of military intervention so that it relates to our foreign policy priorities.
My next point concerns recruitment. I was dismayed to discover in a parliamentary reply from the Minister that we are not actively recruiting in our overseas territories. That is surprising, as they have a large reservoir of keen young men and women who should be invited to join our armed forces. It is also bad in principle, because ultimately their Parliament is here and we should be doing something about it. My question related particularly to Bermuda, where anyone who wishes to join the UK armed forces has to get permission to get out of being conscripted in Bermuda. That conscription, which is being tolerated by this Labour Government, is discriminatory on grounds of gender because it relates exclusively to young men. Women are not conscripted—although I am not arguing that they should be. There should not be conscription in a peacetime situation presided over and acquiesced in by Her Majesty’s Government, who bear the ultimate responsibility for it.
As we speak, some young men and women are appealing to the Bermuda supreme court to have their conscription overruled. I am asking the British Government to use their power to have a stay of implementation of that conscription in respect of those young men and women until the supreme court has exhausted that issue. That does not seem to me unreasonable. The British Government, who protest about their espousal of equal opportunities on gender in this country, should not be acquiescing in conscription elsewhere. They are acquiescing in it because the deputy governor is an ex-officio member of the defence board of Bermuda and a full-time Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomat, and the governor is the commander in chief appointed by the UK Government via the Foreign Office. It is wholly unsatisfactory.
In any event, we need to think more about the Bermuda Regiment. Its twin, the Royal Gibraltar Regiment—comprising all volunteers, with pay and rations comparable to the rest of UK forces and very much integrated within them—is highly regarded, but the Bermuda Regiment is not. The Minister of State, in his place on the Bench there, had to confirm in a parliamentary reply to me earlier this week that if the conscripts want to go to the lavatory after 11 o’clock at night, they have to be escorted by their non-commissioned officers. That is demeaning and it is indicative of the parlous state of that regiment, over which the British Government are presiding.
Colonel Baxter, our military attaché in Washington DC, was dispatched down there just over 12 months ago to investigate the Bermuda Regiment and he found it under-equipped and in a parlous state. In his report, which is on the governor’s website, he said:
“Junior officers and NCOs are generally weak as commanders, displaying a lack of military leadership skills.”
He also drew attention to the fact that in the equivalent of the state opening of Parliament there—the local overseas territory legislature—the regiment turned up seven minutes late,
“largely thanks to poor time appreciation and a lack of urgency, both completely within its control. This fundamental professional error was avoidable and should not have occurred”.
He also noted that it was
“apparent to the Royal Party”.
[Interruption.] Some Opposition Members might find this amusing, but the point is that these people have no access to this Parliament. We have heard talk about constituency interests, but apparently no Member is taking a constituency interest in these people—other than the hon. Member for Thurrock, it would seem! I am going to dispense my duty.
Unlike the military units of the United States, France, the Netherlands and Spain, which do send representatives to the legislature, the overseas territory people do not. That is why I say that this Labour Government are really quite hypocritical when it comes to equal opportunities policies here in the UK. Where there is disproportionate and indefensible abuse by NCOs—we know about overbearing attitudes and what happened at Deep Cut—it needs to be looked into.
The Minister will, I know, always shrug it off. He is a jobbing Minister, who always shrugs things off and dismisses anyone who raises a legitimate point. Well, I am saying that he and other Ministers, particularly those in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, need to address themselves to what is a hidden, unspoken scandal in respect of the Bermuda Regiment, where we are conscripting people highly selectively by a ballot that is demonstrably unfair to those who win or lose that raffle. I hope that the Minister will take account of what I said when he replies and refer it to his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I am sure that the entire House will agree that it is absolutely typical of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that at the end of a long debate such as this one, he is still supplying something absolutely fresh, absolutely original and—dare one say it, however entertaining his contribution—absolutely serious.
Before I begin my winding-up speech, I would like to say this. Twenty years ago, I had the occasion to visit the British Airborne cemetery at Oosterbeek near Arnhem. Among the serried rows of gravestones, I was interested to see a considerable number that were engraved not with the Christian cross, but with the Jewish star of David. I realised then that as far as the services in the second world war were concerned, the people from other religions who fought and died for freedom and democracy did so, from this country’s point of view, irrespective of their religion because they were British and because they were proud of the values that we were all standing up to defend. That has now begun to occur in the case of Muslim members of the armed forces. I pay tribute to the first Muslim soldier who was killed in action. He was a British hero, and if we are to fight and win what is fundamentally a battle of ideas, we will depend on people like him—and on his religious community to stand up for people like him and do what is right when extremists in that community seek to add to the dangers of our brave, patriotic, British Muslim servicemen and women.
The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) made such an impressive speech, in which he said that there was a danger of the strategic defence review being blown off course, that I dug out a copy of that document from my little portfolio. It was produced in 1998 and broadly welcomed, not least by the Opposition. It set out a basic, strategic realignment, given that the likely threats would arise not on the continent of Europe but in locations much further afield.
It followed that, if the armed forces were ever engaged in major war fighting, power would have to be projected at a distance. We are no longer an empire and can thus no longer rely on bases in many countries overseas. We cannot even rely on overflying rights, and it was therefore necessary to devise a power projection concept of a moveable base—a base in the sea from which the armed forces could be taken to the theatre of operations and that could project power from the sea to the air, from the sea to the land and from the air to the land. From that came the essential realisation that we needed to focus on the Royal Navy in general and carrier capacity in particular.
That strategic concept has not fundamentally changed. However, the prescriptions set out in the document for what would be necessary to fulfil it have changed. Those changes appeared in two other documents that are cited much less frequently. One is the defence White Paper, which was produced at the end of 2003, and the other is the paper on future capabilities, which was produced as a supplement to the White Paper in July 2004.
The problem is that the two documents do not match up. The earlier document admitted that the armed forces were engaged in a much heavier scale of operations than the strategic defence review anticipated. However, the rot set in in the 2004 document because that was when the Government started making the cuts in current capabilities to fund current campaigns. They not only cut current capabilities but made cuts in future capabilities, which the strategic defence review had described as necessary to implement the strategy that everyone accepted.
Let me concentrate briefly on the Royal Navy and one aspect of it: the frigate and destroyer fleet. When the strategic defence review was published in 1998, it stated that we would cut the number of frigates and destroyers from 35 to 32. After two wars had broken out and were being fought, we suddenly found that, instead of 32 ships to discharge that function, there had been only 31 and a further six were to go, leaving only 25.
The argument was put forward—it was dubbed by me, if nobody else, as the Hoon excuse in honour of the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), who was then Secretary of State for Defence—that we did not need so many platforms, as the new platforms were going to be more powerful than the old ones. We always knew, however, that we were going to have those new platforms. Even at the time of the SDR, we knew that they were going to be more powerful than the old ones. The difference was that whereas the Navy chiefs had accepted reluctantly a reduction from 35 to 32 in return for getting the carriers, they were now being expected to do the same job with 25. I am not as sanguine as the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) that the fleet is not in danger of being cut further, because we all know that it is widely rumoured that a Defence Management Board meeting may mothball another six frigates and destroyers.
I never thought that I would have the opportunity to regard the Liberal Democrats as more trusting and naive than me. I am happy to do so on this occasion. I will be delighted if the hon. Gentleman is proved right and I am proved wrong.
We have heard from several Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), the catalogue of woes and cuts, and the concerns expressed, with unprecedented frequency, by senior serving and recently retired heads of the armed services. I could cite General Lord Guthrie, and we all know about General Dannatt and his predecessor as Chief of the General Staff, General Jackson. And let us not forget General Shirreff’s plea for adequate standards of service housing, training and health care. Of them all, however, I am particularly interested, with my Navy responsibilities, in the contribution of Sir Alan West, the former First Sea Lord, who said both in and out of office that for the tasks that the fleet is being asked to undertake we need 30 frigates and destroyers, and we are doing the work of 30 frigates and destroyers with only 25 now and possibly even fewer in the future.
The Royal Navy had emerged triumphant from the strategic defence review, but now it is looking distinctly on the ropes. The reckless reductions have been based on the strategic falsehood that numbers no longer matter in an era of more capable ships. In reality, the cuts have been accepted for the promise of the aircraft carriers, and yet no order has been placed for those aircraft carriers, and a threat is hanging over ships seven and eight in the Type 45 destroyer fleet. Will the Minister answer three questions when he sums up? When will he order the carriers? Are ships seven and eight in the Type 45 programme under threat or are they not? Will he guarantee that the Government’s commitment to the deterrent will not trigger even more intolerable cuts in front-line forces and in the infrastructure of Britain’s armed services?
Turning to some of the contributions in the debate, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) denied that there could be any danger of a Russian military threat. I hope that he is right. Twenty years ago, he would not have denied that. We must consider what the threats will be, not now but in the period between 2025 and 2055 when the next generation of the nuclear deterrent will come into service and go through its service life. The onus is on people such as him and his right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) to rebut the argument that what matters is not the threats that we face now in relation to the next generation of the strategic nuclear deterrent, but the dangers that will confront this country that far ahead.
If I had stood up and said, at the height of the second cold war 15 or 20 years ago, that the main threat facing this country would be from fanatical religious extremists and suicide terrorists, everybody would have thought that I had taken leave of my senses. We do not know what threats will arise over the next 10 or 15 years, let alone over the next 25, 35 or 40 years. When the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) asks what he should say to his young godson about how he voted on having a strategic nuclear deterrent for that period, my answer to him is that you will be able to say proudly to your godson, if you vote for it, that you—
I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman will be able to say that he offered his godson the same protection against future threats from any country armed with a mass destruction weapon that we in our generation have enjoyed.
The right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton said that he would deal with the argument that a future threat might arise that would require us to have a strategic nuclear deterrent, and I was waiting to hear what he was going to say, but he did not deal with it at all. He just argued that it was not an independent deterrent, that there was a political price, in terms of being too close to the Americans, to be paid for having it, and that others will use our example to justify the retention or the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
The point about the reliance on the American nuclear deterrent is this: we cannot rely on an American nuclear deterrent to act as a cover for our conventional forces when they are engaged against a country that might or might not have a nuclear weapon. The example of the Falklands was given and we were told that the strategic nuclear deterrent did not deter General Galtieri. Of course it did not—democracies do not use nuclear weapons to deter conventional aggressors. However, that was the wrong point. What should have been said was that if General Galtieri had had a nuclear weapon, however crude, would we then have dared to retake the islands conventionally, knowing that he could have unleashed that on us and we would not have been able to deter him?
The nuclear deterrent has two functions, not only the one that the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton mentioned. It has the function of deterring strategic nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction attack against this country, and it has the function of ensuring that if our armed forces ever need to go into battle conventionally, they cannot be prevented from doing so by an opponent having even a crude mass destruction weapon.
As for why we cannot solely rely on the American deterrent, it is quite simple: we are the principal ally of the United States and we go to war often alongside it, and there is a danger that an opponent might think that even though the Americans might well retaliate on our behalf to an attack with mass destruction weapons, the opponent might make the mistake of thinking that it would not and that it was easier to go after the smaller of the two allies. That mistake, with all its fatal consequences for all concerned, is done away with by our independent nuclear deterrent being under our independent control.
Time is defeating me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I just say, in terms of what has been said about Iraq and Afghanistan, that in Iraq and Afghanistan there are doctrinal differences between our approach and that of our American allies. I believe that if we are the principal ally of the United States of America—the one country of a certain size, for there are other small countries, on which it knows it can rely—it needs to take our representations seriously, particularly in the field of counter-insurgency campaigning.
I mean no insult to the record of the American armed forces when I say that Britain’s achievements in counter-insurgency campaigns in the past feature lessons that can usefully be learned by our allies, and that, along with some of my colleagues, I am not entirely sure that they are always prepared to listen and take those lessons on board.
This has been a very good debate. I have been doing my job for six years or so—as a jobbing Minister, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) remarked—and have had the benefit of listening to some very good debates featuring contributions ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. I will not make another comment about my hon. Friend.
Today’s debate took a balanced approach and provided a helpful reminder of the important work that our armed forces are undertaking around the world. It went beyond the realms of its specific title and into the realm of foreign affairs, which I think was inevitable as there is a clear interconnection. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made a thoughtful speech. Others raised points of disagreement, which is in the nature of such debates, but at least the hon. Gentleman had thought about what he wanted to say and what he sought to define, and some of the issues he raised require consideration.
One of the hon. Gentleman’s points was about the way in which policy has been developed over the years. He paid proper tribute to the strategic defence review. As I have said here on other occasions, there was a degree of continuum in that process. The train had left the station before the Labour Government arrived, but it was realised that something had to be done. The process was driven by the political direction of the then Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Robertson, and the then Minister for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), the current Home Secretary.
Nothing stands still in defence. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) referred to the new chapter to the strategic defence review—[Interruption.] Well, he referred to the two support documents.
I apologise. I was going to refer to the new chapter to the review. We had to stand back and look at what had been said in the SDR. Some of the assumptions were based on the experiences of 9/11 and the wake-up call that the world received at the time. Out of that have come some fundamental rethinks about how we should best position ourselves. That process is not complete. Some of it is clearly driven by budget issues, but there is nothing new about that, and it will always be the case when defence matters are involved.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) mentioned the reduction in the size of the infantry. His hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East mentioned the former Chief of the General Staff, General Jackson. I worked with him in developing the future structure of the infantry, and I recommend Members to remind themselves of the underlying principles.
Owing to the way in which the arms plot works, up to 11 battalions were not available for use at any one time, mainly because of re-rolling. There was also the benefit flowing from the normalisation in Northern Ireland, which we had always expected to lead to change because of our heavy military commitment there. However, as a result of the change in the way in which the infantry is brigaded, all battalions will eventually be available for deployment. As General Jackson said at the time, we will have more battalions available with a total of 36 than we had with 40: that is the hard logic of the position.
The hon. Member for Woodspring mentioned NATO, and criticised the role of some of our partners. Others mentioned the role played by national caveats. Those points are well made at various NATO engagements and meetings. At Riga, for example, there were developments and promises were made, but promises must be judged against what is delivered. There will be a further iteration of that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State goes to Seville and we move on to tackle the next development in Afghanistan, and some of the points made by the hon. Member for Woodspring will be picked up at that time.
The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) also mentioned national caveats. He mentioned the study into NATO that the Defence Committee is undertaking. We welcome that inquiry and we look forward to its outcome. As ever, it will be thoughtful and a lot of effort will be put into it. It will help the Government in their approach not only within the MOD, but in terms of our relationship with our international partners.
The hon. Member for Woodspring mentioned medical facilities. He raised an issue that must be addressed as we continue our presence in Afghanistan. Time does not permit me to go through all the aspects of the medical facilities that are in place there, but let me comment on CT scanning, which he, as a doctor, knows is an important part of treating some injured patients. All UK military patients who require a CT scan are transferred to the Canadian role 3 hospital, a high-grade hospital at Kandahar, and we are seeking to provide a CT scanner at the new tier-2 build of the UK role hospital in Camp Bastion, which is in the process of being procured and commissioned—it is due in May.
In closing, I want to remind the House of the significant contribution that our forces are making across the world. More than 5,000 people are deployed outside Iraq and Afghanistan, from Brunei to the Falkland islands as well as in sub-Saharan Africa, Cyprus, Gibraltar and the Balkans. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) made that point. He also made another important point about the recognition that we give to our veterans and the role of the Veterans Agency. No matter how much energy he put into that when a Minister, or how much others have put in subsequently, it is an area that has to be developed as part of our MOD outputs. I am sure that there will be cross-party support for that.
My right hon. Friend also asked about the pressure on key medical specialities. We recognise that there are shortages, and that creates problems. There are key shortfalls in the specialities of accident and emergency, orthopaedics, anaesthetics and general practice. We are taking steps to address them through a range of pay and non-remunerative initiatives, including working to ensure that pay remains comparable with that of the NHS—that must be part of the inducement—establishing alternative means of meeting operational commitments, and managing consultant deployments on a tri-service basis. We are working within the capacity that we have, and we are also trying to gain additional capacity to meet the needs in that crucial area. However, I want to emphasise that the defence medical services have met all the operational requirements placed on them. Medical support for deployed operations is vital and there is no question of British forces deploying on military operations without the appropriate medical support.
I welcome the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy). As ever, it was thoughtful and she raised two very important issues. I want to deal with one of them, which relates to her constituency concerns and the naval base review. We have been investing in the Royal Navy—despite what was said by the hon. Member for New Forest, East—in order to provide modern and effective ships, and it is only right that we review naval bases to make sure that we have the right infrastructure—no more and no less—to support the Royal Navy of the future and to ensure that we get the most out of the money that we have for defence. The reason for that is quite simple: to ensure that the resources are rightly focused on the front line. Surplus capacity and activity drains resources from the front line. Getting that balance right has always been a driver in defence, and is perhaps even more so now. I know that my hon. Friend understands that point and would not argue against it.
These are difficult and weighty matters and it is important to have as much information as possible to support our decision making. The team undertaking the naval base review is ensuring that local aspects—the point that my hon. Friend made—as well as defence needs are taken into account. The review will help to determine the infrastructure that we must retain, and what, if anything, we can do without. There will be a lot of discussion and debate about the outcome, but that will not be because of a lack on input from people such as my hon. Friend, who has put together a very cohesive case on her constituency’s behalf.
The hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) raised a number of issues and I shall deal with just one—the coroner’s court. There has been an unacceptable backlog of inquests at the Oxfordshire coroner’s court, but that has begun to be addressed through the work of the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has direct responsibility for such matters. Three additional assistant deputy coroners have been appointed to assist the Oxfordshire coroner in dealing with the backlog of operations-related inquests, primarily on deaths in Iraq. Some 15 inquests into the deaths of service personnel killed on Operation Telic have been scheduled for hearing between 1 January and the end of May this year. That means that most inquests relating to deaths of service personnel before 2006 that are in the jurisdiction of the Oxfordshire coroner will have been held. The DCA is taking steps to avoid a future backlog of inquests. The criticisms have been well made in the past and have been well made again today. We all recognise the vital importance of getting matters right.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) had a cross-Chamber discussion with Members about his analysis of his party’s policy on withdrawal from Iraq. I shall read what he said with interest—it is probably better to read it than to try to recollect it now—and compare it with the views expressed by the leader of his party, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). We will doubtless return to the issue. I do not want to labour the point, and we should not make too much of a party political point out of what he said. However and as I pointed out, the hon. Gentleman seemed to be coming my way, and toward this Government’s view about the conditions-based circumstances that will lead us to reach a conclusion on the various developments that must take place in Iraq in the coming months.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Last week, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) outlined a proposed framework for a staged withdrawal from Iraq, which he said should culminate by 31 October. We were taking the Government at their word about handing over the provinces in the spring. The framework allows three months to negotiate with our allies and six to get out. That seems pretty flexible to me—nobody said that anything had to happen on 1 May that could not happen on 30 April or 2 May. However, I leave the Minister to his reading.
The hon. Gentleman should. He has been away from the Chamber for some time, and I would have thought that he could come back with a better answer than that. However, we will deal with all these issues in due course.
Given that this debate is about defence in the world, I want to talk about the role played by our forces in sub-Saharan Africa and the very considerable contribution that we are making there. An example is Sierra Leone, and although there is still some way to go, our contribution there is a major success. Although a settlement still has to be reached in respect of Kosovo, our contribution in the Balkans has also been a significant success. Some 600 personnel are in Bosnia, and that figure should drop very quickly, assuming that agreement is reached——I think that that will happen, because we are pushing for it—within the EU on the future position on Bosnia. That will be another indication of significant and important success.
As others have said, we owe a major debt to our armed forces. Members of Parliament, both civilians and those who have served in Her Majesty’s armed forces and who now serve in the House, all make such statements and we genuinely mean them. We owe a big debt of honour to our armed forces and we really do recognise that they are the best in the world.
It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.