Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Roy.]
I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing condolences to the family and friends of Lance-Corporal Sarah Holmes of 29th Regiment Royal Logistics Corps, who died in support of operations in Iraq.
I welcome this debate on defence policy. I particularly welcome the opportunity to focus on the strategic direction for our armed forces, which is all too often overlooked in the understandable focus on day-to-day issues. The UK’s defence policy was laid out in the strategic defence review of 1998 and re-confirmed in our White Paper in 2003. The vision is
“to defend the UK and its interests, including against terrorism, strengthen international peace and stability, and act as a force for good in the world”.
That vision defines the role of our armed forces in the world. It requires us to have forces capable of acting across the full spectrum of military activity, from conflict prevention to war fighting. It requires us to work effectively across Whitehall with other Departments—notably the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development—and with our allies and partners around the world. We could not deliver that vision without the men and women of our armed forces.
Last Friday, I was reminded of all those who have lost their lives in the service of this country since world war two. The dedication of those involved with the armed forces memorial in Staffordshire is an appropriate and timely reminder of the debt that this nation and others owe to the men and women of our forces.
As we debate our defence policy, it is important to remind ourselves of the challenges that we are likely to face in the future: international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, fragile states and intransigent regimes. Of course, other pressures will complicate our response to such challenges: climate change, energy security, pressure on natural resources and social, technological and geopolitical change.
The UK has a significant part to play in improving the international community’s preparedness for such challenges, not least through our armed forces. Our foreign and defence policies decide where, how and with whom we are likely to deploy our armed forces. The judgment made in the SDR in 1998 was that we were likely to deploy alongside allies and partners, and that has been validated by recent operations. That will continue to be the policy for the foreseeable future for any medium or large-scale military operation.
The House has questioned Defence Ministers regularly and appropriately in recent months about tour intervals and harmony guidelines, so it is worth my taking some time to explain that important part of our defence policy. We have planned on the basis that we should have armed forces capable of conducting one enduring medium-scale operation and one enduring small-scale operation at the same time, while retaining the capacity to conduct a third small-scale operation for a limited period—all while keeping within harmony guidelines, which, for the Army, are to have 24 months between six-month operational deployments. Having such a force structure also enables us to conduct a large-scale operation, such as that in Iraq in 2003, or a second medium-scale operation, such as that in Afghanistan, for limited periods, albeit with the consequence that those ideal tour intervals will not be achieved. That is the position that we have been in for the past few years.
I am pleased to say, however, that conditions in Northern Ireland mean that the Army no longer has to maintain forces dedicated to assisting the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Conditions on the ground in Bosnia have also allowed us to reduce our presence there and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced to the House last week, we plan to reduce our forces in Iraq by the spring of 2008.
Those reduced commitments go some way towards allowing our servicemen and women the time at home that they need to recuperate and to see their families. The overriding lesson has been that our defence planning assumptions and our force structure have succeeded in generating the sort of capabilities that we need to deploy. But that is not the whole story, as many right hon. and hon. Members know. Emerging technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles, and the need to respond to a rapidly evolving threat, present commanders with new opportunities and new constraints. We need to match that with the necessary force structure—involving additional UAV units and battlefield helicopters, for example—but perhaps balanced by fewer anti-submarine warfare assets.
We keep our force structure under regular review, with an eye to what we need to protect our interests both nationally and in the multilateral context in which we are most likely to deploy. The outcome of the comprehensive spending review allows us to do just that. It provides 1.5 per cent. annual real-terms growth in the defence budget to 2010-11, thus cementing a decade of real growth. By 2011, the defence budget will be more than 10 per cent. higher in real terms than in 1997-98.
I hope that the Secretary of State will forgive me for conveying the sentiment of many in the armed forces that he seems to be putting a very brave face on the situation in his Department. Although it is true that defence spending may have risen by 10 per cent. in real terms since 1997, it is also true that the United States has increased its spending by 60 per cent., the Russian Federation by 148 per cent., India by 40 per cent., and China by 129 per cent. Why are we falling so far behind so many of our international comparators?
The first point that I make to the hon. Gentleman—and others in his party who constantly look for comparators to justify, in their terms, the allegation of cuts in UK defence spending, which they have thankfully moved away from—is that our real-terms growth in defence spending contrasts significantly with what happened during the last years of the Government whom he supported. They cut defence spending by £0.5 billion a year in real terms. The challenge for him and his Front-Bench spokesmen is not whether they can compare spending in the UK, in its particular circumstances, with spending in any other country that they might identify. I could identify many countries where the comparison goes the other way.
The challenge for his party is to match the level of spending to which we have committed in the spending review and to say whether it intends to spend more on defence—and, if so, to say what it would spend that money on and which public services it would cut in order to spend it. If the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench spokesmen are not prepared to engage in that debate, they cannot be allowed to seek solace in comparisons that they have drawn out of the air. The circumstances of the US, Russia, China or India are not our circumstances. I am talking about a continuum of which we should be proud: real increases and real investment in defence, which are reflected in how we are able to support and equip our troops in the operational theatre.
The hon. Gentleman can make a speech if he wants to. I am sure that other hon. Members will want to intervene on me.
Multilateralism has been a cornerstone of our defence and security policies for over 50 years. The United Nations stands at the pinnacle of the world’s efforts to create a coherent and effective multilateral approach. We fully support the role of the UN to resolve tensions and crises around the world. Currently, it is running an unparalleled number of peace support operations, with more than 100,000 military and police personnel from numerous nations deployed by the UN in operations around the world. During the past year, 110 nations have contributed troops to UN peace support operations.
There are currently about 300 UK military personnel deployed on 10 UN operations, including missions conducted in partnership with the African Union and the European Union. Such partnering between organisations is essential if we are to cope with the increasingly complex and demanding missions that we face.
I have just returned from Afghanistan, and I find myself blaming the United Nations for not co-ordinating efforts in that country. I appreciate that the Secretary of State shares my frustration, but does he not think it is now time to have an individual co-ordinator—an authoritative voice—to link the work of the UN, the European Union, the Department for International Development, the United States of America and, indeed, the international security assistance force? I believe that the window of opportunity is closing in that country, and a lot of the blame lies with the United Nations.
I know that the hon. Gentleman recently visited Afghanistan, and I am still examining the interesting list of issues that were raised with him when he met tribal leaders, and taking advice about it. I will respond to him, and I await the letter that he promised, which will raise other issues. I am grateful for the constructive way in which he has contributed to the debate relating to strategy and development after his visits to Afghanistan.
I am not surprised that, as a result of the hon. Gentleman’s visit, he has come to the same conclusion about Afghanistan that I came to some time ago. Several things need to evolve out of the present circumstances in Afghanistan if we are to make progress towards the success that the situation there can still be, despite the efforts of the Taliban and others to disrupt it. One of those things is that the international community involved in this operation throughout the country needs a single leadership. There is no question about that.
I have to say—I believe that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear this—that none of our international partners thinks otherwise. [Interruption.] He asks from a sedentary position, “What about the Foreign Office?” He should know that the Foreign Office, together with the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, has advocated for many months the policy that he mentioned. We have worked closely together to achieve the point that we have reached.
In summary, everybody is convinced of the merits of the argument. We will quickly move through the current phase of identifying the appropriate person and getting them in post. That is only the beginning. The challenge that follows is to ensure that that person can give focus and direction to all the organisations and others that operate from the international communiqué in such a way as to support and build, not undermine, the Afghan Government. That is the next stage of the challenge that the international community faces. I am pleased—and reinforced in my view—that the hon. Gentleman, who thinks long, hard and deeply about such issues, has reached the same conclusion. He should rest assured that most decision makers in the world share that view about Afghanistan. We now need to put it into practice, which might turn out to be a greater challenge than simply expressing it.
The United Nations, like all non-military organisations in Afghanistan, faces a challenge with which the hon. Gentleman is familiar. It must consider how one can sustain the duty of care to those whom it deploys into those operational theatres while recognising that there is some insecurity about them that one seldom encounters in other parts of the world where the United Nations operates. That balance is a challenge to the United Nations, but the part of my speech about that organisation was included at my insistence simply because there is a lack of knowledge in this country about the extent to which the United Nations carries out its role throughout the world and the scale of its operations in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.
Most people in this country believe that our armed forces are here to act for the security of our state and in the interests of the United Kingdom. Does not the Secretary of State genuinely feel that we may be extending our armed services too far in the number of operations in which we are prepared to take part? If we are to give soldiers the equipment that they need to give them the life that they deserve and the best chances of survival in any operation, perhaps we need to be more selective about the number of operations in which we participate. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?
I agree that we should be discriminating about where we deploy our troops, and I believe that we have been. Indeed, the early part of my speech was designed to give hon. Members and others who may read it an indication of the way in which I am putting into practice the objective that the hon. Gentleman so eloquently sets out of allowing our armed forces the opportunity to recuperate and rebuild from the challenges that we have asked them to face, through reducing our commitment and providing space. Early in the job, I learned something that was counter-intuitive to me, given that I do not have a military background. Outside the military, if people are trained to do something and then deployed to do it, they get better at it. The military has taught me that military skills are sustained by training people, and degraded—or at least in danger of being degraded—by deploying people into operational theatres. That is counter-intuitive, but I learned that quickly from the advice and briefings that I received. I subsequently consistently sought to reach the current position and move further. To that extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
However, I do not want to give the impression that I agree that it is not in our national interest to deploy our troops where they have been deployed. For example, it is manifestly in our national interest to deploy to Afghanistan. We lost the greatest number of UK citizens in a single terrorist incident in the attack on the twin towers in New York, and that terrorist atrocity was planned in Afghanistan. Ninety per cent. of the heroin that is abused on the streets and in the communities of the United Kingdom comes from Afghanistan. I understand that we will not deal with the supply of narcotics from Afghanistan in the longer term unless we deal with the issues here in the United Kingdom, but we need to do both.
Our deployment is manifestly in the interests of the people of the United Kingdom for those two reasons, if not for the fact that we as part of the international community owe the people of Afghanistan a debt of honour to support them out of the decades of conflict that they have had to suffer. Some 2 million of Afghanistan’s own people have died in getting the country to the point at which it now enjoys a limited and fragile freedom. On each occasion in the past on which the international community has promised to support Afghanistan out of conflict, it has not done so. People in this country think that it is in our interests, as a responsible member of the international community, to live up to those commitments. For all those reasons, it is in the interests of the United Kingdom that we should have troops deployed to Afghanistan.
Is it not important that we remember that such actions must be in our mutual interests? Does my right hon. Friend recall meeting, along with me, women from Helmand province who are now councillors there? They told us that it was important that we kept the security that they needed to operate as councillors in the province, so that they could take the important decisions that they need to take for themselves. Without our support, they cannot move forward in their important emerging democracy, while we at home cannot tackle the terrorism that we are experiencing unless we secure the emerging peace that we, too, vitally need.
My hon. Friend puts her argument clearly. Enabling people in countries such as Afghanistan to enjoy a quality of life and to be governed in a way that they manifestly want to be will guarantee our long-term security. Future generations in the United Kingdom will be much safer if countries such as Afghanistan and other places that had become ungoverned space—places that could be used as training grounds for terrorists and that gangsters and others could maraud around—become more stable and settled.
We face a problem in getting that across to the people of the United Kingdom, although I never find any difficulty in explaining the narcotics issue on the streets of my constituency. People understand the heroin issue clearly, because it is present in their communities. However, part of the problem in getting the argument across is that we need better to describe the end state that we believe we can allow the people of Afghanistan to take forward themselves. Part of that is substantially dependent on engaging more women in the decision-making process in such countries. I do not think that there is any doubt about that.
I intend to come to a passage later in my speech that is devoted to Afghanistan. I seem to have triggered the debate on Afghanistan a wee bit earlier than I thought I would, so if my hon. Friends want to question me specifically about Afghanistan, they might want to wait until later.
I wish to raise the issue of Darfur. We are talking about being discriminating, but there is no greater conflict in our world today than in Darfur. As we move from the African Union Mission in Sudan—AMIS—to the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, we, along with all other nations in the UN, are committed to ensuring that that force is properly resourced and logistically supported. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that we will play our part—not with troops on the ground, but with support behind the scenes—to ensure that, when we increase the troop numbers to give the people of Darfur the security that they pray for, we also learn the lessons from AMIS’s inability to secure the ground, so that people can begin to return to their homes and live their lives in some hope that the conflict will come to an end?
My hon. Friend speaks for everybody in the House when he makes a plea for the plight of the people of Darfur, given what they have gone through, to be given the appropriate priority. I do not think that anybody would contradict him. However, as he also rightly points out, we must increasingly accept that there are different ways in which we can support different operations. I am proud, as I am sure others are, of the cross-party political leadership that we in the United Kingdom have given on Darfur and of the contribution that our Prime Minister made, along with other international partners, in leading the United Nations to an unequivocal resolution that allowed the forces that he recognises as necessary to be deployed. That is underpinned by consistent and persistent investment in development for Darfur, and the support of others.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware, however, that the sustainable improvement of the security of people in places such as Darfur can be supported in many other ways. One of the most important is to make an appropriate contribution to the training and development of security forces in Africa, so that people who have a direct national interest, as has been mentioned, in the settlement of some intransigent conflicts in Africa have the capability and capacity to do that. Our military personnel’s valuable ability to train others in the skills learned by the British Army over centuries has been used across Africa. My hon. Friend can rest assured that we will continue to do everything that we can to support the deployment of forces in an appropriate way. The most important part of that is to give consistent international political leadership on the issue.
This week the EU announced its 3,000-man peacekeeping mission to Chad. No one suggests that that is not an appropriate action or an important role, but it will require airlift capacity and other logistic support. The Secretary of State was at the discussions with his EU partners. Will he tell the House what excuse they gave for being able to find airlift capacity and logistic support for the mission to Chad but not being able to provide additional support in Afghanistan, where we seem to be extremely short on the ground?
We will not help to encourage others—which I do a great deal—to become involved and to develop their capability and capacity to make an appropriate contribution to operations if we get into a futile bidding war about this priority as opposed to another. [Interruption.] My point is that neither the hon. Gentleman nor I are in a position to point to any atrocity in any part of the world and say that the people there are more or less deserving than others. Our responsibility, as some of the richest countries in the world collected together, is to do what we can to try to meet all those challenges, if possible, but I recognise that we cannot deal with every challenge. I do not look for such things as excuses or explanations.
On the deployment into Chad, what is happening there is, on any view, a clear extension of what is happening in Darfur, and needs to be challenged and dealt with just as much. If we do not challenge at both sides of the border, we will find ourselves in a difficult situation. As a matter of fact, strategic airlift is still a challenge there, and is not yet resolved. We are not in the comfortable position that the hon. Gentleman suggests, in which people say that they can do that but they cannot do something else. People are trying to do, in good faith, what they believe is right—to deal with difficult circumstances in different parts of the world. His point in relation to people living up to their commitments is not lost on me, and I shall return to it shortly.
Beneath the United Nations, NATO remains central to our collective defence and security needs, as it has been for almost 60 years. We also recognise the important benefits that the EU, with its wide range of civil and military capabilities, can bring to resolving crises. We are working hard to build the capabilities and effectiveness of both organisations in a mutually supportive way, so that their efforts and capabilities complement each other rather than duplicate or compete.
We expect NATO allies and EU partners to meet their responsibility in sharing the risks and costs of collective action. Many are doing so and we salute their efforts. But the contribution of some European nations is quite disappointing. All are answerable to their own people and Parliaments, but NATO and European solidarity do not have an opt-out clause.
Our armed forces do not work in isolation. We must use effectively all the levers available to Government: reconstruction and development, foreign diplomacy and the military. That has become known as a “comprehensive approach”. Crucially—because it is these other efforts that will eventually bring lasting peace—the strategic military effort should be driven by political and economic needs, not the other way round. However, at tactical and operational level the military are often leading, and need support from diplomats and development experts. We are working across Government, with non-governmental organisations, allies and partners, to improve our collective ability to do that. Nowhere is the comprehensive approach more vital than in Afghanistan.
In reply to an earlier intervention, the Secretary of State made the point that in Afghanistan the United Nations agencies were under pressure from the Taliban, whose members were effectively trying to kill their people on the ground. May I put it to him that wherever we are up against militant Islam—or, indeed, other forces such as those confronting the troops deployed in Darfur—we are subject to such risks? It is a fact of the modern military environment that civilians are targeted. I suggest that part of the solution lies in a degree of blurring of the military-civilian interface, and in bringing more civilian skills and expertise to the military framework through reserve forces and other wider measures, rather than simply trying to persuade what are essentially civilian agencies to do work on which they will ultimately be unable to deliver.
On the basis of my experience—particularly in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq—and my observation of other areas that I have not visited regularly, there is much in what the hon. Gentleman says, but his suggestion brings with it other challenges. We must be careful not to create a scenario in which we blur the distinction between NGOs and the military to such an extent that we create an environment in which people other than those described by the hon. Gentleman can operate. I think he will understand that that is a trap. We do not want to drive NGOs out of the environment; we want to create an environment into which we can bring them with a degree of security.
This is a lively and current debate between Governments, NGOs, allies and others. It is an engaged debate: no one is shirking the responsibilities that it brings us collectively. But we must find a way of giving NGOs confidence to deploy their workers and others in the environment that we create, where they do not become the target because they are accused of being part of the military structure. That is important. I see the hon. Gentleman nodding in agreement.
We need to consider the issue carefully. It is difficult to establish exactly how it should be dealt with. I should be happy to continue this conversation with the hon. Gentleman—here and in other locations—to try to resolve it, but resolve it we must. I should point out to him that one of the first decisions I made in relation to Afghanistan was to increase our forces there by the deployment of engineers. As he knows, those engineers had a significant effect on the ability to deliver reconstruction in a way that increased the confidence of local people that the challenges posed by the Taliban in their communities were worth taking up, because there was an immediate reward.
I do not mean to make an excessively partisan point, but one of the parts of the Territorial Army that was cut the most was the TA section of the Royal Engineers, although there has been some build-back in the future army strategy. Many of the skills that the Secretary of State has mentioned are readily available in civilian life. The deployment of TA Royal Engineers units would be a very good way of dealing with the present circumstances—until, obviously, an environment is created in which NGOs can once more play a part.
I entirely agree. I do not wish to compete with the hon. Gentleman as a cheerleader for the Territorial Army—I know he has many more years’ experience of that than I have—but I have been astonished and impressed not just by the skills but by the commitment that its members bring to their job. I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes in relation to the specific issue, but I am also glad that he recognises the complications of doing that on a grander scale. We must work our way through these matters.
Afghanistan is a noble cause. We cannot allow it to slip once more into disorder, or again to become a haven for international terrorism, nor can we abandon the Afghan people, who have embarked on a course of democracy and peace. We have made significant progress since 2001, but Afghanistan remains a fragile state. To show that it is heading in the right direction, let me repeat some of the indicators of progress there—I hope that those who have heard them before will forgive me. Forty thousand Afghan national army troops have been trained and equipped—indeed, I think that that figure is now out of date and that there are significantly more such troops. Of its refugees, 4.8 million have returned home; that has not been matched by any other country in the world, as nowhere else is there evidence of so many people voluntarily returning because of a change in the political and social environment of a country from which they had sought refuge. Eighty-three per cent. of the population now has access to medical facilities; for substantial parts of Afghanistan before 2001 that figure was in the teens rather than the 80s. More than 5 million children are in education, in excess of 1 million of whom are girls who were not educated at all when the Taliban ran the country. President Karzai recently observed in passing—although it is a significant fact—that for the first time in almost 40 years Afghanistan was close to becoming self-sufficient in food production; that is a major achievement, and it has been achieved in a comparatively short time.
However, these advances must be protected and built upon, and doing so will involve facing up to some serious challenges, most of which are not military. Our armed forces are doing the most superb job in protecting the Afghan people from the Taliban, but we must continue to help the Afghans exploit the space that we create, by helping them to govern effectively, to establish and administer fair laws that reflect their society and to spend the international aid they receive. The results must be felt for generations, not for months and years. The will is there, but we must help them develop the means.
Although I take issue with the Secretary of State on the wisdom of our continued presence in Afghanistan, I am sure that we both agree that our troops on the ground are doing excellent work and that we must seriously consider their welfare and morale. Has he received reports of, for example, forward units in Helmand spending 40 days on ration packs and it not being possible to resupply them? Is that the case? Is the Secretary of State aware of such reports, and if so, what does he think that does for the morale of the soldiers?
I am certainly now aware of such reports, but there is not a jot of truth in them. My hon. Friend ought to be very careful about what he says, because of the possible effect on troops’ families back here in the UK of repeating some of the dishonesties that are at large about the circumstances of our forces on the ground in Afghanistan. I know that he will be careful, because he is a responsible person. He asks me directly whether there is any truth in this; I tell him directly that there is no truth in this.
That having been said, however, we must understand that war fighting is dirty, difficult and dangerous. Part of what has been happening over the past months is that because of mass communications, the people of this country, including a generation that has never seen this before, are being exposed in real time—or as near to that as one can get—to the reality of what war fighting is like. Frankly, as I have said, it is dirty, difficult and dangerous. We ought to understand that that is what we ask some of our young people to do, and that it is what we train them for. It devalues their skill, commitment and bravery to point out every single deprivation that comes with war fighting as being somehow a failure on the part of the Ministry of Defence, the Government or some bureaucrat to support them. Sometimes, some of the circumstances in which our people find themselves—and in which their morale is at its highest—are simply a consequence of the very violence that they have to deal with, and from which they have to deliver the communities that they seek to protect.
I make that point clearly to Members and others. We ought to be careful not to devalue the bravery and contribution of the people whom we train to do this difficult and dangerous work by describing all its difficult aspects as some sort of failure by a bureaucrat. And as a matter of fact, what my hon. Friend described is not happening.
Of course, the country that has lost the most men in the Afghan conflict is Pakistan. More than 800 Pakistani soldiers have been killed as the Pakistani armies tried to help on the eastern flank. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the vast bulk of the Pakistani military have to be on their eastern flank, facing Kashmir, because of the half a million Indian soldiers there and the continuing troubles? If India could cut Pakistan some slack on Kashmir, more Pakistani troops could be heading west to patrol and to help us as we try to solve problems in Afghanistan.
My right hon. Friend is right, to the extent that none of the challenges, difficulties, conflicts and confrontations that exist in that region can be resolved on its own; they are all interrelated. Beyond the issues that we have been debating in the past few minutes, there is no doubt that the fact that the ethnic Pashtun people stretch beyond the Durand line into Pakistan, and that parts of the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan—in which there are very significant issues about radicalisation and radical Islam—that are substantially ungoverned, are related to and interrelated in the Afghan situation. That is why we will never find a solution to these problems for the Afghan people without the recognition that there is a significant Pakistani element in this, but also vice versa. That has to be part of the international community’s objective in dealing with this issue. As my right hon. Friend points out, once one gets to Pakistan and into the issues that the Pakistani Government face, one very quickly finds oneself on the other border, considering other issues. So all these issues are, as I said, interrelated.
The challenges that we face in Afghanistan are significant and will take decades of hard work to address, but tackle them we must. Only through an effective and truly multilateral approach will we and the Afghan people have a chance to make that country free from the oppression of the Taliban, and to give all its people—men and women—the opportunities that we, thankfully, take for granted.
In the past 17 months, I have visited Iraq six times. There has been progress, but it has not been easy. However, we have remained true to our strategy of transition, building the Iraqis’ capacity to take responsibility for their own security. Frankly, this is the only sensible strategy, and I believe that the last year has shown that it is working. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed last week, we have now transferred three out of four provinces in southern Iraq for which we had responsibility, and we are on track for Basra to follow suit before 2008. This represents very real progress, which is firmly driven by objective assessments of the evolving situation on the ground. It has become manifestly clear over the past weeks that that is not only our assessment, but that of the Iraqi Government and of our principal ally—the United States of America.
It is our servicemen and women who have set the conditions to enable this forward momentum, often at great personal cost. The UK has trained more than 13,000 Iraqi soldiers, and I pay tribute to their achievements in what are some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Yes, there have been difficulties along the way, which it would be wrong to understate, but the handover of Dhi Qar, Maysan and Muthanna has shown that Iraqi security forces can cope. More recently, the successful handover of Basra palace has allowed our personnel to place more emphasis on training, governance and border security. In this context, we have been able to take the very welcome decision to plan to reduce our force levels in Iraq to 2,500 by the spring of next year. We believe that this is a measured response to the evolving security situation and the increased capability of the Iraqis.
Although we are seeing progress in the security situation, the political arena remains very difficult, with sectarian and regional interests still too often being put before national interests. Progress in Anbar province and negotiations between General Mohan and Shi’a militia groups in Basra show that the political landscape can change for the better, but that that takes time. We also welcome the enhanced role of the UN in that regard. Ultimately, it is for the Iraqi Government to formulate and deliver policies to help the Iraqi people, but we will do all that we can to assist them.
At the time of the invasion, British military forces comprised some 30 per cent. of the UN mandated coalition’s combat power in Iraq. The Prime Minister’s announcement envisages that we will now provide perhaps less than 2 per cent. of the coalition’s combat power. Do we still stand shoulder to shoulder with our American ally?
We could not be closer. Knowing the hon. Gentleman’s interest in Iraq, I am sure that he will have pored over every word uttered by General Petraeus when he was here explaining how closely we had worked to achieve what we have achieved in southern Iraq. If that was not good enough for him, he probably pored over every word uttered by Secretary Gates on his visit here only last week, when he confirmed that what we are doing was entirely consistent with what the Americans are doing. We therefore could not be closer to the US, and that is to be expected, although I know that the reduction in British troop numbers is counter-intuitive, especially given that it happened when the numbers of US troops were surging. However, those who understand the diversity of Iraq and the extent of the differences between provinces know that our action was entirely consistent with what the Americans were doing, given the different environment facing our troops. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the people in the US who know best about these matters—and they include General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, who for some months now have been responsible for US policy in Iraq—have given evidence that confirms that.
In the summer, quite a few people argued that if we drew down our troops from Basra palace and handed it over to Iraqi troops, there could be a danger that the number of attacks on British troops at the air base would rise significantly, and that the security problems faced by civilians in Basra could get worse. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that exactly the opposite has happened?
I can, of course, confirm that exactly the opposite has happened—thus far. I make that qualification because I recognise that the situation is very fragile and that it is very important that the negotiations between General Mohan and those others who seek to exercise political power and economic influence in southern Iraq are sustained. We can create the opportunity for such negotiations and discussions to take place, but we cannot be a party to them, as they are for Iraqis to sort out between themselves. As long as progress is being made in that regard, the relationship that I have described will be sustained.
We hear constant predictions that things are about to melt down in Iraq, but it is always possible, at any stage in the transition, that things will go either right or wrong. Many people out there know that it is a 50:50 bet and so always opt for pessimism, on the basis that that gives them a 50 per cent. chance of being right, and being able to say, “I told you so.” Thankfully, however, our judgments are a bit more sophisticated than that. At the points of transition, we do not take any step unless we are assured that we are doing so in the context of preset conditions, measurements and tests that we have agreed with others.
Until now, we have managed to make the progress that we have planned for, and broadly within the planned time scale. At each step, we have told the House and the country what the next stage of the plan would be, but I am not complacent: I know that we face a volatile and fragile set of circumstances, and that many people do not have the best interests of the UK or the Iraqi people at heart. In their briefings to me about what is going on in the operational theatre, many military commanders have told me, “You have to remember, Secretary of State, the enemy get a vote too, and we don’t control that.”
Thus far, therefore, our actions have been correct, but we must not be complacent. In the interests of the Iraqi people, and of our people too, we have to recognise that we must take the same care when it comes to the next stage of the process.
We cannot debate defence without addressing the threat of terrorism, which can emerge from abroad or at home and manifests itself against both armed forces and civilians. Its method is indiscriminate killing. Its aim is to promote an extremist ideology. As a Government, we are committed to tackling that threat at every level—its fundamental values, its spread to the disaffected, its planning, actions and representation. To do so requires hard power, to minimise the actions of terrorists, and soft power to minimise intent and recruitment.
The military play an important role in countering terrorism and British forces are working to that end as I speak, both at home and across the globe. Through capacity building we help other nations bolster their defences and contribute to the international effort.
The British Government could not make clearer their position in relation to Iran’s ambition to be a nuclear weapons state. As I have said from the Dispatch Box time and time again, my view is that Iran’s behaviour—its interference in a malign fashion in Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq—suggests that the country poses a strategic threat to the peace of the region in which it wants to play an important role. The irony is that Iran could play a positive role in the region; the country has shared interests with the countries in whose internal politics it seeks to interfere. I am in no doubt that the international community has adopted the right position in relation to Iran, and also that we have to stay together and pursue the arguments with the Iranians. Most importantly, we have to recruit in support of the arguments as many of the regional partners as possible, because they are the people to whom Iran will pay the greatest attention.
I am conscious of the time, and of the fact that a significant number of people want to contribute to the debate, so I shall now sum up. It is the first duty of Government to protect their people and the national interest. The Government have a clear policy framework for delivering that duty. I have endeavoured in my speech to cover some of that broad front, but of necessity I have had to make discriminating judgments and have not been comprehensive. By working with friends, allies and international institutions to reduce threat and prevent conflict, and by ensuring that our forces have the capability to intervene around the world if necessary, we will achieve our objectives.
The Secretary of State has given a comprehensive analysis of the state of play in terms of defence. He is aware of my interest in the deaths at Deepcut army barracks. A memorial was recently dedicated to those who have died in the military, whether on active service or otherwise. It has been brought to my attention that the names of the four recruits who died at Deepcut have not been recorded on the memorial. The Secretary of State may not be able to answer the question now, but he will understand that the parents are eager to know the reasoning behind the exclusion of the names from that memorial.
I speak advisedly, but if the hon. Gentleman had been in the Chamber for the beginning of my speech, he would have heard me refer to that memorial, which was dedicated last Friday. I am sure he will join other Members who approved of my words when I said that it was a timely and appropriate memorial to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. I am aware of the issue that he raises but, entirely appropriately, decisions about the memorial do not lie in the hands of Government and it would be wholly inappropriate if they did—they lie in the hands of trustees. It is of the essence of such a memorial that somebody has to define the descriptive phase for those whose names are entitled to be put on the memorial. The trustees sought to do that—it is a difficult thing—and, almost by definition, it is the case that people will consider that some names are so near the margin of the definition that they would be offended if the names were not included. The trustees of the memorial recognised that.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will visit the memorial, because if he does, he will see that it contains not only the names of approximately 16,000 people who have lost their lives, either on duty or to acts of terrorism, but an obelisk, which has been put there for the purpose of commemorating the deaths of those who do not fall within that necessary definition. If that is any comfort to the families whom he properly represents, that is the explanation, as I understand it. The decisions were made entirely in good faith and appropriately, but by definition, people will feel aggrieved because someone whom they consider to be very close to the description of those who are included cannot be included. That is probably an appropriate issue on which to end this speech.
May I fully associate myself and the Conservative party with the praise for the courage, professionalism and sacrifices of our armed forces? I echo the Secretary of State’s condolences to the families of all those who have lost loved ones who were defending our country’s wider security in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I intend to talk about the impact of the comprehensive spending review on our defence policy, on the state of our armed forces and on the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. In 1997, the former Prime Minister said that if the Conservatives were re-elected, he worried that defence spending would fall to 2.6 per cent. of gross domestic product—that was his choice of measurement at the time, not ours—yet we know from this year’s CSR projections that, proportionally, what we spend on defence is likely to fall to as low as 2.018 per cent. by 2010-11.
While our military commitments have increased under this Government, the Army trained requirement has been cut from 108,500 to 102,000, the size of the Army is more than 9,000 below that initial target, one fifth of the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships have been cut since 1997—more potentially face the axe—and the RAF has more than 100 fewer front-line fixed-wing aircraft than in 1997. I say that because the Government’s strategic defence review set out what they believed we needed to protect the country and its overseas interests, yet we are falling well below that and no explanation is ever given as to why the international environment justified those particular changes.
As a share of total Government spending, defence expenditure has fallen from 7.8 per cent. in 1998 to 6.1 per cent. in 2006. That is indicative of where defence comes in the Government’s list of priorities—that despite our being involved in two wars, those in Iraq and in Afghanistan, which have had a huge impact and an inevitable reduction in the life expectancy of much of the equipment involved. Funding from the Treasury reserve for urgent operational requirements does nothing to diminish what is, in effect, a long-term liability, which will need to be met from the core budget at some point. It is against that background that we must examine Ministers’ boasts that they will achieve a 1.5 per cent. annual real-terms spending increase.
The previous settlement that was trumpeted in those terms resulted in three infantry battalions being cut, and the loss of three destroyers and three frigates, so we are entitled to ask what the casualties will be this time around. We have heard rumours of further cuts to the surface fleet, to the size of the Army and to the RAF. I hope that today the Secretary of State will categorically rule out further cuts to the surface fleet or the Army establishment.
We would love to have had a widespread debate on this issue in a general election—if only the Government had had the courage to call one. As they say in fashion circles, “This year, Brown is the new yellow.” Who am I to comment on that?
Last week, we had an interesting debate on procurement, which some hon. Members present today attended. The point was made on several occasions about the difficulty of assessing the defence budget in the UK compared to other countries. For example, it is impossible for us to know what the commitment is for the years ahead. We asked specific questions, the answers to which are needed for the House to have a sensible debate. However, when we asked about the carriers, for example, the answer was that disclosure of the detailed estimated annual costings over the five-year period for the procurement would likely prejudice the commercial interest and cannot be provided. On the future rapid effect system, or FRES, the answer was that details would prejudice the commercial interest and cannot be provided.
The House would benefit from knowing the figures and being able to examine what is in the pipeline for front-line procurement. Only when we know the details will we know what we definitely want to commit to and what the necessary expenditure would be. If the Government were to make all those figures available to the House—I intend to ask the Public Accounts Committee to obtain them—we could have a much better debate. It would be foolish for the Opposition to make estimates or commit to figures without having full access to the books. We would want to institute immediately a proper strategic defence review, which we have not had for 11 years now, to see what we believe the future shape of our armed forces should be. As the shadow Chancellor has said, when we see what we need to spend for our defence, we can decide appropriately.
There was a much less complicated answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), if the hon. Gentleman had chosen to give it. He started by referring to percentages of GDP. If that is the best part of his argument—I assume it is, because he started with it—he must have some figure in mind. He and his right hon. and hon. Friends tell us that they were ready for an election some days ago. He must have had some figure in mind then: can he share it with us?
When the Government have the courage to face the voters and call an election, we will know what spending years we are talking about and we will set out our plans in the appropriate way. At the moment, we have no idea what budget or public finances we will inherit. The reason I started with the GDP figure was that it was not our choice of measurement, but that of Tony Blair, back in 1997. He chose to make that figure the measure of Labour’s success in dealing with armed forces expenditure.
Ministers have been trumpeting the generosity of the settlement. However, as with all the Government’s announcements, it pays to look at the small print. The settlement requires the MOD to find £2.7 billion worth of “cashable efficiency savings” on top of the £2.4 billion served up to the Treasury in the 2004 spending review. Perhaps the Secretary of State, or the Minister for the Armed Forces when he winds up later, can give us some idea where those savings will come from in the current budget.
I also note that the MOD will be required to sell off £1.5 billion worth of assets and “a significant proportion” of its electromagnetic spectrum holdings. Will the Government give us a firm commitment that all the receipts from that fire sale will be retained by the MOD? Will the Minister of State today tell us how much of the receipts will be appropriated in aid for the defence budget and how much will be returned to the Treasury? Those figures are very important in working out how much of the new procurement programmes can be afforded in the years that have been mentioned in the figures.
This is not good enough. The hon. Gentleman started his speech by saying that the present contribution of 2.018 per cent. of GDP is not enough and should be more. We are not asking what he thinks the figure should be next year or the year after, but what it should be this year. If he is not prepared to say what the figure should be for this year, it is all party political posturing and he should be ashamed of himself.
Let me go back to what the former Prime Minister said before the 1997 election:
“By 1999 defence spending will have fallen to 2.6 per cent. of GDP”—
in his eyes, a terrible failure. He went on:
“The people who have had to bear the burden of these cuts are our servicemen and women, overstretched and under strength as never before.”
However, according to the Government’s own argument, they have fallen below that GDP figure. They have increased their commitments and reduced our manpower. It is for the Government—a Government unafraid to put their record before the electorate—to defend their record in the House of Commons today. When we come to office, we will clearly set out all our proposals—and we will defend them, unlike the Government, who are clearly unwilling to do the same today, having failed by every measure that they themselves set.
I want to give my hon. Friend maximum support in resisting all the rubbish that is being thrown at him by the Government. The Government are responsible for current expenditure and for current levels of commitment. We have no idea what commitments we will face in two or three years’ time, when a general election comes around. That will be the time to determine how to match those commitments with the necessary resources.
My hon. Friend must not allow his common sense to get in the way of the Government’s red herring, or of Government Members having a good time in the Chamber. I doubt whether the arguments that they make today will carry much weight with those who have to carry out those commitments overseas, and who find themselves increasingly overstretched.
I wish to turn to the circumstances that our armed forces face, and I begin with the issue of bonuses for those on operations. As the press reported over the weekend, there is understandable animosity between military and civil personnel on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with regard to the amount of bonus that civilians get paid, compared to their military counterparts. Let us take a major and a grade C2 civil servant as the comparators and, using monthly figures, let us see how military pay stacks up against civilian pay for those in Iraq or Afghanistan. A major—a company commander responsible for the well-being, training, health and safety of more than 225 soldiers and marines—will earn roughly £4,320 in taxable income a month, including separation allowance, plus a £386 tax-free operational allowance.
A civilian grade-C2 civil servant on the same deployment will earn £2,333 a month, plus an operational deployment allowance of £1,750 per month and an operational working allowance of between £3,500 and £6,500 a month. That means that the civilian will receive a minimum of £7,583 a month in taxable income. The civilian in headquarters is therefore at least £2,500 a month better off than the major, who is acting as a company commander in the field, and who is leading soldiers and marines in combat. It appears that the X factor needed to make civilians deploy is more than 225 per cent. of their salary, or 3.25 times their salary. Keep in mind that those figures are for a Ministry of Defence civilian, as compared to a field rank officer. Of course, the pay difference between an MOD civilian and a private or corporal is even greater, and it is the latter who are doing the shooting, the fighting and, in most cases, the dying.
I understand that civilians volunteer for service in Iraq or Afghanistan, but we have an all-volunteer military, too. I would like the Government to reflect on the following question: although civilians play an important role in supporting the armed forces on operations, are the bonuses that both parties receive balanced and proportionate? I think that the general public would answer in the negative. What about the question of eligibility for bonuses? What about the 1,000 or so soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who thought that they were going to Iraq and would receive the tax-free operational allowance, but who will find that they are going to Kuwait, Oman or other places in the Gulf?
I am sure that I do not need to remind either the Secretary of State or the Minister for the Armed Forces that the Kuwait border is only 30 miles from the Basra air base. As a result of that small difference, service members will lose out on hundreds of pounds a month, although their American counterparts receive the same bonus regardless of whether they are in Iraq, Kuwait or Qatar. If the Secretary of State made it clear that those allowances will apply to all those in the region, and not just those in Iraq, that would be a major step forward.
That is a classic example of the sort of thing that I was talking about. Based on absolutely no research, not even the courtesy of asking the MOD whether what he has described is the reality, the hon. Gentleman has asserted his case at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons. But it is not true.
The hon. Gentleman says, “Good.” Perhaps he will now explain the basis on which he made the assertion in the first place. Is there a factual basis for it, or did he make it up for political advantage?
I am delighted that those operational bonuses will apply, because those issues have been raised with us by members of the armed forces so that they can get clarification from the Government. If it is clear that we will get such clarification, I will be delighted—and so will they be.
The hon. Gentleman now says to the House that he was asked to inquire. Why did he choose to inquire by asserting an untruth at the Dispatch Box, rather than asking me or a Minister?
Excuse me, but I thought that the purpose of the House of Commons was for us to be able to question Ministers directly. It is an entirely appropriate place to raise such issues. Now that we have clarification on those, perhaps the Secretary of State will clarify other issues—[Interruption.]
The armed forces compensation scheme has recently received wide publicity, and we welcome the fact that a review was undertaken on what is obviously a broken compensation system. We still await the full results of the review. However, I was, as other Members would have been, a little perplexed that the first time we heard about that review was on 28 August, when the Minister for the Armed Forces mentioned it on Radio 4’s “PM” programme. Why was the statement not first made in the House of Commons?
As for the scheme itself, the maximum amount payable is £285,000 plus the guaranteed-income pension for the rest of a service member’s life. That is in contrast to the recent RAF civilian’s lump sum of £485,000; they would not, of course, require a guaranteed-income payment. Those numbers are widely in the public domain and have an effect on the perception of the fairness with which the systems are applied. It is important that the Government’s view on the matter should be clearly set out. Do they regard that discrepancy as fair and reasonable?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify that canard as well. He is not comparing like with like. As he should know, the civil courts seek to capitalise a sum of money that will, among other things, represent the loss of income over the lifetime of a person such as those whom he describes. That would be added to the amount awarded to the person for the injury that they had suffered.
What we do is guarantee that income over the lifetime and inflation-proof it. It is possible to get actuaries and others to capitalise that and add it figuratively to the maximum sum for the pain and suffering. However, if the hon. Gentleman is to continue to make the comparison, as he has now done for a significant period, he must take into account the fact that he is not comparing like with like. The person gets a lump sum and is obliged to invest it to generate an income for the rest of their working life, until they retire; what we provide is a lump sum plus a guaranteed inflation-proofed income.
What the public will see is this: for losing limbs or major organs, someone would get a maximum of £285,000 plus a guaranteed-income pension, while someone working as a civilian who got a wrist injury would get a much larger sum and probably be back at work and able to generate their own income within a relatively short time. The public do not appreciate that discrepancy or the legalities that are being put forward—they view one as overly generous in relation to the other. I hope that the Government understand that when they finally review the matter, because the public perception of the fairness of the treatment of our armed forces is extremely important.
Let me turn to a matter that has recently been raised in the press: the treatment of military personnel in hospitals in the United Kingdom. Having visited the field hospital in Iraq, where our personnel are treated magnificently and not a single person has contracted a case of MRSA, I find it amazing that Private Jamie Cooper, the youngest British soldier to be injured in Iraq, is now back in Selly Oak with a C. difficile infection and two MRSA infections. We have to do an awful lot more about the quality of the medical care that is given. In general, the quality of care is superb, but surely something is very wrong when a field hospital can manage to have minimal infection levels, but on coming back to the UK our military personnel find that having fought off the enemy in Iraq they are having to fight off infections in the national health service of the world’s fourth richest country. Something is very wrong with a medical system that allows that to happen.
The hon. Gentleman is making me very angry. I have visited Selly Oak, and it is nothing short of shameful for him to denigrate the hard-working staff there. If he actually read the newspaper article about the case that he mentions, he would see that the consultant said that the individual contracted the disease because he had a stomach wound and that the condition related to that, not to dirty hospitals.
Now the hon. Gentleman is making me angry. I am not in any way denigrating the quality of the staff; I have already said that people get excellent care. However, there is something very wrong in our health service given the levels of infection in our NHS, to the extent that hospitals are having to be closed down.
Let me turn to the wider picture, particularly Afghanistan, and the conditions of our troops.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not a tradition of this House that a Member who makes an honest and inadvertent false assertion in debate subsequently accepts that it was a false assertion and then withdraws it and formally apologises for it? The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has accepted that he made a false assertion this afternoon, but he seems to be coming towards the end of his speech and we have not yet heard the apology.
In a moment.
With winter approaching in Afghanistan, and already in some higher-altitude locations, we clearly have to do everything to ensure that our service personnel are sent into theatre with the right cold weather kit. Winter conditions in Afghanistan make it challenging, at best, to resupply ammunition, kit, food and fuel. The House will want to know from the Minister for the Armed Forces that all possible measures have been taken to ensure that British forces receive all resupplies in a consistent and timely manner, as required in Afghanistan in winter. What steps will be taken to ensure that, during the lull in fighting that is traditionally experienced throughout the winter months in Afghanistan, we maximise the reconstruction effort in the south of the country? The Secretary of State dealt with that at length in his speech. It is during the harsh winter months that the Afghan population most need help from the international community, so that is when we should be able to increase local support for the British and coalition presence in the country.
When it comes to reconstruction, we really must take a properly enlightened approach. We need to ensure that our efforts are conducted in a way that empowers the people of Afghanistan. Our reconstruction efforts must foster ownership of and accomplishment in Afghanistan, not dependence on the west. We must make every effort to involve local communities and put an Afghan face on all reconstruction projects. I hope that Ministers will agree that that is the most sensible approach.
I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) and I apologise for having temporarily overlooked her.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. My point was about the nursing situation in field hospitals. My hon. Friend may be interested to learn that I recently met a Territorial Army nurse, who told me that the standard of hygiene in field hospitals was second to none for the simple reason that they had fallen back on the old-fashioned nursing techniques whereby every single person was to be responsible for themselves in their own area of expertise and for cleaning up afterwards. That was why there was virtually no infection in field hospitals in Iraq or elsewhere.
When I was a junior doctor, I learned never to argue at all with nurses and I entirely accept my hon. Friend’s point.
When it comes to reconstruction in Afghanistan, we cannot emphasise enough the importance of including local Afghans in our reconstruction efforts. The more they participate, the more they take ownership and pride in rebuilding their country, which is shattered after years of warfare. A local villager no doubt views an attack by the Taliban on a school that he helped to build very differently than he would if that school had been exclusively built by western forces. However, reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have to produce quick and tangible results for the people. Smaller projects that benefit a wider population in a shorter amount of time can have a more enduring effect than longer drawn-out projects that may indirectly benefit a large proportion of the population. In effect, the simple physiological needs of the Afghans have to be met by the international security assistance force or else the Taliban will fill the vacuum created by our inaction. That is especially true during the winter months when times get rough for many ordinary Afghans. Something as basic as food and water has to be provided before more ambitious projects can be launched.
I echo what I believe the Secretary of State said earlier: we need broadly to learn the lesson from Iraq that the military can create and hold space only for so long. The politicians and the non-governmental organisations need to fill that space. We cannot wait for a zero-risk environment to begin wholesale reconstruction. We must also deal with the rising internal tensions in Afghanistan resulting from what is seen as the endemic corruption within the Afghan Government, running all the way to the highest levels.
The whole country will welcome the fact that more of our troops are coming home from Iraq and no one will be more relieved than the families of the troops concerned. We in this party have never called for precipitate reductions or a timetable for withdrawal. We have to do what we believe to be right on the basis of the advice of our commanders on the ground. On that, we have always stood with the Government. In Iraq our overriding objectives should be to maximise the success of the mission that we set out to accomplish and to minimise the danger to our troops.
There are still a number of questions that need to be asked and answered. There are the ongoing questions about the safety of the British forces remaining in Iraq, particularly at Basra air station, the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, the protection of the Iraqi-run border and the steps towards a political settlement, both internally and regionally. The Secretary of State dealt with some of those questions in his speech.
There remains one crucial question, however, that we need to ask today: now that our military forces are in an overwatch posture, can the Secretary of State or his Minister of State say under what circumstances they believe British troops would redeploy and intervene while conducting that role? Who would determine those criteria and who would take the decision? Would it be taken by the British Government and military alone or would it be a joint decision between Britain and Iraq? That is a very important question to which the Government have never provided a very clear answer, even though it lies at the heart of the entire overwatch question.
Some Members still seem to want a rapid and complete withdrawal from Iraq. In southern Iraq, a premature withdrawal—one without sustainable security architecture—could easily result in the escalation of the armed power struggle between the rival Shi’a militias. That would be likely to draw in the fledgling security structures. There would be the risk of further political destabilisation and a heightened threat to the Sunni population in south-east Iraq.
A timetable that was set out would also provide perverse incentives. It is particularly important that the Liberal Democrats start to justify exactly why they would be willing to take the risks of a timetable that is set out with the clarity that they seem to want. Afghanistan would also feel the chill wind of prematurely departing British troops, as known Iraqi fighters would be immediately given the signal to move their caravan on to Afghanistan if they chose to do so, believing that they had accomplished their goal of defeating the coalition forces in Iraq. It would be a terrible signal to send to the Taliban that violence could succeed in hastening the departure of coalition armed forces, and the last thing that we want to do is to further them in that belief and aim.
I am happy to agree with that part of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. He might find the answer to his question in a remark that was not reported but made by the now former leader of the Liberal Democrats at last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time. He said in response to the Prime Minister at one stage during questioning him that the UK had sometime ago discharged its moral obligation to the people of Iraq. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are in that very enhanced position?
It would be nice to think that we could talk about that in the past tense, but we gave a commitment to the people of Iraq that we would not leave until the job was done and we had produced a sustainable security situation within which a civil society could properly flourish. When that has been achieved, that will be the time for the international coalition to leave Iraq. Exactly when that will occur is a very difficult thing to assess, but anyone who believes that we have already reached that position does not fully understand the reality of what is happening on the ground in Iraq.
The Secretary of State is better placed to answer that than I am, but the experience so far is that we have had a successful handover to civilian authorities in Iraq, and the advice of our commanders has obviously been that they believe that, militarily, it was the appropriate time to do so. The fact that the level of violence has been containable and comparable with, if not lower than, that before the handover is testament to the correctness of that decision. It is very difficult to conceive of either the military or public opinion tolerating any increased deployment to Iraq, not least because of the overstretch in our forces, but it is fair for us to know under what circumstances we might redeploy the force that is there on overwatch and in what circumstances. That is reasonable, but the Minister might want to deal with that during his winding-up speech; I am sure that the House would like greater clarity on the issue. The incremental approach must be right, as long as we are getting progress in Iraq and can guarantee sufficient numbers for force protection. It is perfectly reasonable for the House to demand that of the Government.
We briefly mentioned Iran earlier. The whole House will be extremely concerned that it is now becoming clear that factory-grade and other weapons are increasingly going from Iran into both Iraq and Afghanistan. Those weapons include roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades capable of piercing armoured vehicles and killing our troops. Elements of the Iranian regime are therefore involved, and must understand that they are involved, in the attacking and killing of international forces that are upholding UN mandates. We need assurances from the Government that the Iraqi border in Iraq is sufficiently patrolled by coalition and Iraqi forces to minimise the risk of such weapons being used against our forces.
On the Iranian regime’s interference in Afghanistan, it has been reported that officers of the Iranian revolutionary guard are supplying weaponry to Taliban insurgents, reportedly including sophisticated SA-7 Strella anti-aircraft missiles—a serious threat to our helicopters. I would like the Minister of State to deal with that specific issue in his winding-up speech.
The real strategic question is whether Iran should be allowed to become a nuclear weapon state. I suggest to the House that there are three reasons why Iran should not be allowed to do so. The first is the nature of the regime itself. It has already been shown to be involved in destabilising Iraq and it is almost certainly involved in providing weapons to Afghanistan. We have heard the rhetoric from the leadership of the regime and we know what that could mean for the wider region.
Secondly, if Iran is allowed to become a nuclear weapon state, other countries will want to follow. We would be likely to see nuclear proliferation, which might affect Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and other countries in the region, creating a destabilising, expensive and pointless nuclear arms race in one of the world’s most dangerous regions. Thirdly, we know, as the Secretary of State mentioned, that Iran has been more than capable of carrying out terrorism by proxy. What that could mean in terms of terrorist blackmail from a nuclear armed state is something that none of us would want to imagine.
I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman in that I do not want Iran to develop a nuclear capacity, which is why I support the European efforts to keep up important negotiations. However, if the United States of America were to propose military strikes on Iran, would he encourage it to do so, or would he actively oppose that?
I understand and sympathise with the importance of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but if we get into the hypothetical debate of ruling things in or out at a time when we are involved in high-level, delicate negotiations with Iran, the only people we are likely to give comfort to are the Iranian regime. It has to be made clear that we do not want Iran to become a nuclear-weapon state. Iran is, indeed, signed up to the non-proliferation treaty, in which it pledges not to become a nuclear weapon state. The international community is taking the correct approach at the present time, and to rule anything out would be to weaken our hand in negotiations. I do not think that we should be any more specific than that.
I visited Iran a few weeks ago, and having been there and discussed the matter with Iranian politicians, I understood just how complex those negotiations can be and how difficult it can be to get across to some Iranian politicians that this is a quarrel not with the United States or the United Kingdom, but with the whole international community. The better that that community is able to speak with one voice—not splinter into what-ifs—the better our chance of getting a properly negotiated settlement in Iran that is to everyone’s benefit.
In the environment we currently face, one thing stands out above all else. In a truly global, interdependent economy, we have a far greater risk of exposure than in the past. Indeed, it has been said that today’s multi-polar world resembles the second half of the 19th century much more than it did at any time during the cold war years. That means we have to get the structures right. Our global economy is using political structures designed for the environment after the second world war, and military structures largely designed for the cold war.
The structure we need to get right the most is NATO; the Secretary of State touched on it in his speech. It has to be made clear to all NATO members that those who benefit from collective security are morally bound to a collective effort. Being part of NATO does not mean becoming involved in the conflicts or type of warfare that we like, and not the ones that we do not. There is a duty on all of those in the alliance to play a fair role, which means we have to bring an end to the fighting-funding link. People in this country already think it wrong that we in the UK play a disproportionate role in the military burden, along with the Americans and Canadians in the south of Afghanistan. The way in which NATO is funded means that we also carry a disproportionate level of the financial burden. The breaking of the fighting-funding link is necessary if NATO is to prosper and survive in what will be a threatening world.
The bottom line is this: the Government issued an extremely competent and widely supported strategic defence review, from which flowed several planning assumptions, yet they have exceeded them in all of the past six years. Our manpower has reduced but our commitments have increased. Defence has fallen as a proportion of GDP and of the Government’s overall expenditure, and the major procurement projects, which are widely supported by hon. Members of all parties—the carriers, the future rapid effect system and the joint strike fighter—are likely, without a change in the budgetary settlement, to mean cuts in other parts of the core budget. Our personnel exceed too widely the harmony guidelines and retention is a growing problem. Ten years into office, it is not a happy story for the Government to sell to the British public. It reflects badly on the Labour party and its priorities, but—worse—it badly lets down our armed forces. That is the real shame.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you got your retaliation in first, so I am constrained in the language that I may use in response to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). To say that his speech was not the most encouraging, competent, wise or factual contribution is an understatement. Anyone who is neutral—I doubt whether any neutrals are present; there are not many Liberals, but even fewer neutrals—would be disappointed. I do not wish to be hostile, but if the official Opposition aspire to be the future Government, I fear that we are being short-changed. I must point out that a few delusional characters support the Tory party—they do not do well in court cases. Indeed, I am looking at some delusional characters now.
No, let me first outline what I am going to say.
If the Opposition want to demonstrate that they are capable, they must show that they are different from the Conservative party that I have observed in my 34 years as a Member of Parliament, mostly in opposition. If one cannot get much from the future—from what might happen, according to the Opposition’s proposals—one is forced to revert to the past.
The Opposition’s past is even more dispiriting than their proposals for the future. One gains the impression from listening to the hon. Member for Woodspring that the Conservative party is the SAS of Opposition defence teams, confident in its abilities and its history. One would also believe that the Government were somehow the descendants of a semi-pacifist or pacifist Labour party led by Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Frank Allaun and Ramsay MacDonald, who ended up as a Conservative. Neither of those extremes is true.
The Government have been accused of all sorts of things, such as cutting defence expenditure. If the Opposition want to talk about cuts, they should consider the template under the Thatcher and Major Governments. Most of the increase in Government expenditure went on replacing kit lost during the war against Argentina. The previous Labour Government—Fred Mulley was Secretary of State—promised that we would commit ourselves to a 3 per cent. real increase in defence expenditure. Labour did that—the cut came under Michael Heseltine. If one looks at the chart of defence expenditure and what the Library has produced—I do not want to embroil the Library research department in a political argument—one sees that the statistics are clear. The picture of Tory defence expenditure, following a little spurt after the Falklands war, is: drop, drop, drop, drop, drop until the Defence Committee, then led by a wonderful Conservative Chairman, the late Michael Colvin, argued that Government expenditure was projected to fall to 2.2 per cent. Therefore, before too many rocks are thrown about any failings, I hope that the shadow Secretary of State will look at the many Defence Committee reports that were published during his party’s period in office.
Charges have been laid against the Government on Defence Medical Services, but just look at what the Defence Committee said about hospitals in “Defence Costs Study No. 15”. It said that the situation was appalling and that the cuts had gone so far that it doubted whether medical services would ever recover. That was a Tory-led Defence Committee.
The Tory-led Defence Committee said in 1996 that defence cuts had gone so far that if they proceeded in the same direction, the defence of the realm would be severely endangered. I advise the shadow Secretary of State to look at my A to Z of Tory procurement foul-ups—the word “foul-up” was suggested when my first word was deemed inadvisable by the Clerks. All I am saying is, yes, we have made mistakes, but, on balance, this is not the Labour party of the early 1980s. This Labour Government have behaved, if not impeccably and perfectly, then in a way that has defended this country’s interests well, and they will continue to do so. The hon. Member for Woodspring does neither himself nor his party any good by imagining that we are a party of extremist troglodytes who have somehow found their way into office and are now doing their best to undermine the security of the state and the welfare of our armed forces.
I am interested in these lessons in the history of expenditure, but when did we last find ourselves fighting a war on two fronts while our defence expenditure, including the Treasury reserve element, was falling as a proportion of GDP and Government expenditure?
We fought a war on two fronts against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. We almost lost that, as a consequence of the Conservative party’s leaders in the 1930s, so I will not take any spurious examples of our failing this country, when it was the hon. Gentleman’s party, with names that he—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can look contemptuously if he wants. He might not remember Stanley Baldwin or Neville Chamberlain, but he can read. They were the Prime Ministers who almost brought our country to the point of destruction. That is why I am not prepared to accept the trivia and, not the distortion, but the misinterpretation of facts that I have heard and am likely to hear over the next two or three years.
The shadow Secretary of State will have noticed that the GDP of this country has grown quite significantly since his party has been in opposition, although I am not going to deliver a eulogy on the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor. Therefore, if we look not simply at the percentage of GDP but at the amount spent on defence, we realise that the figure is favourable. This will give a crumb of comfort to the Opposition and cause the Minister to look threateningly at me, as he has previously, but I believe that we should spend more on defence. I really do. Not simply more money—
We do not know how much the Opposition are going to spend on defence. They are copying the Labour party. We did not invent identity theft or perfect it. I recall, however, that the Labour party’s strategic defence review idea was not just to ease the transition to sanity in the Labour ranks but to buy a little time to get its defence policies together. David Clark, for example, was one of a number of people in the Opposition team who brought the Labour party back from the brink of fantasy—this was partly how we got re-elected—and showed that we were and are a responsible party.
My right hon. Friend says that we do not know how much the main Opposition party will spend on defence. There is a clue, however, in the address by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) to the Conservative party’s annual conference. He promised to restore the three infantry battalions cut by Labour
“once we have seen the MoD’s books and identified the savings to pay for them. A bigger Army for a safer Britain.”
Therefore, he will fund that expansion from other areas of MOD expenditure. There will be no net increase in expenditure.
I do not need to be revived, but I would like to advise the hon. Member for Woodspring, and I will send him a copy of my book on how the Staffordshire Regiment survived amalgamation—it was amalgamated in the end, but at least it survived a decade longer. It was going to be amalgamated, as were many other regiments, by a range of Ministers, some of whom I have seen popping into the Chamber in the past couple of days.
The right hon. Gentleman has considerable experience in the House, whereas I am a relatively new Member of Parliament. Will he therefore advise me on how to operate, as a Member who feels passionately about defence issues, when former Army colleagues and constituents tell me what is going on? We try to probe the Government on issues, but we are then accused, as one of my hon. Friends was, of talking down our armed services or armed services medical support. In what way are we supposed to hold the Government to account on such important issues?
It would be improper of me to offer advice, but the hon. Gentleman should read a book, sit in on debates and keep his mouth shut until he has had ample time to make a proper contribution. I will willingly coach him as best I can, and tell him when he is ready to launch a speech on the House of Commons. I will ask him to read my book on what his Government tried to do to the Staffordshire Regiment. It is important to talk to people in the military, for whom I have the deepest respect—I would never call them congenital whingers, because they are not. They say many things that can be picked up by Members of Parliament and used, as I have done many times over the years. One must not necessarily treat a snippet of information, however, as the end of the line for research. It is incumbent on all of us who have not been doctors—if we enter a profession that has any pretensions to scientific analysis, competence and verification, to take a different approach—to be more serious about it. We should not throw away our lessons and, if someone drops us a titbit of information, rush in with a speech in the House of Commons.
Many members of Her Majesty’s armed forces will recognise the improvement in salaries. The shadow Minister, however, told us how badly a major is paid—using, no doubt, the bottom of a major’s salary scale. I would like to be at the top of a major’s salary scale—Members of Parliament would have a considerable increase in salary if we were—but, in saying that, I in no way disparage the armed forces. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) looks at the armed forces review report, he will see the salary structures. He is a good friend, even though he is a Conservative—many of my good friends are—but a major’s salary at the top of the scale is not bad at all.
My right hon. Friend has spoken of snippets and titbits of information. He might be interested to know of one such piece of information that I picked up earlier in the year when I visited Basra, and enjoyed meeting members of the Staffords, who were serving there among other units. An “other ranks” told me that the kit in which he was dressed was the best equipment with which he had been issued for 13 years.
I hope that my hon. Friend will say more about that if he decides to speak this evening.
We should consider the shabby kit that our armed forces had in 1991. The world’s worst tank was imposed on them—Challenger 1. I should like to engage in debate with anyone who disputes that, although Challenger 2 is one of the best tanks, if not the best.
The Tories’ record on procurement was a little unsatisfactory. We are now hearing about the Government’s procurement failures: the Eurofighter, the future rapid effect system, Trident, the joint strike fighter and two real aircraft carriers. When the Tories were in office, they tried to sell off one of our three little aircraft carriers to the Australians, and we had to beg them to give it back. Now, we have two serviceable aircraft carriers—which I think is wrong: I think we need three—until the proper ones come along. Ours has been a pretty impressive procurement programme, given the amount of money and what it has purchased.
I have looked at the National Audit Office’s press report, “Major Projects Report 1997”. Sir John Bourn had a bit of trouble recently, but I think he has done a superb job, and that the National Audit Office is one of the most professional audit offices in the world. In the report, which reflected the position on 31 March 1997, he said that
“the overall cost variance for the 20 projects common to the 1996 and 1997 Major Projects Reports has increased by £341 million”,
and spoke of
“the average delay to in-Service dates of just over three years (37 months)”.
That is not an impressive figure. At the end of a period of Tory rule, that report was describing the Tories as pretty profligate and incapable of running the defence procurement process successfully. That is why I feel a little unhappy.
We hear endlessly about defence housing. I can think of three Members who are present, on the Conservative Benches alone, who will remember Portillo giving away vital defence housing—for a sum that was subsequently lost in the Tory budget—to the Nomura Corporation masquerading as Mannington Homes. That disaster featured in four Defence Committee reports, all of which were critical.
I shall read the hon. Member for Woodspring’s speech very carefully. I shall consider his criticisms of Labour’s expenditure, medical service provision, housing and equipment, and try to decide whether his speech provides any inspiration or satisfaction—whether it gives any indication that a new Tory Government, if there ever is one, will be any better than the last. On the basis of what I have heard today, I believe that a new Tory Government would not be any better, and indeed could be much worse.
Under his wise leadership and chairmanship. The Committee produced a report on the Bill that became the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004. Although our report was quite critical of some of what the Ministry of Defence was doing, including cash limiting, we recognised that for the first time ever a Labour Government were introducing lump-sum payments for members of our armed forces. Not once during the process did Conservative Front-Benchers raise any objections.
I am not sure whether to thank my hon. Friend for what he has said, as he is only half proud of what we did. One thing that we did was appoint better advisers than the MOD’s, and we gave the MOD a rough time. However, we recognised that much had happened with compensation and other forms of benefit.
Much has been done, but more remains to be done. We can never be absolutely happy until members of our armed forces who have been injured are properly compensated, regardless of whether they were injured while facing the enemy, in peacetime operations or while serving at home; we owe them a debt of honour. They must be properly compensated not only so that we can be happier about that and our consciences can be clearer, but so that more people will be prepared to join the armed forces.
We must examine how our defence forces are evolving, the equipment we are purchasing, the training we are doing, the alliances of which we are a part, and whether our Government are displaying political wisdom in respect of our allies and potential adversaries—we hope that they are. In doing so, we must move beyond the immediate future. I recall Ministers such as Archie Hamilton—a great guy—coming before the Defence Committee, and our saying, “Minister, you are thinking about the fact that the Soviet Union has now collapsed, but is the threat to the UK over? Why are you rushing to cut regiments? Why are you cutting defence expenditure? History teaches us that, regrettably, war is sometimes inevitable.”
That must have been in the early 1990s. As things proceeded, we realised that the world was a dangerous place. People should go along to the defence academy. I am sure that the Tory Front-Bench team has found out where it is, and that some of them have gone there; perhaps some of them have actually studied there. If they have not, they should, because there is an open-source document there on the considerable threats to this country. From reading that document, we can see that the Ministry of Defence is thinking about what will happen not in the next five or 10 years, but in the next 25 years.
What happened in the 1980s and 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union? There was a belief that everything was now coming right: that the United States was the single world hegemon, that everyone would now bend their knees in respect, that the Soviet Union was gone and Russia was broken-backed, and that the world was about to enter a century of stability. Defence cuts proceeded in accordance with those optimistic scenarios, but now, only 15 years or so later, we are discovering that that is not what has happened.
The US dominance of the world—mostly for good, sometimes not so—might be coming to an end, although I hope it is not. Will the European Union step in and fill the vacuum? We can make assumptions or have wishes about that, but it will not do so. Did we foresee the economic and military rise of China? No, we did not. We should read what has recently come out of this House and the US Congress on the potential dangers from China. I hope that such dangers will not arise—I hope that there will be a Government whom we can deal with—but we cannot be certain; and in defence planning, assumptions must not be made. There is also the threat of emerging nuclear powers. I listened carefully to the comments of the hon. Member for Woodspring on the threat from Iran, and other threats could also be mentioned.
We are spending too little on defence, and our budget should not simply be increased but be increased wisely. I am not saying that it should be increased by as much as 250 or 500 per cent., but we must imagine what might happen in five, 10 or 15 years, and take into account those countries that are trebling or quadrupling their GDPs—[Interruption.] Well, I would like the figure to be at least 2.5 per cent. and, if necessary, higher. I am not an official spokesman, and perhaps that is why. Should the international situation deteriorate, one would, as a result, be able to adjust. As I have mentioned previously, when the Ottomans lost the battle of Lepanto, most of their fleet had been sunk. Those who survived sailed home, chopped down hundreds of thousands of trees and, six months later, were back, causing trouble in the Mediterranean. It takes 15 to 20 years to build a new generation of almost anything.
I hope that the gloomy prognosis of Russia becoming autocratic again does not prove right. It would be almost an affront for Russia to say, “You have to accept that we will be providing you with oil and gas, and if you try to take alternative measures, this is being disrespectful.” We have to recognise that, for Russia, it is now score-settling time. I hope that I am wrong, but, even according to a half-gloomy perspective, we will be in for a difficult 10, 15 or 20 years. Even though many people do not like the United States, we have to hang on in with the US. We hope that there will be a Democrat leadership—not a supine one, but an intelligent one—and close links with the European Union. The US should not take all the decisions: if we on this side of the Atlantic want to be taken seriously, we have to do things that we perhaps have not done so far, such as getting proper armed forces in countries that do not really have them.
In the world that lies ahead, I hope that we are not going to drift aimlessly, as we did in the 1930s when we were left almost at the mercy of a country that ruled with an iron fist, and with armed forces that left us for dead. If we are to avoid that, we must be a bit more intelligent about defence, look to the future and spend money wisely on the right equipment, so that, should the worst happen, we and our allies—not just the countries of Europe and north America, but many other countries—will not be bullied by military force or the threat of it, or by the misuse of energy, which can be a far cheaper but equally deadly way of achieving objectives.
I begin by echoing the Secretary of State’s words of condolence and by paying tribute to the superb work of the men and women of our armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places around the world.
We had a debate last week on defence procurement, so I will not go over ground that we covered then. However, I welcome the opportunity to have a broader debate on defence policy at a time when overstretch in the armed forces is a subject of discussion not only among politicians and the media, but, in the past few months, among present and former heads of the Army. We are having this debate at a time when, as has already been stated and acknowledged, defence planning assumptions have been exceeded for several years, harmony guidelines have been breached too much, and the state of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan means that a toll is being taken not only on the men and women of our armed services, but on the equipment.
There are particular units in the armed forces that we turn to again and again because of their suitability and excellence in undertaking work such as that in which we are currently involved. I am thinking in particular of the Marines, the Paras and others whom we go back to again and again for such operations. Each of those units will, in time, need to rebuild their contingent capabilities, but they will be unable to do so if we keep sending them out quite as regularly as we have done in the past few years.
I welcome the fact that the Defence Secretary began to acknowledge and address some of those issues in his speech this afternoon. He said that he believed that changes were afoot that would ease some of these pressures. I hope that that is right. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and we will watch developments closely to see whether the hopes outlined today come to fruition.
We welcome the Government’s recent announcement that they intend to reduce the number of our troops in Iraq in the early part of next year. That is a very welcome step in the right direction. The British mission in south-east Iraq has been in progress for some time. Originally, we had responsibility for four provinces; three have been handed back, and we are in the process of withdrawing from Basra province at present, but I remain curious about one matter.
I assure the house that I raise this not to score a point but because I am genuinely puzzled, and hope that the Minister for the Armed Forces will be able to offer some clarification when he winds up the debate. As recently as 26 July, the Minister was discussing with the Defence Committee the prospects for reducing the number of our troops in Iraq. He said:
“The force is not self-sustaining and able to protect itself and do the other work that it has to do below about 5,000”.
He went on to say that
“in an…over-watch situation we cannot get much below 5,000 because we have to be able to sustain the force and self-protect the force itself, so over-watch in itself does not take us down a lot lower than that.”
I repeat that I am not referring to those remarks because I oppose the reduction to 2,500—far from it. As I said, that is a move in the right direction, but I want to understand what has happened in the past couple of months that has caused the Government to make an assessment today that is different from what they were saying as recently as late July. Perhaps they have revised their assessments; if so, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation later on.
I believe that the work in Iraq is progressing towards some sort of endgame and that, increasingly, the focus will move to our ongoing operations in Afghanistan. In my opinion it is widely accepted that we are in for a long haul there, and the public remain somewhat confused about what we are trying to achieve. As a political community composed of all the parties, Parliament must set about trying to explain that more clearly if we are to ensure that the public continue to support and understand—and see the justification for—what we are going to be doing in Afghanistan for some years to come.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain whether he supports the view expressed by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who until very recently was the leader of the Liberal Democrats? He said that he believed that our debt to Iraq had been discharged, and that we should withdraw now. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his party’s position on this matter?
As I said earlier, I believe that we are approaching the end of the work that we took on in Iraq. Three of the four provinces for which we had responsibility have been handed over to Iraqi authorities, and we are told that we will do the same with the fourth in the foreseeable future. After that happens, we should start to make preparations to leave Iraq. We should not scuttle out the minute the fourth province has been handed over but, as we have said in the past, we should initiate a timed and phased withdrawal.
Both the Labour and Conservative parties have said, regularly, that a timetable for withdrawal is quite impossible, but I believe that what the Prime Minister has announced—and what the Government have begun to implement—amounts to an embryonic timetable for withdrawal. The Government are determined to do nothing at a political level ahead of the American elections next autumn that could be seen as a final exit from Iraq, but we will watch with interest to see how far they will continue the process beyond the reduction of 2,500 troops that they have announced already.
No, I shall press on.
In Afghanistan, we are involved in a task for the long term and it is incumbent on all of us to explain it, even though that is not easy or straightforward to do. We have to accept that in Afghanistan tribal issues, insurgency issues and the dynamics of narcotics are interwoven in a complex way. The enemy we are fighting is often concealed among the people and difficult to identify, so our approach is important. It is vital to make and keep as many locals as possible as friends, and to remember that some of them are inclined to consider oral agreements as contracts of honour. It is part and parcel of the strategy we need to adopt that we remain sympathetic to the environment and the people with whom we are working.
From time to time we have to use force, which is why our highly professional armed forces are in the country, but it is important for us and our allies that force is not used indiscriminately. If the Afghans feel that that is happening, there is a danger that jihadism will increase.
There is a complex relationship between what our armed forces are doing and the work of other Departments, Government agencies and non-governmental organisations involved in international aid and relief. Clearly, security must precede development work but it is important that the latter does not come too far behind, which will sometimes entail risks with which NGOs in particular may not be familiar or comfortable. If there is to be a worthwhile dividend from the effort being made, it is important for development work to follow it closely. As has been said, to make that a reality, we need people from all the countries and organisations involved on the ground to have enough autonomy to take the necessary decisions—sometimes quickly.
At all times, we must remember that the objective is achieving security and stability, which is what the Afghans want. It is against that objective that our success should be measured, not simply by the number of Taliban fighters we manage to kill in the process. Building up Afghan capability is vital, and although the process is slow, it is progressing. Progress can be slow but we have to find Afghan solutions and work at an Afghan pace, which is not always the pace we want to work at or with which we are familiar.
We have already discussed NATO and the broad coalition of countries involved in that important work in Afghanistan. The recent NATO Parliamentary Assembly highlighted the concern of member state parliamentarians about the lack of clear strategic objectives. We probably need to refine further those objectives. There is the continuing problem of the use of national caveats and the absence of sufficient financial and human resources to carry out the work we want to fulfil.
I think we shall be in Afghanistan for many years to come, but it is already evident that some members of the coalition are tiring of the conflict; Germany, the Netherlands and Canada are just a few of the countries that have expressed reservations about their continued presence. Given the superb role played by the Canadians and the Dutch, and the impressively high percentage of regular troops they have committed to the work in Afghanistan, it would be deeply worrying were either country to think twice about continuing the operations they have supported so admirably until now.
In a recent report, the Defence Committee highlighted the problem:
“NATO has not provided the required numbers of troops as stated in the Combined Joint Statement Of Requirement.”
The Committee expressed deep concern
“that the reluctance of some NATO members to provide troops for the ISAF mission is undermining NATO’s credibility”,
and the prospects of success for those operations. It is essential that every possible pressure be put on all our allies to encourage them to recognise the long-term duty and commitment that we have all taken on. I think there is no division between the parties in the House in that regard.
The Taliban insurgency continues to be a serious problem and a great strategic threat in Afghanistan. Over the weekend, there were reports about the extent of the Taliban revival and the increasing presence of other militant groups. Movements on the Pakistan border suggest a growing threat of continued insurgency operations. Different elements make up the insurgencies; they are not a homogenous bloc and should not be seen as one entity. The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said it was right for people to pick up snippets of information from members of the armed forces to use judiciously in debates in the House. Marines in my constituency fought in Afghanistan for six months last winter, and I asked them what they made of the Taliban enemy they were up against. They replied that a remarkable number of their opponents had distinct regional accents, some of which, I am sorry to say, were west midlands accents. We need to remember that we are up against a complicated foe and we should not make simplistic judgments about who they are, what motivates them and what they are trying to achieve.
Inevitably, we have taken heavy casualties but it is right that we carry the fight to the enemy. It is important that we are mobile and unpredictable. Sometimes the best form of defence is attack, so that we take on the enemy where we want to engage them and not on ground that might suit them better.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are always the ones taking on the fight, and that only a few countries are willing to take on the hard role in Afghanistan? Does he agree that some of our NATO colleagues should take some of the weight that we have carried for far too long, and has he any ideas about how we can get them more involved so that they take some of that weight from us?
I agree; the hon. Gentleman’s point is well made and I referred to the same thing earlier. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said that membership of NATO means taking on the full commitment entailed by combined security and joint defence. These operations cannot be treated in an à-la-carte way, as happens among some of our NATO allies, which is a real problem. We will be in Afghanistan for a long time and we must impress on our NATO allies that if the operation is to be sustainable, if it is to prevail and succeed, we must have more help in terms of manpower and finance from other members than we have had to date.
Progress is being made. It is painfully slow, but there has been progress with hospitals, electricity generators, bridges, roads and water supplies. Goodness knows, there is a long way to go, but we should not be pessimistic just because sometimes the casualty figures are a lot higher than we would want.
The success of many of the operations in which we are involved depends entirely on good intelligence, so I should welcome the Government’s assessment of whether we have enough ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—capability. In the House, we have previously referred to air assets—especially helicopters—and they are still not adequate to the task in the long term. The fact that none of them is dedicated solely to the task of casualty evacuation, which has to be slotted into general helicopter tasking, is evidence that we do not have as many helicopters as we want.
A separate, but slightly less obvious, problem is that the lack of helicopter capacity means that there is insufficient resource for some of the training that could improve the effectiveness of what we are doing. The terrain in Helmand is such that helicopters are vital, so unless we can address this issue for the longer term, it will continue to hold back what we are doing and undermine our aims. Helmand is also a punishing environment for equipment and vehicles, particularly for engines, transmissions and suspensions. All those are experiencing a heavy toll from the sort of work that we are undertaking in a hostile environment.
As time goes on, we will need to work up the capability and capacity of the Afghans themselves. One of the prerequisites will be improving the ability of Afghan authorities to make medium-term and long-term plans. That is particularly limited now. Although the Afghan army is developing, Afghan policing is far more of a problem. At its best it is passable, but at its worst it comes down, at times, to militias and tribal police of varying loyalty, some of whom are involved in all manner of activities in which one would not normally expect or want the police to be involved. That issue will hold us back if we cannot address it.
The issue of eradicating the poppy crop is serious. The Government have responded to the Defence Committee’s report on Afghanistan, which criticised the poppy policy as confused. The problem, as we can all see, is that the crop is an essential part of the livelihood and income of many Afghans. The point to make about the poppy crop is that the dividend—the crop itself—is obtained within six months of planting. Let us consider the pre-1979 period, before the Soviet invasion. At that time, successful and viable crops such as nutmeg, almonds, currants and sultanas could be found in Afghanistan. We may want to get people back into growing vines, but they will wait five years to get a dividend from planting them, as opposed to the six months’ wait after planting poppies. That is the critical point, so the aid effort and support that we can give will be our only hope of offering an alternative crop to the subsistence farmers.
As a member of the Defence Committee, may I suggest that we should be looking at the long-term position? That is the point we made in our report: the investment should be put in for that long-term crop, as opposed to the short-term dividend. We must address that issue.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and with the point that the Committee made. That issue is crucial to the long-term success of our operations in Afghanistan.
The key point is that we must retain our commitment. We went into Afghanistan because we had no alternative: it had provided a headquarters for international terrorism. If we were to leave Afghanistan and not to see this operation through, we would be back to square one in very little time, and people there would be involved in all that again.
We need a strategic defence review. The review that the Government carried out in 1998 was good, and it was to some extent updated by the White Paper that followed. However, as I said in last week’s debate, if we are to make a proper assessment of the strategic environment and the sort of requirements that we will have in years to come, now is the time for another such review. It should examine our vision of where we think we fit in the world, what we will try to achieve in terms of both hard and soft power, and how we will develop capabilities to match those future objectives and the potential operations to which they might lead. We need an agile, flexible and deployable force, as stated in the 2004 comprehensive spending review. There is some way to go before we achieve that, and in a fast-changing environment, we must look forward to what we think we will need to do in years to come, particularly as we make difficult choices in our procurement budget.
I warmly welcome the Royal British Legion’s campaign on the broken covenant. It is a sign of the sense of alarm in the military community that such an organisation has felt driven to mount a campaign of that sort. The welfare and well-being of the armed forces should be at the centre of any future planning and of the sort of strategic defence review for which I am calling.
It is clear that we are no longer in the cold war era, and it is right that our planning assumptions are changing to reflect that. We must look forward, on the basis of the nature of the threats that we think we will face in years to come. As some hon. Members have said, those can change at quite a speed. We could not have anticipated the rise of some of the forces that are emerging in the world, nor the recent posturing on the part of the Russian Federation. In this fast-changing world, it is high time to undertake another long hard assessment, and to make the revisions to our military strategy that would better equip us to fit that new environment.
I welcome the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made on 8 October on Iraq, which will see troop numbers reduced to about 2,500 by next spring. The decision was made possible only as a result of the fantastic efforts of British troops who have helped to train 13,000 members of the Iraqi army. I was saddened that instead of welcoming that news, the Opposition took the opportunity for a bit of political knockabout. The public will make a harsh judgment about those who sat in the comfort of those Benches and saw the announcement as a chance to launch a political attack on the Government rather than celebrate the success of Britain’s servicemen and women. Is it any wonder that the recent ICM poll showed that two thirds of those polled believe that the Tories are not fit for government?
I was saddened by what the right hon. Gentleman had to say, for the simple reason that I do not think the British public like our services being manipulated for party political reasons. Announcements were made in Iraq about which even the Secretary of State for Defence did not know, so the case that the right hon. Gentleman has made against the Opposition could equally be made against the Government.
The public will judge the Conservatives’ reaction on that day; I have no doubt that a harsh judgment will be made on that party.
The conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has meant that we are asking servicemen and women to do more than ever before, placing greater demands on them and their families. In return, therefore, we have to take on board an even greater duty to support them. I have always held the view that joining the armed forces is not like taking a job at Barclays bank or Tesco. Those who volunteer to serve their country are joining an organisation that may require them to put their life on the line, as has so tragically happened in Iraq and Afghanistan these past few years. In return for their commitment, it is our duty to ensure that they are well motivated, well trained, and equipped and protected to do the job that we ask of them. That is our true covenant with the armed forces.
In return for the service that our forces give, Britain owes them only the very best. I am talking not simply about the best training and equipment, but about the best accommodation and support for them and their families. It is important that families are given support.
When I served as a defence Minister, my mission statement was simple: we will value our servicemen, servicewomen and their families, our reserves, cadets their employers and their families, our veterans, their widows and their families, and we will do everything in our power to demonstrate that. That idea should run throughout our approach to our support for the armed forces.
I could not speak of the value agenda without mentioning the campaign by veterans who fought in Malaysia to be allowed to wear the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal. I have tabled early-day motion 356 on that and hon. Members on both sides of the House have generously supported it. However, we have to do more. We have a duty to honour the commitment of the 35,000 of our boys who fought in the jungles of Malaysia. They earned that medal and they have the right to wear it. A greater degree of honour falls on them than on the members of the honours and decorations committee who are resisting the legitimate request to wear that medal. I wonder how many of those who serve on that committee served in the jungle. Probably the only jungle they know is the jungle around Whitehall.
The value agenda should run right through the whole of our forces, from cadets to veterans, and even beyond, to our service families. Service families are very important. They really are the rock on which our people rely for support. If the families back home are happy, content and supported, the boys whom we deploy in many theatres of conflict are happy, too. Like everyone else, our servicemen and women cannot give their best in operations if they are worried about things at home. So it should be an absolute priority that servicemen and their families have the support and help they need and deserve.
The absolute cornerstone of that is service accommodation. Armed forces personnel and their families deserve decent accommodation. Those serving must be secure in the knowledge that their families are housed in accommodation on a par with the very best on offer in Britain. While I know that the MOD is committed to improving accommodation, and some £700 million has already been spent on housing and other living accommodation, much more needs to be done.
I occasionally smile to myself when I hear present—and yes, former—senior defence chiefs calling for more to be done to improve service family accommodation. I pressed for that, as a Minister in the MOD between 2005 and 2006, but I do not recall receiving any support from those individuals. Indeed, it was Ministers in the MOD who expressed the greatest concern about service family accommodation, not the senior officers.
I believe that the MOD plans to spend £5 billion in the next decade and that will help, but I have one piece of advice for my successor, who takes a very real interest in this matter. He should watch his back when it comes to determining priorities. He will have to fight his corner for funding for service family accommodation, and he will find his opponents pretty formidable.
There is no quick fix. The legacy of underfunding inherited from the previous Government means that we are tackling shortcomings that will take considerable time to resolve. It is a bit rich for the Conservatives to claim the moral high ground on the issue when it was their policy of slashing the defence budget that led to service family housing being in the poor state of repair that it is in now. Indeed, there is no more pathetic sight than the Tories trying to pitch their tent on the moral high ground. When it comes to our armed forces, they had no idea when in government and they have no credibility now. Their record speaks for itself.
I am coming to an NAO report now. MOD officials appeared before the Public Accounts Committee on 28 January 1998 and they were asked whether spending constraints under the previous Government had prevented improvements to housing stock. They said yes. Who asked the question? It was none other than the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the present shadow Home Secretary. Contrast that with the record of this Government on spending and investment in the armed forces. We are reversing the legacy that the Conservatives left. We now have more than 20,000 new or upgraded single-living accommodation spaces and 20,000 more are planned. In this financial year, the accommodation of 900 service families will be upgraded, and there is more to do.
I hope that my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench will take a closer look at an idea that I examined when I was a Minister. Today, many service families aspire to own their own home and we must to do all we can to help them achieve that. We could perhaps give them a grant of, say, £30,000 towards their mortgage. That cost could be offset by savings elsewhere on other benefits. Alternatively, the Department could act as a guarantor for a certain proportion of any mortgage applied for. The Americans do that with their veterans, for example. One of the major advantages of such a scheme is that the lender is protected against loss and a favourable mortgage is obtained by the service family.
The issue of home ownership will become increasingly important in the coming years as we move towards super-garrisons. It also extends choice to the services and meets a legitimate aspiration. The quality of service accommodation, alongside military pay and training, has a massive impact on recruitment and retention, which are the two great challenges facing us.
Recruitment is an ongoing challenge. Our strong economy increases the challenge. I entered the House in 1995 in a by-election, and I remember that almost every door that I knocked on in my campaign was answered. In the last general election, hardly any doors were answered, because the area now has a strong economy and almost full employment. The forces now have to compete for recruits and show that joining is an attractive proposition.
Retention is also an issue with some 20,000-plus people leaving the services each year. The skills that our servicemen and women gain during their time in the forces are desirable to those who run business and industry in the private sector. Imagine a married serviceman who has returned from a second or third deployment in the field being greeted by his wife. She will probably say, “Thank God you are back. I worried about you the whole time you were away. Now you have skills that you can sell outside in the private sector. The children are growing up and we are living in awful service accommodation.” How can we retain those people in the forces? We need to do more, and the deployed welfare package does help with retention.
Let us not forget that our forces were given the best public sector pay deal this year. In fact, armed forces salary growth has exceeded growth in the whole economy in all but one of the last five years. Contrast that with the record of the Conservatives who, rather than supporting our service personnel, cut the Army by 36,000 during their last five years in government. With that record, where is their commitment to our armed forces?
The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who spoke on behalf of the Opposition, but is no longer in his place, was a little coy when pressed about what they would do on public spending if they were in power. I do not know why he was coy: he should take a lead from his leader, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who said in a webcast interview recently:
“There is no magic pot of money we can dip into to spend…on our armed forces.”
There we have it. If the Tories were in power, there would be no more for the armed forces. As so often in the past, the Tories are long on promises, but short on delivery. The party that cut the defence budget by £0.5 billion a year between 1992 and 1997 has not changed at all. If, God forbid, they were one day elected to power, the outlook for the armed forces would be cuts, cuts and more cuts. Contrast that with the record of this Government—increasing pay, improving equipment, updating medical care and accommodation, and constantly seeking to improve the package available to veterans. The Government are committed to delivering for our servicemen and women, and long may that continue.
I will try to rise above the rather carping nature of the debate. I hope that hon. Members will recognise that my motivation is concern for the welfare of our armed services and concern to provide them with the right equipment to do the job to which the nation has committed them. I welcome this debate on defence policy. It is in many ways long overdue, but I nevertheless congratulate the Government on holding it, as the subject is extremely important for the nation and our armed services.
The three armed services have their own particular crosses to bear at present. The RAF is financially bogged down with the Eurofighter, the Royal Navy’s spending is now totally dominated by the two new aircraft carriers, and the Army, under the future Army structure programme, is being reconstructed for the future rapid effect system, FRES. Everything is geared towards providing a high-tech expeditionary rapid reaction force, but no one has asked why that should be so, or has asked what has been omitted in the meantime.
The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who, I am delighted to say, is back in the Chamber, has said in the past that the UK and its allies might have to face down the Russians again, and that is true, but we are engaged in ongoing operations in difficult counter-insurgency situations. The fact is that those at the top of the military seem to have become obsessed with high-tech, high-priced, overcomplicated new equipment. Let us take the case of the FRES vehicles; they were originally expected to be on stream by about 2010, but we will be lucky if it is 2020. It may even be later than that.
I wish that the hon. Lady would do her research, and that she understood what she was talking about when making statements such as the one that she just made. I have pressed the Defence Committee hard on the subject that she raises; I am the one who has been pressing for an in-service date. Lord Drayson, the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement, has made it clear to the Committee on numerous occasions that 2012 is the in-service date. Having seen the rapid progress that he is making with that programme, I now have more faith that it will be in service by 2012. To say that may not happen until 2020 is absolute rubbish.
The hon. Gentleman expresses his opinion. We will have to wait and see who is right. I hope that we are both in the House in 2012, and that we will recall this conversation on the Floor of the House. In the meantime, the real needs of the present have been overlooked, and the hard-learned lessons of the past appear to have been forgotten. So many people thought that Iraq would be another Northern Ireland, where the use of Snatch Land Rovers was appropriate, but they were completely wrong, and many people have lost their lives or been maimed as a result. I have always given the Government credit for the provision of, and improvements to, equipment such as helmets and body armour, and surveillance equipment and electronic countermeasures that use the latest technology. That is in addition to armoury for the infantry. It is in the provision of larger equipment that things have gone horribly wrong.
I totally agree with the comments made by the Minister for the Armed Forces a week ago concerning the Mastiff vehicle:
“there must be a range of vehicles suitable for all occasions and available for commanders to use as and when they need to do so.”—[Official Report, 9 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 200.]
The Secretary of State is now back in the Chamber, and I ask him a direct question: did the Army fully support the original purchase of Mastiffs, or was its support given only on the condition that they were purchased outside the Army budget? I should be grateful if he responded, perhaps by letter. If necessary, I will come and see him behind the Speaker’s Chair, so that we can have a chat, but I would like a response to that query.
Let us look at the Army’s new vehicles. The Panther command and liaison vehicle is a very expensive runabout, not to be used on operations. The inadequately protected Tellar bomb disposal vehicle, the Pinzgauer Vector, is an excellent off-road vehicle, but any engineer knows that a mine blast turns it into a death-trap. The so-called Supacat mobility weapon-mounted installation kit is super for the special forces, but why have 130 of them, when they are a liability for normal patrols and convoys, as an infantryman can take them out with one bullet? Who is to say that the first round of FRES for the utility vehicle will be any better? Given the recent track record, we can have little confidence in getting that right. The vehicles can be transported, one at a time, only by the A400Ms—an aircraft that we might never get. What sort of a rapid reaction force will that be?
The military seem to be obsessed with fast jets, yet history has proved that small and slow is far superior for close air support. For the price of one Eurofighter we could have a squadron of Super Tucanos. They can carry the same ordnance as a Harrier, with its loud bang, but unlike the Harrier, which can be over the battlefield for no more than 20 minutes, Tucanos can loiter overhead for hours on end, ready for use in a ground attack at a moment’s notice. We also tend to go in for expensive and complicated helicopters, which soak up manpower, like all complicated equipment. There appears to be little understanding of how light helicopters can be used effectively for ground attack.
In the book review section of the August edition of Soldier magazine, which I am sure that most people read avidly, there is a tribute to one of the
“most effective counter insurgency units of all time”.
The reference is to a book entitled “The Saints: The Rhodesian Light Infantry” by Alexandre Binda, which should be required reading for all top brass, so that they can appreciate how the Rhodesians used their limited helicopter resources to devastating effect. There are plenty of helicopters on the market today that can be hired at one fifth of the cost of our own aircraft, so there really is no excuse for helicopter shortages. [Interruption.] I notice that Labour Members are amused by that statement. In all counter-insurgency situations we have complete control of the airspace, so why cannot we have total air surveillance on all key routes?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way during her interesting and original speech. Does she agree that the issue is not just the cost of some of the platforms? In America, which has a huge civil aviation sector, as do we, they use reserve pilots, some of whom are extremely experienced and who have completed many thousands of flying hours, to pilot often much cheaper aeroplanes. As a result, they can afford much more air power per unit of cost.
My hon. Friend, who is experienced in such matters, makes a valid point, and I am sure that everyone in the House, including the Secretary of State, will take notice of it. I thank him for making that point.
I accept and admit that unmanned aerial vehicles are being developed for surveillance purposes, but there is nothing to prevent us from putting in place light aircraft right now to give coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That is what the Iraqi air force does, and that is surely the way to stop the use of improvised explosive devices, and to prevent further accidents from happening to our troops.
I would like to raise the issue of money and manpower. We constantly hear about not having enough money and that our forces are overstretched almost to breaking point, so let us take a few lessons from history. I refer again to the Rhodesian forces. They had little money and equipment, due to sanctions, and very small numbers of men, yet they succeeded beyond all expectations. They used what they had wisely, implementing ideas from the bottom up. The only battle that they lost was the public relations battle.
In last week’s debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) said that the Ministry is also losing the public relations battle—something that the Minister who replied did not acknowledge. It is essential for the morale of our forces that as, at times, they fight for their very lives in exceptionally hostile and difficult circumstances, they know that they have the full support of the British people. I know that they have the full support of the House; they certainly have my full support.
British defence policy is caught in a vacuum, created in part by the military taking their eye off the ball while planning the longer term in procurement and reorganisation. In the meantime, we have been ill prepared to fight wars on two fronts—in Iraq and Afghanistan—and we have forgotten the lessons of the past in terms of counter-insurgency. Incidentally, Northern Ireland is not entirely relevant to the situation and no one at the top of the military has personal experience of comparable counter-insurgency, other than Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, who served in the Sultan of Oman’s air force, operating Strikemaster jets in the Dhofar war of the 1970s.
The Secretary of State is nodding; he will remember that what happened in Dhofar province reinforces the case for slower aircraft for ground attack. I will not expand—to his relief, I am sure—on that argument in this debate, although I look forward to other opportunities to enlarge on some of the issues that I have raised.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) will understand if I do not take up much of what she said. However, notwithstanding the fact that the main defence procurement debate happened last week, as she knows, I cannot but respond to what she said about the Eurofighter Typhoon. It is to the great credit of this Secretary of State and his predecessors—and, indeed, the Labour party in opposition—that they stood solidly behind the development of the Eurofighter, which is a great success story. If the hon. Lady speaks for the Conservative party, she did it no good in seeking to denigrate the plane.
The hon. Gentleman has probably misunderstood; I was not knocking the Eurofighter, but saying that it was perhaps inappropriate as a ground-attack aircraft, and that other aircraft would be better suited to that purpose. It is a question of horses for courses.
I will not go down that road, but I trust that we have the hon. Lady’s support for tranche 3.
During debates on defence, Members frequently take the opportunity to pay tribute to the calibre and commitment of our armed forces, and rightly so. Members of the armed forces put themselves at the service of the Government of the day, and through them, of the House of Commons. Surely a Minister has no greater responsibility than that of deciding to deploy our service personnel in an active role outside these islands. When people join the military, they literally undertake to put their lives on the line for the people of this country, so it is right that the House should take an active and ongoing interest in the activities of our military forces, particularly when they are engaged in operations, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which significant numbers of people will inevitably lose their lives or be injured.
I wish to focus most of my remarks on Afghanistan, but the House will be well aware of my strong opposition to the invasion of Iraq. It is more than a year since the head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said that we should
“get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems.”
He went on:
“We are in a Muslim country and Muslims’ views of foreigners in their country are quite clear. As a foreigner, you can be welcomed by being invited into a country, but we weren’t invited, certainly by those in Iraq at the time. Let’s face it, the military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in.”
I accept that the Labour Front-Bench team did not want to hear that, but there is still certainly a great deal of concern in this country about the invasion of Iraq. Many will take the view that the sooner our military personnel leave that country, the better.
The background to our presence in Afghanistan is, of course, different. There was an al-Qaeda presence in that country and a consensus in this country that British forces should take part in any action to try to deal with the threat from terrorists in Afghanistan. The international security assistance force, or ISAF, in Afghanistan has been authorised by successive UN Security Council resolutions, beginning with resolution 1386, passed in December 2001. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knows better than I, stage 1 of ISAF’s presence was restricted to Kabul. The international community is, of course, supporting efforts to extend security to other parts of the country, and the role of ISAF has expanded to cover the various provinces of Afghanistan.
In April last year, the Defence Committee reported that the ISAF operation was made up of 9,000 personnel, provided by 36 countries, 26 of which are NATO members; that is important because the ISAF mission is now led by NATO. In addition to ISAF, there is Operation Enduring Freedom, the US military campaign that fought with the Northern Alliance to remove the Taliban from power, with the US providing air power and the Northern Alliance providing ground forces. The operation continues to work separately from ISAF, but there is collaboration: for example, the air power is jointly controlled.
The House should be grateful to the Defence Committee for the work that it has done on the UK’s deployment to Afghanistan. To its credit, its members visited not only Kabul but Kandahar and Helmand province. In the past 18 months, the Committee has produced two valuable reports. The Government’s response to the most recent one was published just last week. The information available is up to date.
Reading through the two reports and the Government’s responses, one is conscious of the use of two words—they struck me, at least: “security” and “stability”. In my vocabulary, those are certainly not interchangeable. I regard “security” as covering the work done to back up the Afghan military police internal security operations and to try to facilitate some sort of rough rule of law so that people can go about their daily business in peace. I would reserve “stability” for the economic objectives of our involvement in Afghanistan. Those are hugely important, and a welcome and significant investment has been made by the Department for International Development.
The Government’s response last week to the Committee report rightly makes a strong statement about the work of DFID, although that is not in any way to criticise the work of the Ministry of Defence. It simply means that it is right that DFID has got in so strongly and, as the Government said,
“ensured that all of its interventions have been in close consultation with the Afghan government and civil society at the provincial level and increasingly with an Afghan lead, including in the design and construction stages. This approach has demonstrated to local communities that their Government can deliver improved basic services and demonstrated the longer-term commitment of the international community.”
I do not think that there is any concern about the support for the economic—and, some would say, the social—development of Afghanistan. I assume that the House is united in the hope that security might be achieved within a reasonable time scale and that the cost in lost life, whether of military personnel or the Afghan population, is kept to an absolute minimum. There is agreement throughout the House on that.
It is right that we should look carefully at what is happening in Afghanistan. Reference has already been made to the position regarding the growth of poppies. The reality is that there are many poppy producers. The Select Committee’s report does not refer much to the producers but rather to the next stages, which are easier to address. I am well aware that it is not the Government’s policy to allow the military to get involved in any of the eradication process. Indeed, the report makes the position clear:
“The MOD…will not take part in the eradication of poppy until alternative livelihood schemes are available.”
The problem is that we have to accept, as my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) said, that producers will move to alternative systems of production only when, in the long term and the short term, it is profitable for them to do so. These people are working on the land and trying to support themselves and their families. The idea that there is a military solution through eradicating the poppy crop, with the involvement of the British Government and our people, is quite wrong. Indeed, the more I study the report and the Government’s response, the more sceptical I become of the entire commitment. If one looks carefully at the original terms of reference given in relation to the Government’s participation in ISAF, even subsequently when we moved into Helmand province, one sees that part of our presence in Afghanistan is an involvement in dealing with the narcotics issue.
This is not said in any spirit of criticism. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that when he tries to justify our presence in Afghanistan to his constituents, he sometimes refers to the drugs link. I have made my position on this clear on previous occasions in the House of Commons. As far as I am concerned, our responsibility in relation to drugs is to deal with consumption. The reality is that there is too much consumption of illegal drugs. It is all very well saying that a certain proportion of drugs is produced in Afghanistan, as if poppies are grown only in Afghanistan, but it is not credible to imply that any significant contribution can be made to the drugs situation in that country by our military presence there. I put that forward as the point of view of someone who naturally wants to see our forces succeed, by and large, throughout the world, as does everyone else in this House, if we agree that they should have been deployed.
I am concerned about two aspects of my right hon. Friend’s remarks. First, as I made perfectly clear when answering an intervention on my speech, I realise that one can grow poppy in places other than Afghanistan. If we do not deal with consumption while at the same time seeking to deal with supply, then for as long as there is a market here in the developed world for heroin, somebody, somewhere, will grow poppy in order to produce it. I well understand that; his point is redundant if he seeks to persuade me of it.
Much more importantly, does not my right hon. Friend realise—I hope that he will develop this point, because there is no discord across the House regarding his argument about where the priority of our military effort should lie—that a significant amount of the insurgency in Afghanistan is paid for by the production of heroin, so there is a direct correlation between that and the violence that is visited on the people of Afghanistan and directed at our troops?
Of course I realise that, just as I realise that a high proportion of the crime in this country is related to the drugs situation. Indeed, we can debate whether we want a high price or a low price for drugs in relation to their impact on crime in general. I do not seek to get involved in an argument with my right hon. Friend—I support his efforts across the piece in his Department—but of course I know that these people are being funded by drugs. The report refers to the scale of corruption in the country—the whole situation is riddled with profits from drugs. The producers are just the people on the ground trying to earn an honest livelihood. We all understand that, as the report says, we are trying to go for the Mr. Bigs.
I do not want to extend my contribution for too long, because I know that many others want to speak, including members of the Select Committee, but I will conclude on the following valid point. I was impressed by the contribution to last week’s defence debate by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). Let me try to be a little bipartisan after my initial, justified reaction to the hon. Member for Congleton. The hon. Gentleman made an excellent speech, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces is aware, because he opened the debate; I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber at the time. I have no disagreement with the commitment of my right hon. Friends the Minister and the Secretary of State to trying to get the best equipment for our people, whether they are in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else.
I was impressed when the hon. Gentleman said:
“We should not confuse our admiration for the magnificent way in which our young soldiers are carrying out their duties with a consideration of the wider merits of their task. It remains our duty constantly to assess whether the task that they are doing collectively on behalf of the United Kingdom serves British interests, and wider western liberal democratic national interests.”—[Official Report, 9 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 232.]
I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that there is still a fundamental consensus between the Select Committee and the Government on the narcotics work in Afghanistan; I merely question the approach, and I think that we should continue to do so.
I welcome this opportunity to discuss defence policy. I want to say a few words about the military covenant between the armed forces of the nation. I will then spend the bulk of my time considering ways in which we could have a greater involvement by the wider nation in the defence of our country.
Last week, there was a widespread welcome for the albeit very limited changes to the armed forces compensation scheme. Yesterday, I received a reply from the Under-Secretary to a letter that I wrote contrasting the cases of Lance Bombardier Parkinson with the RAF clerk who had RSI in the fingers. I entirely accept that, as the Secretary of State said earlier, no direct comparison can be made between the two lump sums because one person is getting a guaranteed income payment and the other is not. However, the fact remains that if that guaranteed income payment for these absolutely frightful injuries were to be capitalised, a comparable civilian case would receive a much larger equivalent sum. After all, the Government of the day set the rules and make the law in this area, so why does our law place a so much higher value on civilian casualties than on military ones—or rather, in this case, on someone who was uniformed at the time but had the injury in a civilian context rather than a military one?
Will the hon. Gentleman give this Labour Government some credit? Before the compensation scheme was introduced, no lump sum payments were made to members of the armed forces; it was a Labour Government who brought that in. When I discussed it, along with other members of the Select Committee and members of the Public Bill Committee, at no time did Conservative Front Benchers bring up any of the points on which they seem now to have had foresight whereby they knew that it was wrong all along.
That is not what I am saying—and the hon. Gentleman knows it. I served on the Committee, too, and the total package of remuneration, pension and compensation embodied in the Bill was cash limited. It took no account of the fact that there would be fewer pensions in future because the armed forces are getting smaller, but it did take account of the fact that people were living longer. The overall value across all service personnel was actually lower. However, I am not going any further with the actuarial calculations at the moment.
The second example on the covenant issue, much discussed in our debates and touched on again today, is the overwhelming feeling in the military that we should have a military designated ward—not just a military managed one—at Birmingham Selly Oak. No one would suggest that, in a massive accident or a crisis, those beds should always be refused to civilians, but it cannot be right for a young Royal Marine with fearful injuries from Afghanistan who has been moved back there from the field hospital to wake up and find himself between two elderly ladies, who ask him, “What has happened to you, lad?”, and for him to end up saying that he has had an accident at work. That is just one example.
The wider issue of the military covenant, floated by Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, should be thought about hard, and I welcome, as have other Members, the Royal British Legion’s campaign to focus on it. We have to ask ourselves why we do not have homecoming parades in very many places when our soldiers return from Iraq or Afghanistan. Although it is a factor that action in those theatres does not command overwhelming public support—indeed, in the case of Iraq, it is positively unpopular—that is not the only factor.
In Canterbury, we are proud of being garrison city for the 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland—the Argylls, as we still think of them—and of being the headquarters of the 3rd Battalion the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. We are unusual, however. The Army is getting smaller, and it is increasingly concentrating on a few so-called super-bases. Just last month, I visited Catterick. It has an enormous military contingent, with very few civilians living in the immediate area. The Air Force has bases such as Lossiemouth and Kinloss, whose local civilian community is again extremely small. For the vast majority of people living in Britain, immediate contact with the regular forces is absolutely minimal.
I can, however, provide an excellent example of a homecoming parade, as reported in The Daily Telegraph yesterday:
“After six months of combat in Afghanistan, Somme Company, of the London Regiment, paraded through the City of London…Major Giles Morgan, an officer with the London Regiment said, ‘The parade was absolutely brilliant. It was the first time families had seen their loved ones for a long time so it was a proud moment…It was very emotional. One soldier proposed to his girlfriend and she agreed.’ The parade was hosted by the City of London Corporation, the local authority for London’s financial district, the Square Mile. It included…Territorial Army soldiers, regular reservists and 26 Grenadier Guards”,
who had been placed under the command of the TA company.
If we look across the Atlantic at the National Guard in America, we see that every state has deployed units—not stray individuals—to Iraq, usually as parts of whole brigades. I heard all about the fantastic welcome when the Louisiana brigade returned to the state, despite its having being away during Hurricane Katrina. The TA is tiny in relation to the regular Army—the volunteer reserves in America, the National Guard and the US Army Reserve, are bigger than their regular counterparts—and as a result, our regular forces are in danger of slipping into cultural isolation.
Much of the debate has turned on the mismatch between resources and tasks, but I put it to the House that, in looking at the future shape of our armed forces as a whole, there are three good reasons why we need greater civilian involvement in defence. The first is the one that I have just mentioned, namely that otherwise our regular military forces will become more and more isolated from the civilian community, which is rapidly happening.
The second reason is cost. In America, where 55 per cent. of ground forces are volunteer reservists, there is obviously a big difference in cost from the comparable figure of less than 30 per cent. in Britain. The proportions are also very different in the Navy and the Air Force. I shall not speak about the Navy today because our all-party reserve forces group has just started a study of the maritime reserves.
We can see some really striking statistics if we look at the Air Force. It costs £4 million to train a fast jet fighter pilot. When such a pilot leaves the RAF in Britain, that money is completely lost to the taxpayer. In America, such a pilot can go and join the Air Guard, which provides a third of all the fast jet fighter squadrons in the country. Because its pilots are overwhelmingly ex-regular, the training cost is minimal.
In other areas of the American air forces, the figures are even more striking. Most of its supporting functions are provided by part-timers, who mainly fly for a living. They are extremely experienced pilots who provide a very effective back-up for the front-line aspects of the air force. Some of the Air Guard’s equipment is even cheaper.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) referred to the merits of slow-flying ground-attack aircraft. The A10—or Warthog, as it is nicknamed—costs about 10 per cent. of the price of a Eurofighter, but with its titanium case around the engine and the protection that it provides for the pilot, it is immensely resilient to anti-aircraft fire and, because it can loiter, it is very effective in a ground attack.
But we have to remember that our aircraft industry is a world leader. What we should not be doing—there is great danger in doing it—is buying off the shelf, which might take away our capability of producing aircraft. That would be a major retrograde step, which I hope the hon. Gentleman would think carefully about before seeking enhancement through buying American products.
I agree completely, but the fact remains that nobody—including the Conservative and Labour Governments of the past 40 years—has ever asked our aircraft industry to produce a cheap, durable ground-attack aircraft. What we are getting for the second time round is an aircraft that is very expensive, highly specified and, in the case of Eurofighter, principally designed for air combat, at which it is arguably the best in the world. It is not designed for ground attack.
One more example from the Air Force is the air tanker programme. I have been struggling to find the latest estimate of the private finance initiative cost. Two years ago, the figure was £11 billion, but I have since seen a forecast of £13 billion. Let us be clear what we are talking about: air tankering is a very important function that, in essence, involves converted airliners. A degree of skill is necessary, specifically in practising the tankering function, but the people involved have a skill base that is otherwise the same as that of an airline pilot.
We are talking about expensively converting airliners that can be used to carry troops, but an awful lot of air tankering is needed at some times but not at others. There must be a cheaper way of arranging air tankering, so that we use, as the Americans do, reserve pilots—experienced airline pilots who fly for a living anyway—and consider a cheaper aircraft option, so that the aircraft do not sit about and are used either for air tankering or for air transport. We have overstretch in air transport at the moment, but that is not always the case. The Americans have the capability, which we do not have, to pull much more capacity on stream at relatively low cost.
That brings me to the Territorial Army and the report prepared by our little all-party group. We had terrific support from the MOD, which agreed to provide us with all the information that we wanted. The Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram) came to speak to us. We subsequently received from the Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), whom I am glad to see in his place, a very courteous and detailed reply to our report. However, it was a little disappointing that very few of the ideas that we proposed found favour, and I should like to spend the last part of my speech on three of them: deployments, recruiting and retention, and resources.
The Territorial Army has a remarkable record on deployments: out of an organisation that is barely 30,000 strong—including recruits and undeployable people, such as those in the Officer Training Corps—13,000 have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past five years. Let us remember that it was deployed to Iraq only a couple of years after a big deployment associated with the Kosovo operation.
A growing feature of deployment, beside the pace of it, is causing considerable unhappiness in the Territorial Army: the Regular Army’s demands to cherry-pick lance corporals and privates to backfill regular units, with the officers and senior non-commissioned officers being offered buckshee posts away from command. To its credit, the MOD did not give this justification in the reply to our report, but the justification that regular officers sometimes give sotto voce is, “Oh well, why should we use a TA officer as a platoon or company commander to command these soldiers, when we have got somebody who’s spent so many more years training in the shape of the regular officer. What we want is the rank and file to pad out the numbers in our regular units.”
The MOD gave a different reply:
“With approximately 600 members of the TA and Regular Reserve deployed at any one time, predominantly split between Iraq and Afghanistan, the infantry element is the only cap-badge where there are sufficient individuals available to deploy at sub-unit level.”
So deployment will take place by so-called cohorts—groups of mostly junior rank individuals, possibly with an officer going for a buckshee staff job. I am certain that the Minister did not mean to mislead us—a lot of trouble was taken over that reply, but it is factually wrong. For the bulk of next year, formed units of the TA Royal Army Medical Corps will provide most of the medical cover in Afghanistan. In fact, to give another example, a formed unit of 131 Commando Squadron Royal Engineers—a formed troop of 50 soldiers—has just come back from quite a distinguished tour in Afghanistan. Its tour in Iraq on the first day of the original invasion made the front page of The Times. So there are examples of those, apart from the infantry, who have been deployed as formed units.
In fact, the kind of performance that I quoted from The Daily Telegraph—the welcome and fanfare in the City of London for the London-formed company—is a model for what can be done and for how the Territorials can keep the wider community interested in the whole business of defence. Full marks to the Londons for fielding that company, many of whom had been out to serve before, and for the excellent service that they did there. All credit, too, to the Brigade of Guards, which had no previous experience of working with Territorials, and which said, “We’re going to treat these people seriously.” It even detached a platoon of regulars to serve under its wing, because it was a three-platoon company with four tasks, so it clearly needed a spare platoon. That is the way forward that the Territorials want, rather than the cherry-picking of individuals.
I do not mean to suggest—please do not misunderstand me—that there is no scope for individuals who want to volunteer to fill gaps in the Regular Army, but the same point that has been made many times about the Regular Army applies to the TA. Just as the Regular Army needs to train for general war so that it can be used for peacekeeping—a point that we used to hear many times in debates a few years ago, before Afghanistan hotted up—Territorials must have opportunities for formed-unit deployments, in which officers get the chance to command and soldiers to serve under TA officers, if they are also to be useful as a supplier of spare parts.
That brings me to recruitment and retention in the TA. We are desperately short—5,000 or 6,000 under-strength on paper—and I am sure that the gap would be even larger if those who are held on strength but have really ceased to attend were taken off. The decision to hand recruiting from the reserve forces and cadets associations to the regional brigades is potentially very dangerous. The original brigades, however well they are commanded—some of them have more expertise than others in the TA—do not have the same links in the local community with business, the local media and so on as a regional organisation. It is an accident of geography that, apart from London, none of our regional brigades coincides with, for example, a television area; they all cut across boundaries, thus making things still more complicated.
If we want to recruit good quality officers and soldiers for the TA, it is essential that regional brigades are persuaded to continue to work with the RFCAs and to find best practice among individual TA units, some of which have been very adventurous in getting into groups that are of no interest to Regular Army recruiting teams. For example, 4 Para, which we visited as an all-party group, has gone into gym clubs and rugby clubs to speak to young men in their early 20s who are too old to be interested in joining the Regular Army but who are extremely fit, would make excellent TA soldiers and would like the opportunity to go off to Afghanistan.
That brings me finally to resourcing. In the announcement on the future Army strategy’s TA section, a number of promises were made to the TA, which has suffered a long series of cuts. I shall quote two or three of those promises:
“We have, therefore, made allowance in our unit structures for both a training and a mobilisation margin…will also increase joint TA and regular training, thereby delivering more enjoyable, relevant and challenging training to the Territorial Army…about 240 permanent staff recruited to provide administration”.—[Official Report, 23 March 2006; Vol. 444, c. 427.]
The sad decision to cut £5 million from the TA’s budget—a terribly small sum for the Department, but a huge sum for the TA, at nearly 3 per cent. of its budget—has meant that those promises have gone out of the window. I draw the House’s attention to early-day motion 1761, which was signed by 91 Members of all parties, including most of those present at the moment. It states that the cut
“will stop all recruiting in TA units that are not making a significant contribution to current operations”.
That includes the Royal Yeomanry, which made a huge contribution to the first wave in Iraq. It also states that the cut will
“cancel Cambrian Patrol, cancel all TA involvement in the Nijmegen marches,”—
two of the most exciting things in the TA, which help it to recruit and retain good quality people—
“cancel divisional skill at arms meetings and freeze the recruitment of 244 non-regular permanent staff”.
Those staff were, of course, promised in the original statement.
The TA, which is just coming up to its centenary, has made a huge contribution. It made up almost half the units deployed in the first world war, when Territorials won nearly 80 Victoria Crosses. One thinks of the defence of Calais during the second world war, where the London Rifle Brigade was praised for its gallantry by the German high command. One also thinks of the contribution made by those 13,000 Territorials in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, there is a limit, in the recent words of one TA officer, to how many times one can twist the Rubik cube without breaking it. The TA must be given the resources it needs—we are talking about terribly small sums—and it must be given opportunities for command on operational service because of those three things that I mentioned at the beginning: we need reserve forces because they are an affordable way of providing extra capacity, because they bring civilian expertise into the defence sector and because they are a key factor in preventing regular forces from slipping into cultural isolation.
The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said earlier that people should not get up and speak unless they have something to say—a piece of advice to one of our young colleagues across the way. In many cases that advice is sound, but then again, everyone has to start somewhere.
I have been here for six years and I have entered into three defence debates. I have been involved with the Select Committee on Defence for the last two years. Two of my colleagues are here; it is unfortunate that the Defence Committee is away again. These debates seem to take place when it is away, which is an unfortunate bit of timing. However, the reason for my involvement in defence, and for thinking that it is an important issue for us to consider, is personal experience. I was at Capitol Hill in 2001 when the plane hit the Pentagon next door, and my colleagues and I had to run out of the Capitol building.
I quickly realised that as an MP, I was not here just to represent my constituency, but that the decisions that I, and others, took in this place would result in people going to war and not coming back again. If I had to make such decisions, therefore, the least I could do was to try to understand exactly what the conflicts to which we send people were about. That is why I joined the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which I recommend to anyone who has not been involved with the armed forces before.
The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) referred to deployment, and how the linkage between the armed forces and the public is now void, which is true. When I left school in 1965, I could go either to the pit, into the textile industry or to the local Army recruitment office—the Glencorse barracks is in my area. There is a link between the armed forces and my local community. There are marches in the area every year, but such links are few and far between, and do not exist in very many places. A disconnect has taken place over the years, and it is important that we understand that.
Many previous speakers have talked about Iraq and Afghanistan, and I anticipated that that would be the position. I want to raise some specific issues about which I feel quite strongly, and refer to things that we need to develop. Like a substantial number of Members in my party, I opposed going into Iraq, and I continue to think that I was on the side of the righteous in doing so. At the end of the day, however, I have never spoken publicly against the decision to go into Iraq because it was a democratic decision taken in this House, and I was in the minority. I am from that old group that believes that when defeated, people should accept the decision taken. When the troops moved out, it was important that we were seen to support them in that conflict. That does not mean I have not had reservations about what happened, and what is happening.
I want to make one or two points on Iraq. The first, which has been discussed during the past week, was about the commitment made to the Iraqi interpreters, who have been a major support. They have done a great deal of work not just in their interpretation duties, but in saving a great many British lives. I was glad to see the Prime Minister acknowledge that contribution by saying that we would have to support those people and ensure that they get sanctuary in this country. However, the fact is that there were 740 rulings last year on Iraqis who had supported the UK, but asylum was granted to only 30 of them. I hope that when we talk about the new dynamic, we will see interpreters being treated in a different way.
Other hon. Members have spoken about the contribution from other countries, or lack of it, in sending people to the conflict; I suggest that those countries could make a contribution by looking after those who have been so supportive of our armed forces. We should also support them for another good reason: if we enter into any conflicts in future, the way in which we have treated those who supported us in the current conflict will be remembered. I was on BBC Scotland on Sunday, supporting the Government’s position, and I listened to an Iraqi interpreter who is in Syria. He made quite clear his disappointment with what has happened in the past, and he welcomed the Prime Minister’s statement because he may now be able to leave Syria and come to the UK. That applies not just to people like him, of course, but in many cases, to their families too.
I appreciate the fact that troop numbers in Iraq, which stood at 7,200 individuals at the beginning of 2007, had gone down to 5,500 at the start of September. That number has decreased to 4,000, and by next spring it may have gone down to 2,500. It is disingenuous of many Opposition Members not to recognise that that is a major reduction. For anyone who has been supportive of our troops in Iraq, it is a good move, and I welcome what the Prime Minister has done.
Like most Defence Committee members, I have been to Afghanistan. I was there last year, between 2 and 7 July, and we went not only to Afghanistan but to Pakistan. I would like to pick up on an earlier comment about the contribution of the Pakistani army. Some 800 troops of that army have been killed. Sometimes people criticise the Pakistani armed forces, when they are on the front line in many cases, and are losing troops hand over fist. They resent the criticisms, which are often made by people who should know better. When we met General Musharraf in Pakistan, he went to great lengths to explain how it is trying to support the UK and American forces and the United Nations in Afghanistan. We went to Camp Bastion and met a number of people down there. We were mortar-bombed one night, and someone had to wake me up—I am a deep sleeper. That was first-hand experience.
Several hon. Members have mentioned talking to members of the armed forces and finding out from them how things are. I am a reformed smoker, which means that you can go out of the way, into back doorways, to have a cigarette, and that is where you really meet the troops. They tell you what they really think of you when they are away from their officers—smokers tend to get into direct contact with them. In all my experience of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and the Defence Committee, equipment is not an issue that has been raised with me. It is important to say that. Wages, and the conditions in married quarters, have been brought up, but conditions and equipment in conflicts have not been mentioned to me.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but has he come across complaints from armed forces personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan or both—or, indeed, in other theatres—about footwear and the desert boots that are currently being used and tend to fall apart?
No, those comments have not been made by any soldier to me. I represent Midlothian and I see the Highlanders who are based in my constituency, and they have not said that. They have done two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think that they would have told me if there was a problem. I take it that the hon. Gentleman has been told that, so there are problems with equipment, but those complaints have never been put to me. I welcome the £10 billion for equipment, and I believe that it represents a substantial increase in real terms.
I want to consider the decision in the House some months ago about Trident. Again, I was in a minority on that matter, which is a big issue not only in the UK Parliament but in the Scottish Parliament. Most Scottish Members of Parliament, and Members of the Scottish Parliament, voted against Trident. The First Minister, who is also a Member of this House, has made it clear that he will do anything he can to stop the maintenance of the nuclear facility at Faslane. It is important that hon. Members understand that, because the issue could affect our defence capability. The First Minister argues that he could relate his opposition to EU regulations. A Green party Member of the Scottish Parliament wrote to the First Minister asking for an inquiry into the transfer of nuclear warheads around Scotland. The First Minister replied that he shared the opposition to nuclear weapons and reassured the Green party that he would go even further, take some steps to ensure that nothing was moved in or out of Faslane, and use European legislation to deal with that. It is important that the UK Parliament understands that.
I revert to the point that I made earlier: when we are part of a democratic force, we accept the defeats as well as the victories. We were defeated on Trident in the UK Parliament. If people do not accept defeat, they should go back and try a different angle to win the fight. We cannot have a Scottish debate without having a UK debate. The UK Parliament makes the decision. It would be inappropriate if one part of Scotland—for example, Shetland—said that it wanted to be independent and take all the oil without giving any to the rest of Scotland. That would change the dynamic, and the same applies to the position that I have described.
The Royal British Legion and the covenant have been mentioned on several occasions. For anyone who attended the party conferences and found members of the Royal British Legion there, let me distinguish between the Royal British Legion and the Scottish Royal British Legion. They are separate entities. The Royal British Legion in Scotland is not involved in the covenant issues, and it is important that people understand that. The Scottish British Legion has not yet made a decision. The board of trustees has met and may decide to join the campaign at some point. If it does, that is fine. However, veterans in Scotland have been working closely with the Ministry of Defence and the Scottish Executive on the treatment of Scottish personnel who are currently serving in the armed forces and those returning home. They have been discussing not only pay but wider issues such as housing and so on. Housing is, of course, a devolved matter in Scotland. Again, it is important for information purposes to know that, for example, some inquests into deaths must be conducted in Scotland. That is being discussed with the Ministry of Defence, because legislation in Scotland is different from that in England.
Last week, the Defence Committee took evidence in the Scottish Parliament. Mr. Derek Feeley, director of health care policy, the health care officer of the mental health division and a medical adviser were present. It shocked many members of the Committee to find that although there is a fast-track procedure in England and Wales for service personnel and former service personnel, no such distinction is made in Scotland. Personnel from a Scottish regiment based in a Scottish area are treated differently when they get home.
I, too, attended that evidence session in the Scottish Parliament last week. Was my hon. Friend also shocked by the lack of comprehension on the part of the NHS in Scotland that veterans and/or armed services families should be treated differently from the bulk of the population in the provision of medical services?
I agree. Indeed, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) said during that public evidence session that he was disgusted with the contribution of the three people who spoke on behalf of the Scottish Government. He declared his disgust because they could not answer the questions that were asked and were unaware of their role in relation to the Ministry of Defence. At one point they said that they had four meetings a year with the Ministry of Defence to discuss issues that affect Scottish troops coming home and their families. That is not acceptable.
I have heard that interesting story on several occasions today, and it must be properly addressed. Many members of the Defence Committee are here, so may I ask them whether they had taken up the matter with the NHS in Scotland previously? Is this a new situation or a legacy issue? We have been going to war for many years— every year in my lifetime—so the problem is not new. Is there any sign of whether it has got worse or better—or has it simply been ignored for ever?
The hon. Gentleman is obviously trying to score points against the previous Administration in Scotland. As I understand it, the fast-track system came into operation at the end of last year. It is therefore a relatively new proposal, which has not been adopted in Scotland. We were not shy of pointing that out to the previous Administration. It is important that when our troops come home, whether to Glencorse or somewhere in England or Wales, they are treated exactly the same.
Was not it also disturbing that the representatives in the evidence session had no comprehension that veterans and armed forces families should receive special treatment or be viewed as different from the rest of the population? The fundamental problem was that they did not get it.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The lack of understanding disturbed me more than anything. In the two years for which I have served on the Defence Committee I have rarely seen genuine anger expressed. The Chairman had his head in his hands at one point, because he did not know how to ask the next question. The session will have been recorded, and I ask hon. Members who are interested, especially Scottish Members, to read the proceedings. Improvements need to be made.
We need to consider health, including mental health, and education. Other members of the Select Committee will remember that the education spokesperson gave evidence last year. When we asked him about the way in which education facilities affected children, he could tell us about England but not Scotland. The problem is that the education system continues to be different in Scotland. The examination system is different. When kids come from German bases to Scotland or England, they are treated differently. If they are being educated in Germany under an English system, they must adapt to the Scottish system if they move to Scotland. In my opinion—and I think in that of other members of the Select Committee—that was not tackled appropriately.
The final issue that I will touch on is housing, which has been talked about on many occasions. We have talked about special treatment and so on, and housing is an issue that I, as someone who grew up in an area with an Army barracks, feel strongly about. My council has always had a policy on housing, and during the 30-odd years in which I have been involved in public life, I have never heard a single complaint about armed forces personnel who have served this country coming out of the Army, the Navy or the Air Force and getting priority on housing lists. That is accepted in my constituency, and it should be accepted in the 32 other local authorities in Scotland. It should be a policy that the Government adopt, and which any future Government will maintain. My final request is to ask whether the Minister would be willing to meet a number of Scottish MPs to discuss the infringements, which affect Scotland disproportionately more than the rest of the United Kingdom.
I am pleased to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, after hearing my colleague on the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton). I hope that you will forgive me for pointing out in this important debate about defence policy that only three members of the Defence Committee are present. However, that represents a 100 per cent. turnout, because I believe that every other member is on an overseas visit to Georgia and Turkey, at a sensitive time for relations with Turkey. That is an important visit and I am sure that each of us here regrets that we are not on it. However, we felt our loyalties torn, because we wanted to take part in this debate.
It must be one of the most curious coincidences since Sir Cecil Rhodes discovered Rhodesia how often these defence debates, of which there are five every year, occur when the Defence Committee has already planned to be abroad. I wonder whether you could use your good offices, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to look into how often that coincidence occurs and whether the business managers of the House could not contrive to ensure that the Committee’s members are more likely than not to be present and available to participate in these debates. I must also apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, those on the Front Benches and the House for being unable to be present for the wind-ups for this debate, since I have had a long-standing commitment elsewhere. For that reason I shall keep my remarks short and to the point.
I regard this debate about defence policy as one of the most important in the defence calendar. It is the one in which we can legitimately raise and discuss the very fundamentals of what our defence is about. It is usual when called to speak after a considerable number of speakers in such a debate to praise the quality of it. There have been some good speeches, but there have also been some exchanges that, I am pleased to reflect, very few members of Her Majesty’s armed forces will have been bothered to witness on their television screens.
I raised with the Secretary of State the question of the increases in the defence budget as compared with other countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) raised from the Dispatch Box the share of GDP that we spend on defence. We know in all parts of the House that the strain on the armed forces and on the defence budget is a real topic and that it is more acute than it has been for some considerable time. We know that the Government are wrestling with the dilemma and that an incoming alternative Government would have to wrestle with it, too. We also know that no ludicrous commitments will be made in the Chamber this evening about any particular level of spending. That is what Governments do in comprehensive spending reviews and spending statements; it is something that Oppositions do not do, for obvious reasons, not least because promises made by Oppositions are rarely believed by the voters.
The crucial question that we must ask ourselves is whether the House will face up to its responsibilities and honour the military covenant, which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) raised, which means honouring the obligations towards our servicemen—those who are serving, those who are training and those who are injured—the families who are the bereaved and the veterans who have fought for their country and now left the armed forces. Are we going to equip our armed forces for what we constantly ask them to do or are we going to carry on operating on a shoestring?
The story of the Territorial Army, which my hon. Friend raised, is a case in point. We are talking about very small sums of money, and it is the same in terms of housing. Relatively small sums of money would make a huge difference to the quality of life of many servicemen and their families. However, the defence chiefs are confronted constantly with a choice: do they cut the capabilities that they are trying to deploy into the field for those other programmes or do they try to protect the size of their declining manpower and their delayed equipment budgets? Those are the constant dilemmas that must be faced in the Ministry of Defence, because we are trying to do too much with too little.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would accept, however, that substantial amounts of money are being spent on housing. In my constituency, £44 million has been spent on housing in the Glencorse barracks, where satellite television has been installed and where each house is now worth about £300,000. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the families absolutely love the improvements, which ensures that the personnel who fight on our behalf are well aware that they are being looked after back home.
I stand to be corrected, but I am informed that at the present rate of refurbishment and improvement of the defence estate and the married quarters estate, which is now in the private sector, but which depends upon the subventions from the public purse for its improvement, it will take 30 years for the housing stock to be brought up to standard. That is not acceptable. If the time were half that figure, it would not be acceptable. We need to honour our obligations to those who would give so much for their country. The hon. Gentleman most sincerely does in his case, but we need to do so as a House, as politicians of all parties.
The hon. Gentleman is trying to make a serious contribution, but he has said a couple of things that do not gel with that. If he is suggesting that the housing situation could be sorted out with a small amount of money, that is not true. There is already the plan to spend £5 billion over 10 years on our service accommodation. A lot of money has already been spent and a large building programme is in place.
The other point that caused me to rise was the hon. Gentleman’s argument that it was in some way illegitimate for the Government, when they are criticised about the amount of money that they spend on defence, to ask whether the Opposition plan to increase that amount. If we are not to ask that question, all the rest is surely just political knockabout, which, as he rightly says, will turn our armed forces off as soon as they switch on to this debate.
I accept that the amounts required to bring all the housing stock up to scratch over a long period will be substantial. My point is that spending relatively small amounts of money on the accommodation of individual servicemen can make a big difference to their lives.
I wish to address in all seriousness the other point that the Minister raised, by asking him to address the defence planning assumptions. The Defence Committee is conducting an inquiry into commitments and resources. I understand that there has not been an inquiry into defence commitments and resources since the mid-1980s—again, I stand to be corrected if I am wrong—because it is an extremely difficult task for the Defence Committee to undertake. We do not have a Rand Corporation in this country or the same scale of think tanks that the United States does. We rely very much on the Ministry of Defence to provide us with the sort of information that we need to make a judgment on the matter.
One of the inquiries that we have made of the Ministry of Defence is: knowing historically exactly what the commitments have been over the past 10 years, what would the size of the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force need to have been in manpower terms to satisfy the harmony guidelines? I suppose I should not be that surprised that the MOD finds it difficult to answer that question. Will the Minister of State, perhaps not tonight but within the next few days, ask his civil servants to apply their minds to that?
As the Secretary of State confirmed in his speech, the 1998 defence review proposed that we should be able to sustain, in addition to our ongoing commitments in Northern Ireland, Cyprus and so on, one major deployment and one minor deployment long-term commitment at any one time. For the past five years we have sustained two major deployments, which have thrown the harmony guidelines right out of kilter. I submit to the House that to satisfy the harmony guidelines for the Army alone, at the present level of commitment, the Army would have to increase not by 5,000 for the infantry, as the Chief of the General Staff proposed, but probably by about 30,000. We all know that soldiers like to be busy and challenged, and most do not need or want the full gap between tours. That figure, however, indicates how far short we are from matching our manpower and capabilities to our present commitments.
Extraordinarily, we heard from the Secretary of State another bit of wishful thinking that somehow the draw down from Iraq and Northern Ireland will at last create some slack in the system. Ever since the strategic defence review took place, the Government have looked forward two or three years to the time when the harmony guidelines would be met and equilibrium restored. Surely by now we have learned that we cannot opt out of all the global strategic challenges around the word, and that there simply are not enough countries alongside France and the United States—and possibly Russia and India—that can deploy and sustain an expeditionary capability at the scale to deal with the modern security challenges that we face. Therefore, the question that the Government face, and that an incoming Conservative Government would also have to face, is whether to bulk up our armed forces to meet the modern security challenges or to opt out of those global security challenges, on which our security and that of our allies depend.
We should be prepared to contemplate the kind of step change in expenditure seen in other public services: the Government have managed to find large sums for health, education, transport and overseas aid. Why has defence been the Cinderella of our public services when much of the country’s freedom and prosperity ultimately depends on the hard power that we deploy to intervene in crisis situations around the world, for our own national interests as well as for the good of the international community?
The Government are committed to our armed forces, and that is manifested in spending. I will refer to some of the points raised by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin).
Between 1979 and 1997, annual average defence spending fell in real terms. In the five years prior to our coming into office, it fell by £500 million per year. The size of the Army decreased by 50,000 between 1990 and 1997 and by 35,000 in the last five years of the Conservative Government. Given that defence spending under this Government has increased by £1 billion a year, the criticisms from Members such as the hon. Member for North Essex seem strange.
In real terms, the defence budget will be 10 per cent. higher by 2010-11 than it was in 1997. As the Chancellor outlined in the comprehensive spending review, the Government will spend an additional £7.7 billion by 2011. In addition, the Treasury will continue to fund operations over and above the defence budget, from the reserve. Since 2001 it has provided from the reserve approximately £6.6 billion to support our troops on the front line, which flies in the face of what the hon. Member for North Essex said.
Our commitment also manifests itself in equipment. Our armed forces have a tremendous battle-winning capability, which is getting better all the time. In the past three years, the Government have developed and delivered equipment valued at more than £10 billion, and priority is given to equipping people training for operations. The Government continually monitor and respond to the capability and protection requirements of our troops, and have spent more than £2.2 billion on urgent operational requirements. More than £1 billion from the Treasury reserve was spent on force protection.
Over the past few years, the MOD has introduced a range of new systems that have significantly enhanced capability. When we discuss the number of aircraft or troops, we often overlook the fact that modern weapons systems have so much more capability: protected mobility vehicles; new body armour; communications and surveillance equipment; night vision equipment; electronic counter-measures; and improvements in base security.
The comprehensive spending review will allow the MOD to proceed with two new aircraft carriers, which will be the largest ships ever operated by the Royal Navy. By the end of October, 47 Eurofighter Typhoons will have been delivered to the RAF. I am proud that those were developed and assembled by many thousands of skilled BAE Systems staff who live in and around my constituency in Lancashire. As an aside, I would like to mention the fact that there is an umbrella contract for 620 aircraft to be delivered in three tranches; tranche 2 builds are well under way and BAE is working towards tranche 3 proposals by the end of 2007. There are also several promising export opportunities to Japan, India, Switzerland and Greece.
The Government have also shown their commitment in recruitment. According to the National Audit Office report in November 2006, the armed forces have recruited 98 per cent. of their target since 2000-01. On 1 April 2007, the full-time trained strength of the armed forces—177,760—represented 96.8 per cent. of the full-time trained requirement. Army recruitment is up 10 per cent. this year, the number in training has risen by 2,110 since January 2006, and fewer trained personnel left the armed forces than at this point last year. Given the current economic situation, that is a significant success.
Despite that, recruitment remains a challenge. Thousands of new recruits are needed each year, and the market is challenging because the economy is doing so well. The armed forces face competition from other employers and further education. The MOD recognises that there are specific staff shortages—commonly known as pinchpoints—in the infantry, Royal Marines, medical specialists and parts of the helicopter force, for example. The NAO report suggested that the MOD make improvements to accommodation, equipment and training to help to retain staff, and new retention measures have therefore been implemented.
A good deal has been said about pay. The lowest-paid servicemen are receiving pay increases of 9.3 per cent. All other ranks are getting pay increases of at least 3.3 per cent.
The operational welfare package introduced by the Government provides benefits such as free internet access, free phone calls, free mail, a rest and recuperation package and 20 days’ additional leave after a six-month tour. The package has been independently assessed twice by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and deemed one of the best available in comparison with packages given to other armed forces around the world, including those of our allies.
As has just been mentioned, the Government are showing their commitment to the provision of accommodation. To date, 95 per cent. of service families’ accommodation in Great Britain is rated at standards 1 and 2, 1 being the highest and 4 the lowest. However, the Government have acknowledged publicly that some service accommodation is simply not good enough. That is rightly one of the MOD’s priorities, but, as my right hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, resolving the issue will take time. As has been said, £700 million has been spent this year, and over the next decade the sum will increase to up to £5 billion.
The Government are also improving support for armed forces personnel who wish to buy their own properties. Like those in the rest of society, many people in the armed forces aspire to own their homes. The MOD works closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government to encourage servicemen and women to get on to the property ladder, and to take advantage of shared-ownership schemes such as the key worker living programme.
We must consider the changing nature of our defence requirements. The world has changed immeasurably since the end of the cold war, and as a result the threats to our national security have taken different forms. Threats no longer come in the shape of uniformed armies that adhere to the rules of war; there are new threats from enemies who are not easily discernible from civilians. Their methods do not respect any rules of war, and victory is not generally gained via direct battle.
In December 2003 the MOD published its analysis of the future security environment in its White Paper “Delivering Security in a Changing World”, which identified three issues as the main threats to the United Kingdom’s national security: international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the phenomenon of failed states that can provide havens and sources of support for terrorists and criminal networks involved in the drugs trade or the plundering of natural resources. In addition, internal conflict, poverty, human rights abuse and famine can create the conditions for mass population movements, causing pressure on neighbouring countries or encouraging a surge in migration to Europe.
In future, multiple, concurrent, small-to-medium-scale peace enforcement or peacekeeping operations will become the norm, but the ability to undertake large-scale intervention operations such as that in Iraq in 2003 will remain important. In March 2003, the MOD’s joint doctrine and concept centre published its assessment of security threats to the United Kingdom over the next 30 years. It argued that the greatest risk to security would come from the United Kingdom’s being unable to acquire or apply resources fast enough to meet the changing threats. That must be of concern to our Ministers, as it will have an impact on our armed forces. It is assumed that in future the UK will generally participate as part of a coalition, and that the most demanding operations are likely to involve the United States. However, European Union co-operation will certainly be necessary, and a coalition operation with the EU when the United States is not involved is a strong possibility.
We still face many challenges. I want to say a little about Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been many challenges in Iraq, and it cannot be denied that the security situation there is difficult, as it is in Afghanistan. However, British forces have achieved much in both countries. In Afghanistan, school enrolment has quadrupled in the past four years. More than 5 million children are now at school, a third of whom are girls. Enrolment in higher education has also increased. There are currently about 180,000 teachers in Iraq, and 1.2 million illiterate people are participating in literacy courses. Some 82 per cent. of the population of Afghanistan are receiving health packages or health care of some kind.
It cannot be denied that serious problems persist in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, which accounts for about 80 per cent. of the violence. However, the British forces are achieving huge success. They have handed over three of the states in southern Iraq, as well as Basra city, to the control of the Iraqis, and, as the Minister said, by next spring the number of British troops will have fallen to around 2,500.
The hon. Gentleman has been describing what he considers to be a success. I agree with most of what he has said, but does he see a contradiction in the fact that every day people from Iraq and Afghanistan seek asylum in the United Kingdom? If things were a little better, would we not see a decline in the numbers?
I think there is a decline, to some extent. I speak from experience, because in my constituency I am visited by people from Iraq and Afghanistan who complain that they may have to return to those countries because of the improved security situation, having found a much more secure situation in the United Kingdom. So the position is improving, although that is not easily visible from our limited viewpoint here in the UK.
As I have said, plenty of positive developments are taking place, but many other factors will affect the future of our armed forces. One that came to light fairly recently as a result of a number of reports is climate change, and the way in which it will affect our security environment in the future. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies,
“The security dimension will come increasingly to the forefront as countries begin to see falls in available resources”.
The Nobel peace prize, which is intended for those who
“shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding… of peace congresses”,
was recently awarded to Al Gore and the scientists of the United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change for their work on global warming. Global warming is a huge security threat.
Another thing of which we shall need much more in the future is international co-operation. That means co-operation with the United States, through NATO and through our European Union allies, which will become much more important as the requirements of defence systems become more expensive and sophisticated. We shall see increasing integration of European forces with those of the Americans.
I believe that the Government have shown a genuine commitment to the armed forces in all the ways that I have outlined, and I am sure that they will continue to do so into the distant future.
This has been a wide-ranging debate. I shall touch on only three areas of defence policy. I apologise for being absent for part of the debate; I did not want to miss a meeting with the Border and Immigration Agency. I hope that I do not repeat things that were said earlier.
The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton), who is not in the Chamber now, raised a number of serious issues, including that of housing for service personnel returning home after duty. He said that in his area it had always been accepted that soldiers would be given houses as long as they were available, and that he had no evidence that it was different anywhere else. I paraphrase what he said.
I have received a telephone call from a serving soldier in Germany who, when he telephoned his local housing department back home, was told that he should return and declare himself homeless, as that was the only way in which he could get on to a housing list and obtain accommodation. That was wholly wrong and unacceptable, and I agree with the hon. Member for Midlothian that it should never happen in any part of the country.
I want to say something about the regiments and the “golden thread”. At the time of the merger of the Scottish regiments into a single Royal Regiment of Scotland, undertakings were given to preserve the golden thread—the link and connectivity—between regiments and communities. In the past, General Sir Mike Jackson described the regimental structure as being
“the absolute bedrock to us”.
He went further, saying that the golden thread represented
“the heritage, the history, the sense of belonging that is very much in our minds.”
He was right to say that.
However, many of the symbols—only a minor element of this issue—such as cap badges, hackles, kilts and sporrans, as well as regimental traditions, have been quietly done away with. There is now a common parade kit for all five battalions in the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and soldiers of The Black Watch, now the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Regiment, can wear the distinctive red hackle only when in combat uniform.
Perhaps more important than the regimental traditions is the fact that recruits who could previously declare a preference for their local or family regiment are now expected to join battalions where there is a shortfall of troops—for example, 313 men in the Royal Regiment as of September. Those wishing to join up might now be encouraged to join a battalion other than the one that previously would have been their local regiment. It is not hard to draw the conclusion that one reason behind the failure to recruit and retain is the fact that people can no longer simply join the local regiment or even join the battalion within the Royal Regiment of Scotland with which they would most closely identify. I hope that the Government will look again at the conduct of recruitment and retention, particularly within the battalions of the Royal Regiment, although my preference would, of course, be to return to the proper regimental structure.
The defence industry has a significant economic impact, so I shall now turn to jobs and procurement. As well as providing equipment to the services, the defence industry is vital to the Scottish and UK economy. A major issue is how and where the procurement and jobs are shared out. We acknowledge that Scotland is allocated a large chunk of the total amount of expenditure on personnel recruitment—8.5 per cent.—but we also know that the number of people recruited from Scotland into the MOD, service personnel and other bodies is far less than that share represents. We are also aware from the last year for which we have detailed analysis that although 8.5 per cent. is the share of money allocated for procurement of equipment in Scotland, the actual amount of money spent on procurement in Scotland is significantly less. The shortfall in personnel recruited and equipment procured from Scotland amounted to £750 million.
This is not a Scotland-England or Scotland-UK issue: other parts of the UK would say precisely the same. The armed forces should mean something to everybody—in terms of the buy-in to them—and the Government have it within their power, to some extent at least, to ensure that the moneys are spent as evenly as possible throughout the UK.
Is the hon. Gentleman not trying to have it both ways? He wants the benefit of a critical mass of UK defence expenditure and what that brings to the Scottish industrial base, but he also wants independence, under which he would lose all that. No orders would be placed in Scotland if Scotland was not a part of the United Kingdom.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because it allows me to make my point. In the past 10 years there have been 4,700 MOD job losses in Scotland. In addition to the shortfall in actual recruitment and procurement from Scotland, the MOD has shrunk there. The job losses are as follows: 1,000 at RAF Lossiemouth, 160 at RAF Leuchars, 180 at RAF Kinloss, 350 at HMS Gannet, 1,500 at Rosyth shipyard since 1997, 1,500 at Coulport since 1999, in addition to some 900 or so at the Clyde shipyards, and eight bases and two supply depots have been run down and closed. Therefore, the argument that a Union dividend protects jobs and services and MOD facilities simply is not true.
Does not the hon. Gentleman’s party leader want to add to that? If he carries out his threat to stop the UK nuclear deterrent being sited at Faslane, there will be more job losses not only at Faslane itself, but at Coulport, where the missiles are stored, and in the ancillary industries linked to the nuclear deterrent. I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways.
That is an interesting point, but previous answers from the MOD contradict that, particularly when they are put alongside research conducted by the Scottish Trades Union Congress and others. The MOD stated in a parliamentary answer of February 2005 that the number of civilian jobs that directly rely on Trident was 936, with 300 jobs indirectly relying on it—a total of about 1,200 jobs.
The STUC tells us that the cost of Trident—the £1 billion a year from general taxation that is simply the capital cost, notwithstanding the £25 to £75 billion lifetime cost—is equivalent to 3,000 jobs in other services, because the money will have to come from somewhere, and I suspect that the Government will not want to raise taxes.
Absolutely not. It is important to remember that Scotland has fewer naval and air force bases than a comparable country such as Norway. We are committed to retaining all the bases, to provide the basis for a properly funded conventional defence force in Scotland. No one is talking about jobs being lost. My point is that the argument that we hear time after time from the Government overstates the number of dependent jobs. The proportion of personnel recruited and equipment procured from Scotland is considerably less—about £750 million less—than the annual share of the budget allocated to it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Has he visited Faslane or Coulport? It is mind-boggling to imagine what a conventional force might do with the specialist equipment for handling and resupplying nuclear submarines; I am not sure what conventional defence use the storage facility at Coulport could have.
The naval bases on the west and east coasts would be maintained because they would be the east and west coast naval bases for the Scottish defence forces. That is vital.
I have made three points in this wide-ranging debate. The regiments issue is vital because there has been a shortfall in recruitment and retention, and we believe that the association with local regiments—now local battalions—is so weakened that it is leading to people not joining up and not staying. We are concerned about that.
The hon. Gentleman talks about a shortfall in the number of troops in Scotland joining Scottish regiments. I live in an Army town and I have barracks 300 yd from my house. I meet troops regularly in my local pub, many of whom are from Scotland and are happy to serve in Lancashire and elsewhere in England rather than in Scotland.
People have the right to join any regiment or corps that they wish, but we have a target contingent for the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and it has a shortfall at present of more than 300. That is an ongoing problem that the removal of the Scottish regiments did not solve. We need to address it properly; otherwise, we will continue to have a shortfall, not only within the Royal Regiment of Scotland but in other regiments in England and elsewhere.
The second point was about the procurement of equipment and the recruitment of personnel. If we are to make the armed forces meaningful for everybody, the Government have it within their power to look at how and where procurement is secured, and at how the budget for recruitment is spent to ensure that the necessary personnel are attracted from all parts of the UK. A huge amount of money is being spent. A large chunk has been allocated to Scotland, and we are well aware that not all of it is being spent in Scotland.
The third point is a point of principle about Trident. The lifetime cost of its replacement will be between £25 billion and £75 billion. We know that 61 per cent. of the Scottish people oppose it and think that the Scottish Parliament should have the power to decide the issue. We know that the majority of Scottish Labour MPs oppose the Trident replacement. The vote in the Scottish Parliament was, I think, 71 to 16 against replacing Trident, so there is a massive groundswell of opinion—political and public—against replacing the Trident nuclear missile system in Scotland. The Government must of course take cognisance of that—and that, of course, is before we enter into any discussions about the morality or legality of nuclear weapons.
I will not touch on Iraq or Afghanistan. This has been a wide-ranging debate, and many other Members have made salient points about those countries. However, irrespective of our opposition to the war in Iraq, it goes without saying that once the troops are in situ, they should be backed 100 per cent., as one would expect.
I do hope that the Minister will, in summing up, look at the three substantive issues that I have raised. The first was recruitment, particularly to the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and the second was recruitment of personnel and procurement of equipment generally, and how the money is spent. Thirdly, I am sure that he will want to make a robust defence of why the Government want to spend £75 billion on a replacement for the Trident nuclear weapons system, at a time when there is overstretch, when there are constant complaints about a shortage of equipment and when the recruitment policy—not just in Scotland but elsewhere—is putting huge pressure on service personnel, who are being sent out for repeat tours, against the guidelines of the MOD.
I have two fairly brief points to make, but, first, I want to make a brief subsidiary point, having listened to the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie). His defence planning is based not on capabilities and resources, but on what badges and tam o’shanters personnel will wear; having done that, one is then supposed to work out how to build force levels and configurations. I do not know whether the Scottish National party still plans simply to line up people up and down the east and west coast of Scotland, looking outwards, but it does rather sound like that. That is all rather hilarious.
The two issues that I want to raise have been mentioned by a number of speakers, but it does no harm to reiterate them. The first issue is housing. Perhaps I might swing the lamp for a bit. In the 1980s, I lived in a military house that had an outside toilet. In retrospect, I swear that it was a cunning plan by the then Conservative Government to toughen the troops by making them run through the winter cold every time that they went for their ablutions. Every time that we went to the toilet, it was like an SAS selection course.
A number of things have been said tonight about what the Government are doing about single living accommodation, and to emphasise how much we need to spend on this issue, on which we need to spend the most at the moment. It is important to remember and to reflect on how we got to where we are now. We need to spend billions—as I understand it, £5 billion is planned to be spent over the next 10 years—to bring service personnel accommodation up to standard.
We arrived at this point in a particular way, and I remember what happened rather well. In 1996—this has probably been said before in this place, but it is good to get it back in Hansard from time to time—the then Tory Government sold off 56,700 MOD homes. It was described as the single largest transfer of residential property in the UK, which it was. According to some accounts, the receipts totalled £2.6 billion, but my recollection is that they totalled £1.9 billion. All the financial press agreed that the property was preposterously under-priced. It was sold fast, so that the then Tory Government could throw a wager—a rather hopeless one—on their winning the following year’s election.
The then right hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, Michael Portillo, whom we see doing political analysis on television, had a number of good jobs in government, and he was a very senior politician in his own right. However, I am not sure, when he looks back on his career, that he will regard his time at the MOD as the best time of his life in politics. In fact, I believe that I have heard him say that on television in relation to a different matter that we need not mention at the moment.
The transaction to which I refer was undertaken in return for a contract that involved the MOD retaining responsibility for maintaining the 56,700 homes. Some 11 years later, I still ask myself why the MOD is still this huge landlord with a huge maintenance bill. The then Government tied themselves to this arrangement in 1996, which has had the obvious knock-on effect of a contractual obligation that today’s Government still have to honour.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is even worse than he describes? If housing becomes surplus under this contract, not only do the MOD and the taxpayer have to pay money to renovate the houses; in some cases, they have to make substantial improvements at huge cost, and then hand the property back to the private company that my hon. Friend is describing.
That is absolutely right. Indeed, a Patrick Barkham article in The Guardian back in April dealt with this issue. Essentially, when the accommodation becomes surplus, Annington, which owns it, refurbishes it and sells it on. I might be wrong and the Minister might want to correct me, but, as I understand it, there is no formal mechanism by which those houses can be awarded to service personnel, or offered to them with some form of discount.
In the case of RAF Coltershall, which was referred to in the newspapers, Annington agreed that half the houses would go to service personnel. The Guardian cited the case study of a woman and her family who literally camped out for several days to get a house, because they were required to spend 22 of every 24 hours in the queue. Her husband was in Iraq, and in order to succeed—the price had not been confirmed—they had to queue up. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that when he winds up. Although this issue is not the MOD’s responsibility, I hope that it can persuade Annington to look again at whether it is appropriate to have the families of service personnel camping in a field to get a surplus house.
Before I came to the House tonight, I visited the website of Terra Firma, a powerful and successful private equity company that I would not criticise per se, and which put together this deal. As I understand it, the Nomura bank was the primary investor. However, it did not have that English, home counties twang, so Annington—the name sounded a bit more English, and a little more acceptable to some who objected at the time to a Japanese investment bank taking over MOD quarters—was chosen as the name of the vehicle. However, that is ancient history.
I was interested to read how Terra Firma describes what it does, and why it is so successful as a private equity vehicle. We should bear it in mind that the following was written in 1996, after 17 years of Tory government:
“Terra Firma focuses on businesses where our views differ from the market consensus. Companies that are out of favour, usually as a result of being neglected, under-managed or under-invested by their owners.”
That is the state that MOD housing was in at the end of the period of Conservative government. After years of neglect, the then Government sold off housing cheap, hoping to bolster their chances at the following year’s election. That clearly did not work, but the last thing on their minds when they sold those houses and created the mess that we have today, which the Labour Government are doing their very best with, was the welfare of service personnel.
The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) made a number of excellent points about garrisons. There is a danger that the big garrisons that we inevitably have now will lead, if we are not careful and do not take appropriate steps, to a greater degree of insularity, in that fewer people in civilian life will have contact with service personnel. That is why the Territorial Army is so very important. The hon. Gentleman talked, as did several other Members, about the military covenant. We need to think of it not simply as a covenant between the armed services and the Government. It is about much more than that—it is about society and the way that society is.
Earlier, I was fiddling around with my biro, wondering about its size. It is bigger than a 5.56 mm round, but a bit smaller than 7.62 mm ammunition. However, let us say that it is the same as the latter. Looking at it, one can see the sort of bullets shot at British service personnel by enemies across the world. That is why I prefer to call the military covenant “rule 762”: it is easier and has a nicer ring to it.
The term “military covenant” is one that people who are not acquainted with military language, acronyms and the oddities of the way we speak about service issues find hard to get their heads around. It means that service personnel—of all countries, as the concept is not confined to Britain—take extraordinary risks on behalf of their nation and that, in return, that nation honours them and looks after their unique needs. No one can argue with the concept, so the question is not whether we agree with it, but whether we observe it.
The Royal British Legion campaign makes some valid policy points, although other elements are more arguable. Yet all hon. Members will agree that it makes an important philosophical point, and that it poses a question that society at large must answer. I do not want to sound too high minded, but I believe that all Members of Parliament, like many people outside, have a role to play in reminding the public of the extraordinary things that our service personnel do for our country. Every time people fiddle with a biro, they can use their imagination to remind themselves of the military covenant—or rule 762, if they prefer to call it that.
Service personnel face extraordinary dangers on our behalf. The responsibility to ensure that that is remembered does not lie only with politicians or people interested in politics, but with society as a whole.
In this debate, I want to consider globalisation—how we can face the challenge that it poses, the role played by defence in doing so, and the interaction between defence policy and international development policy. However, before I touch on those matters, I want to take advantage of my first opportunity since the conclusion of the naval base review to convey the thanks of Portsmouth people to the Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State for the far-sightedness and excellent judgment displayed in their decision to keep all three of our bases open.
That, of course, was what we in Portsmouth advocated all along, for sound military and strategic reasons. We also had a sound financial case, and I should like to place on record my thanks to everyone involved in the campaign. That included neighbouring MPs from all parties, the South East England Development Agency, the Government office for the south-east, the city council, the Royal Navy, our industrial partners in the naval base, the trade unions, our local newspaper, the people of Portsmouth, and the many serving and ex-serving Royal Navy personnel from all over the world. They could not imagine Portsmouth without the Royal Navy—or, indeed, the Royal Navy without Portsmouth.
The announcement that the bases were safe from closure has given a huge boost to the morale of all who work in the naval base. Yesterday, I welcomed our new Minister for the South East, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), to Portsmouth and accompanied him on a very quick tour of the naval base. The important thing that I pointed out to him was that the success of our operations in Portsmouth was due to partnership working between the Navy and our industrial partners, which I believe to be an example of best practice.
The Minister was able to see that for himself on a visit to the VT Shipbuilding yard, when he inspected the bow sections of the type 45 destroyers that are under construction there. We were, of course, also able to show him where we are going to berth the two new aircraft carriers. They will dwarf any other ship that is or ever has been based at Portsmouth, and will be a very visible reminder to the people of the city of its strategic importance to the defence of our nation.
The wider message of the decision to keep all three bases open, and of the announcement of the decision to go ahead with building the two new aircraft carriers, is that this Labour Government are committed to a strong Royal Navy that is able to carry out its duties, not just patrolling our own shores, but further afield. Given that most of our world is water, the carriers will ensure that Britain’s contribution to being a force for good in the world includes a strong maritime presence. As many hon. Members have said, it is unlikely that we will act on our own as a nation state in the foreseeable future. We will be acting as part of a multinational coalition, so the two new carriers will mean that we will be bringing some serious equipment to the table, and that our voice is heard in a multinational maritime strategy.
That brings me back to the argument about globalisation. Over the past 10 years, we have heard a lot about the challenge of globalisation, but mainly in an economic context. The global market place is much more developed than it was even 20 or 30 years ago. In the new global electronic economy, finance and capital can be transferred around the world at the click of a mouse. Products can be produced in, and services provided from, anywhere in the world—but a question mark hangs over how far nation states can manage their own destiny. For a recent example of that, we need look no further than what happened with Northern Rock: that problem was caused not by our economic actions, but as a consequence of lending decisions in the US.
One of the biggest effects of globalisation is the transfer of information. The advent of satellite communications—by the way, that is yet another technology manufactured in Portsmouth—means that instantaneous communication is possible between one side of the world and the other. We have seen the effect of that already in the defence context, with pictures from operational theatres being sent by mobile phones. We have had to modify our rules and regulations to take account of that.
However, instantaneous electronic communication is not just about conveying information more quickly. It is about information reaching people who have never been reached before, despite the efforts of the nation state to prevent it. Again, we just have to look at the events in Burma a few weeks ago to see an example of that.
So, in defence terms, where does that leave the nation state? Professor Anthony Giddens has said:
“nations no longer have enemies…Nations today face risks and dangers rather than enemies, a massive shift in their very nature.”
Is he right? If so, we need a defence policy not against a specific enemy, as in the days of the cold war, but one that is flexible and enables us to respond rapidly to whatever risks and dangers may emerge.
Is globalisation one of those risks? Is it a threat against which we should be defending ourselves, or is it a good thing that we should encourage, as it opens up the world and opens up opportunities for people to grow and develop? It is probably both: we do not have to look too far into the future to see a growing world population, with everyone competing for limited resources, such as water, food and energy. Inevitably, that will produce tensions. We can see new, growing economies quite rightly wanting their share of those resources as they develop, and people in those countries wanting to share in the lifestyles that they are increasingly able to see in more developed countries through the internet and mobile phone networks.
We must ensure that competition for resources is based not on defending or trying to seize access to the world’s resources by force, but on encouraging stability and democracy in less developed states, and in states that are unstable and have no democratic rule of law. So defence policy, foreign policy and international development policy become increasingly intertwined, and our modern armed forces must be equipped with the training and the resources to undertake that increasingly multi-faceted role.
In June I was lucky enough to visit Afghanistan, where I saw that multi-faceted role in action. We are not in Afghanistan as part of an invading force taking over the country, but at the invitation of the Afghan Government to help them bring about democracy and stability, which the people of Afghanistan need so that they can move forward. When our forces go into villages in Helmand province and ask villagers what they want—schools, hospitals or roads—the answer is always security first. They want security for themselves and for their children, and only then do they want health care, transport infrastructure and education.
Democracy and stability in Afghanistan are also in our national interest, to prevent the country from becoming a base for international terrorism that threatens our safety and security. That does not apply just to Afghanistan; we need democracy and stability in all nation states if we are to prevent future armed conflict in a growing world population eager to share in growth and prosperity, but competing for limited resources.
In Afghanistan it is clear that we shall not achieve that objective with firepower alone: to use a well-worn phrase, shock and awe are not enough. We need to use another well-worn phrase, and win over hearts and minds. The Taliban do not have popular support among the Afghan people, most of whom are afraid of them. The Afghan people need to know that the international forces are in it for the long term, and that we will not abandon them if the going gets rough. The worst of all worlds would be for them to kick the Taliban out with our help, only for us to decide to pull our troops out of Afghanistan because it is too dangerous.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent contribution to the debate. Will she join me in congratulating the Government of Pakistan on their recent efforts on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which have achieved success in taking out much of the Taliban leadership in that area? That success has been a long time coming, but now that it has arrived it is most welcome, so I hope she will endorse the actions of the Pakistani authorities.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I am happy to support his comments. When I was in Afghanistan, the conversations I held with the ambassador made it clear that Afghanistan alone could not solve the problems; the solutions have to be regional.
Winning over hearts and minds is a slow, painstaking process; we need to win people’s trust. Earlier, the Secretary of State laid out our achievements in Afghanistan, not in traditional military terms of enemy killed or ground taken, but in terms of the number of children in school, how many of the population have access to basic health care and how far we have reduced poppy cultivation. In the north of the country, we have achieved a reduction. Contrary to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), who is no longer in the Chamber, military contributions helped in that process, because peace and stability in the north were achieved first. Farmers feel that poppy cultivation now poses more risks, which they are not prepared to take. They have more choice and feel more comfortable exercising it, because they know that the police and the Government will back them up. Our military presence is delivering for the Afghan police and Government the capability to do that.
We have a long road to travel in the rest of Afghanistan, especially in Helmand, but just because we do not always measure our achievements in military terms does not mean that they are not military achievements. During my visit to Afghanistan, I was struck by the understanding among troops at every level of the complex nature of the operations they were facilitating and the delicate balance that had to be struck: on the one hand, raw soldiering to drive out the Taliban, and the next day setting up a shura, or village community meeting, finding out who the tribal leader is and helping them decide for themselves what they want for their community.
Every soldier, sailor and aircrew member I met understood the politics of the situation; they understood the tribal nature of the population and the need to establish real Afghan ownership of the reconstruction projects under way. I can tell the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) that is not an aspiration—it is happening. Afghan faces do not merely head up projects; local Afghan labour is being used.
Some of the service personnel whom I met who were doing that work were from the joint CIMIC—Civil Military Co-operation—group. Such an undertaking is nothing new. A civilian-military liaison branch of the Army was first set up in 1941, and in 1944 and 1945 teams moved into liberated towns in France and Germany, along with the leading troops, to occupy local government offices and establish authority. In 1997 the joint CIMIC group was established—a specialist unit that manages the interface between military and civilian organisations wherever British forces are deployed on operations.
The majority of personnel in the unit are reservists who hold civilian jobs and have specialist skills for the type of work undertaken. I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) in welcoming that work, and I too hope that more reservists will be used in that way, especially in Afghanistan.
During my visit to Afghanistan, some of the most heart-warming and positive stories that I heard about reconstruction were from CIMIC personnel. The one that sticks most in my mind was from a Royal Navy female reservist officer who works with women in the villages. She speaks Pashtu and Dari, so that she can talk to the women in their language, and she is now on her second six-month tour of duty. She is working on a project with widows, because in Afghan society widows, with no husband to protect or support them, are totally isolated and have no income. The CIMIC officer works with village elders to set up women’s centres that provide training in skills such as tailoring or chicken farming. Other projects offer micro-finance, so that women can start their own businesses and bring money into their local village community. As yet, there is no proper adult literacy programme in Helmand, so the officers are also teaching the women to read and write through these women’s centres. The women are organising and are learning from each other. That is a breakthrough, because previously they were isolated in their own compounds.
This officer is not only performing that international development role, but she is very much a serving member of our armed forces, and just a few days before I arrived, she had come under fire from a Taliban attack. We need these CIMIC officers, because it is too dangerous for non-governmental organisation civilians to do this work, but I agree with the Secretary of State that the long-term aim must be for the NGOs to take over, although that will be a long road.
It will be a long, hard slog in Afghanistan—one that is dangerous for international coalition troops—but it is necessary. I asked one of the CIMIC reservists whom I met why he kept volunteering to come back to Helmand. He said:
“Politicians talk about a failed state but when you have seen a local hospital where the surgeons have to scrub up at a hand pump in the yard and if someone dies on the operating table the body is thrown out the back door because there is no mortuary, that is what I call a failed state, that’s why I’m here—for the people of Afghanistan”.
In Afghanistan at least, the edges around a strict definition of a defence role, an international relations role or an international development role are blurred. I am clear that our defence emphasis in tackling the challenges of globalisation and preventing armed conflict over access to scarce resources, either where they lie or where the instability could make them a target for malign forces seeking to seize them, should be through supporting stability and democracy in those states. Having seen for myself in Afghanistan, I am clear that our armed forces are the best in the world at doing just that.
May I start by agreeing with what my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) said in his conclusion? The onus is on us all, especially people in this debate, to keep reinforcing, not only to the general public but to some of our colleagues, the debt of honour that we owe our servicemen and women. For the past six years, I have had the privilege of serving on the Defence Committee and have met servicemen and women all over the world, including in this country, who are doing a tremendous job. I think that the average person no longer recognises what such people do. I have no problem with the idea that we should do the utmost for those people, not only when they serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces but after they leave.
The thing that saddens me is the way in which the matter is being used on a party political basis. That was demonstrated tonight in the contribution from the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)—I am sorry that he is no longer in his place. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said, it is wrong to take one example and then say that because one person has complained, everything is bad. I take exception to some of the things that hon. Gentleman said about Selly Oak, because I have visited it. I shall return to that matter in a minute.
We are also reaching a point where the media is focusing in on this matter. It should criticise Government when they get things wrong. People in this House know that I criticise the Government when I think that they have got things wrong on the armed forces. One example from last week that stuck with me—this was raised earlier—was the fitting tribute at the national memorial arboretum, which I believe was well attended. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) was invited to that event, but he chose to go to California to visit Arnold Schwarzenegger. I am sure that had one of our Ministers or any Labour politician done that, they would have been rightly pilloried. Such is the debate and tempo that we are in at the moment.
The line has clearly come from the Conservative party that it is the only one that understands defence and that Labour does not, and that it is the only one that can deliver for the armed forces. I must give 10 out of 10 to my former Select Committee Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South, who rightly reminded us of the Conservatives’ record in office on the armed forces.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Woodspring is not present, because he referred to the case of a Private Cooper and implied, wrongly, that that young man had acquired clostridium difficile from dirty hospital wards at Selly Oak. I must put on the record what happened. Had the hon. Gentleman taken the trouble to read last week’s edition of The Mail on Sunday, he would have got the true story, but that would not fit his facts. He tried to imply—“nudge, nudge, wink, wink”—that everything is bad. In fact, the surgeon who operated on Private Cooper said:
“He underwent major bowel surgery at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital”—
which is part of the Selly Oak complex—
“in Birmingham on October 5. During the procedure he had just one dose of antibiotics, in line with best practice for bowel surgery to prevent infection.
He is being treated for a presumed diagnosis of C. difficile. He has been cared for in a single room since his stay in the hospital and every precaution for preventing infection has been taken.
It is entirely possible that Jamie had been harbouring the C. difficile organism in his bowel, as many patients do.”
If the hon. Gentleman had explained that, it would have put a different complexion on the slight that he was trying to put on the good staff—people I have met on two occasions now—at Selly Oak.
I know that the hon. Gentleman always seeks to give a complete picture in speeches to the House. In that regard, does he agree that pre-screening of elective cases before admission to acute hospitals is the way to proceed? If he does agree, perhaps he could have a word with the Secretary of State for Health so that we might see a reduction in all the superbugs, be it the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, VRSA or MRSA.
That contribution is not worth replying to, because I am dealing with the actual facts and the Conservative Front Bencher was trying to paint a picture that is not actually the case. It is important not to run down and criticise dedicated members of the armed forces and the NHS who are working in difficult circumstances.
I wish to concentrate on two areas. The first is current operations and the second is the welfare of the armed forces and their families. I have visited Iraq now on five occasions. I voted for the invasion of Iraq and I will defend that decision until the day I die. It was not an easy decision for me, or for many hon. Members who voted for the war. I took that decision on the information that was presented to me at the time and if we all had crystal balls, politics would be an easy profession.
I have seen a deterioration in the situation in southern Iraq, but progress has been made and pulling back to the airport is the right decision. However, there are some serious questions to be asked about what we do next. Although I accept that the withdrawal and reduction in numbers is welcome, I am not sure how long we can sit at the airport and to what military purpose.
I suspect that the solution in southern Iraq will not be military: we passed that point quite a long time ago. The solution will be a political one and, as the Prime Minister said the other week—and we should not underestimate this factor—an economic one. Some of the regional players need to play a part in that.
I have visited Afghanistan three times in the past two years, and I agreed totally with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) when she said that it will be a hard slog. It is important not to merge the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is convenient to do so, but it is important to keep them separate. Is the situation in Afghanistan challenging? Yes, it is. Have we made mistakes in the past? Yes, we have, and some of them were political. The impression given when we moved to the south was that it would be an easy operation, but that was never the case. Giving that impression may have been a mistake in terms of the debate.
Progress is being made, and I have seen that on the three occasions that I have visited Kabul. It is also being made in the north, in Mazar-i-Sharif, where reconstruction is taking place. However, if we are signed up to this project for the long term, we—and I mean not just the governing party—must recognise that it will be a long process and that there are no quick wins, although there are some wins, as explained admirably by my hon. Friend. I agree with the comments made earlier that we should not look at Afghanistan without taking into account what is happening in Pakistan.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) said, it is important to recognise that Pakistan’s Government are taking tough steps to try to bear down on the Taliban. Ultimately, the solutions to some of the problems will not be military. It might be unpalatable, but ultimately, in certain areas, we may have to do deals—not with hardcore members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda, but with some tribal leaders in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. People might disagree with that, but ultimately if we are to defeat hardcore Taliban and al-Qaeda members, that is the approach that needs to be taken in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.
As I say, I have visited Iraq and Afghanistan in the past few years. If I am asked, “Do you hear individual complaints about things?” the answer is yes; we always do, as was said earlier, but we have to recognise that the story has moved on. We still read about shortages of body armour and protective vehicles, and we heard comments on those subjects again tonight. However, people who go to Iraq and Afghanistan now will see that the Mastiff vehicle is in theatre, is saving lives and is very popular among members of the Army. Body armour is available in large enough quantities, and it is proving very effective. We should not get stuck in a time warp, as we do in some debates on the subject. Every time that I go to Afghanistan and Iraq, I ask commanding officers and troops about equipment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian said, we hear very few complaints about it. Obviously, we hear complaints about various other things, and we try to take those points on board and feed them back to the Ministry of Defence.
There are plenty of armchair generals telling us how to win in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the people, and certainly the senior generals, to whom I have spoken never have the idea that the Government have not stepped up to the mark when it comes to providing equipment. The press tries to give the impression that this naughty Labour Government are trying to prevent the equipment that generals are asking for from going to Iraq and Afghanistan, but I have never met a senior general in either of those countries who has told a member of the Defence Committee, “The Government are not providing x, y and z.” On the urgent operational requirements that we have met, we have purchased some very good equipment with our £2 billion, and with the £1 billion for force protection. That is important to remember.
It is interesting to see the game that is being played by the Opposition. I have to say that it is what all Oppositions do; we did the same when we were in opposition. The Opposition can call for more money, but they never work out how they would spend it. It was sad that the hon. Member for Woodspring started off on the subject of defence spending by discussing it as a percentage of gross domestic product, but would not say what his figure for defence spending would be. I am like my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South, who was obviously a bad influence on me when I was first elected: I always argue that more money should be spent on defence. However, I would not give the military a blank cheque that we should just forget about.
As for some of the criticisms that senior generals such as General Dannatt make of the defence budget and how we spend it, while they say that we are overstretched, they live in palatial accommodation, and have members of the armed forces serving at their dinner tables or working in their garden. General Dannatt flies around the UK in helicopters while arguing that there is a shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan. I know how much it costs me to travel to Durham every day, but when General Dannatt went earlier this year, it cost him over £2,000, because he went by helicopter and private jet. If we are to home in on the constraints of the defence budget, senior generals need to think about how they conduct themselves.
To enlighten us further, will the hon. Gentleman share with the House what he feels is the appropriate level of accommodation for such a senior general? Furthermore, what mode of transport would he have recommended for that trip—a tricycle, boat, barge or what?
It is quite easy to travel to Durham. There are at least 10 flights a day to Newcastle and a similar number to Teesside airport; God knows how many rail journeys there are to Newcastle and Durham. It is easy to make a flippant point such as the hon. Gentleman’s, but is it right that, for example, members of the armed forces still act basically as servants in people’s houses? No, it is not. If people are going to criticise this Government for levels of expenditure, they should look at what they are doing themselves. Questions need to be asked about the idea that a general should fly in that way to Durham—to address, as it happens, an organisation run by a private lobbying firm.
The hon. Gentleman was making a thoughtful and interesting speech until that point; it is a great shame that he spoilt it by that petty gibe, aimed at somebody who cannot answer back. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is sitting on the Benches of the party that has just thrown away another £6 million on a new communications allowance for MPs?
We did not, actually; that was voted for by Members of this House, including some on the hon. Gentleman’s side. Even those who voted against it will no doubt spend it. I am sorry, but we cannot have such one-way criticism. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I respect him, but all I am saying is that if we are considering the defence budget, we should look at everything in it.
I turn to welfare for Her Majesty’s armed forces and their families. Whenever I visit members of the armed forces, I am always impressed not only by the young men and women themselves, but by the amount of responsibility that they carry on their very young shoulders. Sadly, some of them pay the ultimate price of losing their lives or having terrible injuries.
We have heard again tonight about the “terrible” situation at Selly Oak hospital. I should like to put the following on the record, as it is important. An urban myth has built up that somehow the hospital is letting down our armed forces. Given the last two occasions on which I visited, I do not think that anything could be further from the truth. The urban myth drips out of newspaper articles as if it were the truth. In The Sunday Telegraph last Sunday, Tim Collins wrote a good article—but sadly, he used the words:
“As a result, the broken and injured servicemen and women are brought back to the UK to face at best indifference, at worst abuse in the mixed wards in the notorious Selly Oak Hospital.”
I am sorry, but it is not notorious. Dedicated men and women from the armed forces and the NHS are working at the hospital. When, as part of the Defence Committee’s report into medical services, we visited it recently, we saw some first-rate treatment. When I was there, I put to Julie Moore, chief executive of University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, some of the headlines that had appeared in the newspapers in the previous six months. On 2 October 2006, The Daily Telegraph carried the headline, “Muslim accosts injured Para in hospital”. On 5 March this year, the Daily Star had this one: “Hero squaddie told by British hospital to strip uniform as offensive to Muslims”. Finally, on 10 June this year, The Mail on Sunday ran the headline, “Muslim women abuse soldiers at troops’ hospital”.
I put those headlines to the chief executive, because it is important to get to the truth. If the stories had been true, I would have been totally appalled by them. However, what Ms Moore said was interesting. In respect of the first headline, there were no Muslim nurses on the ward in question; in response to the article, every soldier there had been interviewed, along with representatives of the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, but nobody had complained about what had been alleged. The second article was partly true, in that people are told to take off their uniforms if they are going to get into bed. However, anyone who has been to Selly Oak will see uniformed armed forces personnel walking around, so it is simply not the case that they are not wearing uniform. For the last claim, she could find no evidence whatsoever. I put those questions again to the clinical director, Dr. David Rosser, and asked whether he could find any such instances that had really taken place. His answer was no, and neither could the chief executive. We have to deal with fact, not mythology. Before people repeat the kinds of things that they have during this debate, they should go back to the facts in question.
Yes; I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. When I asked Miss Moore,
“Have the national newspapers contacted you to actually ask you before they print these?”,
“For those that were printed, no. For one of the stories one of the newspapers did contact us, we told them it was not true and they did not run it. Another newspaper, despite being told so, continued to run it. When we have been asked for comments we have strongly denied them. In relation to some of the stories I wrote letters to the editors and they were quite long and they published a paragraph or two. In most instances we were not asked to comment.”
As long as people who repeat those stories from newspapers deal with fact, I do not mind. If some of them were true, I would be as angry as anybody, but they clearly are not.
My hon. Friend will know that I visit Selly Oak regularly and take a great deal of interest in it given my responsibilities. I was there only a few weeks ago and spoke to nearly every injured service person on the ward. To a man, all said what excellent treatment and care they had been given. I also talked to their families. I do not know what the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) is smiling about—it is a fact. If he wants to challenge it, let him intervene, by all means. I am disappointed that he is smiling about such an important issue. I got a clear message from the families. I heard tales of nurses sitting up all night comforting injured service persons and of surgeons undertaking mammoth operations and coming in on their days off to ensure that our people get the best possible care and treatment. That is what Selly Oak is about.
I entirely agree. We also need to give thanks to the dedicated NHS nurses who sit up with patients and have a real passion for the work that they are doing in caring for these young men. I want to give credit to the surgeons, as well. There has been a great deal of debate about whether we should have separate service hospitals, but the medical care and operations at Selly Oak are not only examples of the best treatment in this country but some of the best in the world. I would like to see a few stories about the pioneering surgery that has been taking place there, but they are obviously not going to appear. I hope that we will be able to cover some of these issues in our report later this year.
I am concerned about how individuals access the medical system when they leave the armed forces, and some improvements might be needed. In view of the covenant that has been mentioned, we should ensure that people who leave the armed forces are tracked through the medical system. This Government set up the Veterans Agency—public acknowledgement of the fact that we have veterans. I am pleased about the announcement on the medical assessment centre at St. Thomas’s to treat veterans with possible mental health problems that go back to 1992. I hope that that work not only assists the research that is required into such problems, but helps the effort to support in the community some of those who sadly have to deal with manifest mental illness for quite a long time after they leave the armed forces.
As for the ability of service personnel to raise problems that they may face in the armed forces, I think that all three services need a voice—that is why I proposed my private Member’s Bill in the support of the British Armed Forces Federation earlier this year. That independent voice is very important. I respect the work of various service charities, but I have to say with respect to the Royal British Legion campaign that although I agree with some of it, it seems to be venturing into areas of politics where it should not go. It could be dangerous if it goes any further down that road. As part of its public campaign, it should at some stage recognise what the Government have done.
Finally, I want to speak about the debt of honour and recognition of servicemen who are killed or wounded in conflict. We seem to have a bit of a strange view—though I understand it up to a point—that we should not give medals to people unless for bravery or some special tier of duty. I believe that there is now a good case for granting some type of honour for those who are severely wounded or killed in action; such recognition is so important for the families. I thus congratulate the Daily Mirror on its “honour the brave” campaign. I hope that the MOD can overcome the natural conservatism of our armed forces and try to ensure that, as in other nations such as Canada and the US, we bestow some sort of honour in recognition of those whose ultimate act is to give their lives for the freedoms that we take for granted. It is important to acknowledge their role in some way.
I apologise for not being present for the whole time, but I am grateful to be called to contribute to what has been a good debate.
I agree with the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) that Britain is a force for good in the world. We should hear that much more and I believe that we have seen a consensus tonight that liberty, freedom, democracy, human rights and equal rights are universal aspirations that peoples all over the world wish to enjoy. We are often called on as a nation—as are our brave servicemen and women—to enforce British foreign policy or international law, but we can do so only with the right level of armed forces. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) was absolutely right to say that the current level of UK commitment needs to be backed up with appropriate levels of personnel and equipment. I believe that a strong defence means a strong peace. We often talk about peacekeeping operations as well as aggressive operations and the same rules apply in respect of having the right level of capability.
I will touch only briefly on Afghanistan and Iraq later, as they have been ably covered in great detail this evening. I would like to deal with a few areas that have not been elaborated on so far. First, given that this is a broad defence policy debate, I would like to discuss the ballistic missile defence shield. The fact is that in July and November last year I asked two questions about it—[Interruption.]—and I am pleased to see that the Secretary of State is in his place to hear my thoughts on the matter.
It is time that we had a proper debate on Britain’s role in the ballistic missile defence shield. Some people say that the current technology does not work. Well, that is what they said about the tank when it was first rolled out and we know that it has developed somewhat since 1915. I believe that the technology is getting there. There is no doubt that the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the increased number of countries with access to intercontinental ballistic missiles means that Britain is more vulnerable now than ever before, as other Members have suggested. It certainly will be in the next few years if Members do not accept my premise on that point. That being the case, we need to be clear that our first duty as MPs is to ensure that we defend our nation. We must therefore ensure that we are part of the American ballistic missile defence shield.
Of course, a very expensive price tag is attached, which is why I suggest that the quid pro quo for the Americans having their eyes and ears at Fylingdales and one or two other places in this nation is that the Pentagon picks up the bill for the ballistic missile defence shield, so that it is not a spending commitment but a commitment, as I am sure the Secretary of State would agree, to ensuring that this nation and our constituents are protected in future.
Japan is making its own way. It has the Americans using Aegis destroyers off its coast, with ship-based missiles that can track and intercept incoming missiles to Japan. There are also other platforms, such as airborne ones with specially adapted 747s, and land-based systems that might be placed in Poland and the Czech Republic. It is right that we should have a debate on whether we should have land-based or other forms of platform that can track and intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles that might come our way in the future.
Of course, some people say that, if we do that, we will put the United Kingdom at risk. In fact, we are already at risk if we supply the eyes and ears to the Americans, through Fylingdales and other bases. If there were a simultaneous attack on the UK and America, the UK would be in a farcical position. Someone from Permanent Joint Headquarters or the equivalent could phone the Pentagon and say, “There are missiles coming on your eastern seaboard”, and the Americans could interdict those missiles, but we could do absolutely nothing about the missiles coming to the UK. It is a mistake of any Government—indeed, any Parliament—to say that that threat will never be realised and that that risk is minimum. We must be prepared for the unexpected; so I hope that the Secretary of State will take this opportunity to say that there will be a full debate about the future of the ballistic missile defence shield and the UK’s role in it.
That brings me to the Trident replacement. I remember the former Foreign Secretary controversially opening the debate on that and the Secretary of State closing it. In that debate, I welcomed the Trident replacement, but I also mentioned new technologies. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North talked about the flexibility of weaponry, and again she was absolutely right. The trouble with nuclear weapons is that there is very little flexibility. Yes, we must have a deterrent; yes, the deterrent has worked; but I humbly submit that we need something more than conventional weapons and something less than nuclear ones.
Of course, if we use nuclear weapons, there is nuclear fallout, huge international political fallout and moral fallout. They are the weapons of last resort. We need a new weapon that gives us more flexibility to send a very powerful message to our would-be enemies if we need to do so that is greater than that associated with conventional weaponry. So what is that new technology? It is hypersonic technology, and the Secretary of State knows a lot about it.
Hypersonic mass technology will give us such flexibility, because it allows the UK to tell a rogue state or an enemy that, by ratcheting up or ratcheting down, we can take out a military town, a military city or even a military hamlet. Of course, conventional weapons are limited in their capability. If we wanted to focus on a military town to send a message to a rogue state that was threatening us with intercontinental ballistic missiles, perhaps nuclear tipped, we would perhaps not want to consider the nuclear option. So we need a middle way, and it might be hypersonic mass technology.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but I am also looking at the expression on his Whip’s face, and he is rather perplexed by what is being proposed. Will the hon. Gentleman explain how that technology would be paid for and what it would cost?
It is a question of opportunity cost; what is the cost of not responding to our enemies? The greater cost would be to make the error of judgment of using a nuclear weapon, which would carry a greater political, moral and even financial cost. It would contaminate a whole country or region. The consequences of using nuclear weapons are perhaps more severe than the consequences of using the technology to which I am referring.
If the hon. Gentleman has other ideas, I would be happy for him to submit them to me at some point and to discuss them with him. I know that he is a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Defence, but tonight he has been unusually a little bit prickly for some reason, even though he is mostly amiable. It is a bit untoward of him, at best, to attack my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), given that it is absolutely right that Her Majesty’s Opposition should ask difficult questions. When we do not ask questions, his party says that there is no opposition; when we do, it says that we are being party political.
I have no problem with the Opposition, or anyone in my party, asking the Government difficult questions. The Secretary of State knows that I do it all the time. What I greatly object to is the hon. Member for Woodspring telling the House things that are not correct.
Shall we go back to the Iraq war and the dodgy dossier? We have not got time. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but we do not need any lectures from his party on the truth and our armed forces.
I would like to move on to commenting on new technologies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unmanned aerial vehicles are very important in the field today, and I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to furnish the House soon with details of Raven and other UAV projects currently under way. The Government should also be putting far more pressure on the Americans to provide an interim solution—the Predator armed UAV. It can give more flexibility in Afghanistan and Iraq. I know that the Predator supply line is being used up by American orders, but more pressure could be brought to bear in that regard.
On Iraq, Afghanistan and counter-indirect fire measures, I had the privilege of going to Iraq some months ago, and while I was there we were mortared in the camp. I was there for only a week, and being mortared for a week is nothing in comparison to experiencing mortar fire on the base every single day for a long period on a tour of duty. I pay tribute to all my constituents—and all serving personnel—who every single night in Afghanistan, or at a single base in Basra air station, have to endure mortar fire. I pay tribute, albeit belatedly, to the fact that the Secretary of State and his colleagues have taken urgent action during the past few weeks and months to deal with the counter-IDF issue. More needs to be done on that, and I look forward to hearing some details.
In his opening speech, the Secretary of State mentioned terrorism. There is a great mystery in this House tonight, and it is this: I understand that DNA samples have been taken from parts of improvised explosive devices and bomb fragments that have allegedly been linked to known profiles on the British DNA database. If that is not true, will the Secretary of State please rule it out and clear it up once and for all? If it is true, it is in the national interest that we know the identity of the individuals who are known to the UK authorities, whether they have been apprehended, when they will come before the courts, and what the chances are of convicting them. There seems to be a cloud of secrecy. I understand operational security reasons, but sometimes operational security and national security are used as excuses not to give all of the facts. The Government need to make a judgment on that, but it is a legitimate point to raise. Have British citizens, who are known to be on the DNA database, been active in Iraq and Afghanistan? If so, what has happened to them?
There has been some discussion about NATO, and it is right to expect more from our NATO allies. However, it is also right to recognise those NATO allies that have made contributions. I am conscious that the Albanian Prime Minister has been in the House today. I pay tribute to Albania and Ukraine for their contribution, and especially to the brave servicemen and women of Denmark and Holland. They have made a genuine contribution, but we clearly need a larger one, from not only those nations but others. I therefore hope that President Sarkozy is serious about NATO, although I also hope that his proposal is not a Trojan horse for a new Franco-German pact in years to come. However, we would genuinely welcome France becoming part of NATO again and contributing. I also hope that it will avoid the national caveats that have perhaps bedevilled the contributions of Germany and one or two other nations.
I pay tribute to Commonwealth servicemen and women, whose contribution to Iraq and Afghanistan is most valuable. I thank Government Front Benchers for recently giving free blueys—free mail—to Caribbean and other Commonwealth personnel. That welcome change was made in the past few months. It is right that they, as well as our UK forces personnel, should have that.
Defence procurement has been mentioned in detail. I hope that lessons will be learned from the fact that it often means that some projects are delivered late and over budget. That obviously has a knock-on effect on the overall defence budget and the deployability of new kit in the field. I hope that Shropshire and the excellent engineers there will not be overlooked in the future rapid effect system programme.
The debate has been wide ranging. I understand that some changes have been made involving defence attachés, and I know that some squabbling has occurred between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence about who pays for defence attachés in future. Even in the past few weeks, changes have been made, leading to the withdrawal of defence attachés from several UK embassies and missions in Europe and probably elsewhere. There are to be regional defence attachés so that, for example, someone based in Rome would cover several countries. I should be interested to hear the logic behind that, given that I imagine that defence jobs and the industry are vital to all our constituencies. It is important to have our defence attachés on the spot to ensure that the United Kingdom is considered for any procurement from foreign countries.
In addition, Front Benchers know that defence attachés often help in reforming the armed forces in different parts of the world—that is often the prerequisite for NATO entry. If our defence attachés are not on the spot, you can bet your bottom dollar that the Americans will have theirs there, and that certainly applies to the Germans and the French. If a procurement project is to go somewhere in Europe, the people with defence attachés are more likely to be heard than the UK, which has been short-sighted and withdrawn its attachés.
In the last couple of minutes, I would like to consider Shropshire. I am sure that the Secretary of State did not think that I would rise to my feet without making one or two points about my constituency. I pay tribute to people in the Royal Air Force, the Army and the Royal Navy and Territorial reserve personnel who come from my constituency and the county of Shropshire and have contributed to the effort not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but the Falkland Islands, Cyprus—albeit a downsizing—Kosovo and other parts of the world, including Africa. It is important that we remember our personnel around the world, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All the Ministers present will know that the west midlands has traditionally been an excellent recruiting ground for Her Majesty’s armed forces, going back to the King’s Shropshire light infantry. I hope that there will be some reciprocation of that commitment from the Government in relation to RAF Cosford. Over the past few weeks, the Under-Secretary has kindly responded to a written question, saying that no decision has been made on the future of RAF Cosford, yet the Minister for the Armed Forces suggested in a letter to me that a decision on Cosford had been made, but that the final approval would not be made until spring 2009. That leaves my constituents in limbo, so I hope that the Minister will give some clarity on the decision.
There are two options before us on RAF Cosford. There is no shame in Ministers saying, “We got it wrong”, or, “We want to do a U-turn”, because that happens often. I hope that Ministers will say, “We got it wrong in the defence training review. The infrastructure in Wales is not in place. There is squabbling, which we didn’t really foresee, between the Ministry of Defence, the Welsh Assembly and other agencies. Therefore, we want to give the defence training contract to Cosford, and we will expand the RAF and tri-service personnel there.” That would be the preferred option for my constituents.
The second option, of course, is to attract the logistics battalion and the signals battalion returning from Germany under the Borona operation. Some colleagues have spoken of their concerns about very large garrisons, but there is a distinction between super-garrisons and mega-garrisons. Should option No. 1 not be taken up, I would be content for Cosford to be made into an Army super-garrison. However, it is important that there should be clarity and that a decision should be made soon, in order that my constituents, schools, businesses, suppliers and the personnel working at the base can plan for their futures.
Time is short, so I shall conclude by saying that I welcome a softening of the Government’s position on the Defence Logistics Organisation at Sapphire House. I hope that they are rethinking relocating 400 to 500 staff to Bristol, because many of those people are unable or unwilling to move. It is right that the Defence Logistics Organisation should remain at Sapphire House in Shropshire, because that makes sense, and fits in with the other Defence Logistics Organisation staff at MOD Donnington in my constituency and with the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency. The Government made an excellent and brave decision, following the Defence Committee’s inquiry into Afghanistan, in saying that the Army Base Repair Organisation would not lose 880 jobs. Since then that decision has proved right, because ABRO is recruiting people for another 150 jobs, as a result of attrition on vehicles in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Shropshire has a proud heritage and history in serving Her Majesty’s armed forces. I hope that the Government will pay back the county, by giving a secure future to Cosford, to the DLO and to ABRO and DSDA.
It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). I enjoyed his general strategic overview, as well as his specific points about the DNA and defence attachés. I hope that the Minister will have answers to those questions at his fingertips when he replies. I declare an interest as a medical officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, and I am in receipt of a naval pension. We have heard 14 Back-Bench speeches today, all of which had merit, even if in some cases one had to dig a little deep to find it.
Ministers can surely be in no doubt that the military covenant has been broken. I appreciate the caveat that the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) entered with regard to Scotland, but the Royal British Legion has felt it necessary to mount its “Honour the covenant” campaign this autumn, while a completely new organisation, the British Armed Forces Federation, was created this summer to lobby for a better deal for the service community. Unofficial forces websites have sprung up. I draw the Minister’s attention particularly to the Army Rumour Service website—better known, if you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by its acronym ARRSE—which provides a free and frank window on the views of an increasingly dischuffed service population.
In 25 years of service in the armed forces, I can never remember anything quite like this. It is important to acknowledge, however, that there have been times in our history when our troops have not been given the respect to which they are surely entitled. Rudyard Kipling described the plight of Tommy Atkins. Although Kipling’s Tommy emerged in the 1890s, he is chiefly associated with our engagement in total war in two obvious fights for national survival. His descendants are involved in conflicts that are much more discretionary, and that do not command the support of the British public in anything like the same way.
In my view, that means that the Government owe more than ever to today’s men and women who are putting their lives on the line in pursuit of their foreign policy. That is all the more reason for disappointment at the attitude adopted by Ministers, captured perfectly by Mrs. Diane Dernie, mother of Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson, who said of injured servicemen:
“They are simply figures on a balance sheet. They do not have any role, any function and the MOD wants to dispose of them as cheaply as possible.”
Meanwhile, Ben, even after Ministers have been shamed by public outcry into doubling his payment, faces a bleak future. No doubt the Minister will crow about guaranteed income payments, but on close examination those appear frugal, and for junior soldiers unrepresentative of potential future earnings. I am sorry if I detected a scoff from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence—he criticised me earlier in a rather crude intervention, if I may say so—but that is certainly the view of the service community. If he doubts that, I suggest that he look at the website to which I referred.
It is difficult to see Labour’s armed forces compensation scheme as anything other than a second-rate deal, which is inferior in important respects to elements of the preceding war pension scheme, imperfect though that undoubtedly was, and which uniquely attempts to swim against the tide of society’s prevailing compensation culture. The formulaic way in which compensation is pegged ignores the fact that a broken body is so much more than the sum of constituent injuries. It addresses quality of life forgone in the most bludgeonly way imaginable and is untenable.
The Royal British Legion is correct to point out, as we have, that the vast majority of personnel will simply not benefit from the changes announced on the hoof last week, and that the changes will not benefit those with a single devastating injury of the sort sustained by Lance Corporal Martin Edwards. As the Minister’s announcement was, admittedly, by way of launching a consultation, I hope that he will listen to those with the best interests of servicemen at heart before finalising his plans; I say that in all sincerity. So far, those plans have been chaotic. We understood initially that an increase in retrospective payments was “highly unlikely”. If that were so, people injured in Operation Telic I to IV would have found themselves at a financial disadvantage compared with people hurt post-April 2005. Clearly, that would be a nonsense, and we understand that the MOD has been obliged to change tack.
The United States is often held out as the exemplar in delivering the military covenant. I simply do not know why America lauds servicemen in a way that we do not. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) touched on some of the possible reasons. I am realistic enough to appreciate that the attitudinal differences between our two countries mean that our servicemen will not be patriotically ushered to the front of queues or showered with cinema tickets. But the strand of care for those who have given extraordinary service, embodied in the GI Bill and the Veterans Administration, and extended this year in the inauguration of the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors, is indicative of our best friend’s far more generous interpretation of the military covenant. I hope that the Minister will say what lessons he has learned from the US and how he intends to implement best practice here.
Our armed forces are a mirror of the society from which they are drawn, yet increasingly their deal looks second-rate. What are they to make of compensation for the most severe battlefield injuries, reluctantly increased by Ministers to £285,000, against nearly £500,000 for an RAF typist with repetitive strain injury of the thumb?
No, I will not. I do not have enough time.
How do Ministers think soldiers feel when they see civil servants receiving an extra £100,000 a year to serve in dangerous places, and all they can aspire to is a bit of extra pay in lieu of tax that they have paid?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has not been listening to the debate. The issue of the false comparison, which he has parroted again, has already been dealt with. It is clear from the way in which he is winding up the debate that he is reading a speech that he prepared long before the debate, rather than responding to the debate. It would have been helpful if he had paid attention to the issue when it was addressed earlier and the false comparison was explained.