I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of defence in the world.
The armed forces of the United Kingdom provide the country with a unique instrument for the protection of Britain’s national security and the promotion of our national interests. Whether it is protecting the shipping lanes from piracy, defending our dependent territories on land, in the air or at sea, providing humanitarian assistance, keeping the peace in areas of conflict, or fighting to protect national and international security, they are a force for good, and the people of Britain are rightly proud of them.
As we have said before, the main effort for our armed forces is Afghanistan—it is also the main effort for the Ministry of Defence. We are in Afghanistan to ensure that the country cannot be used again as a base to export terrorism, which is a proven threat to our citizens. We will achieve that by supporting the growth of an Afghan Government who reject violent extremism, and who can deny terrorists a haven by maintaining their own security. We must see this job through. The consequences of premature withdrawal would be profoundly dangerous.
This is the context in which the brave men and women of our armed forces are risking life and limb on our behalf. So far this year, 27 UK personnel have been killed, and many more injured. We can minimise, but we can never eliminate, the risks that our armed forces face—this is hard soldiering at the sharp end, and there will be further sacrifice ahead. I was with our forces in Helmand and Kandahar last week, and I met senior allied military commanders, civilian officials and Afghan Ministers in Kabul. There is clear progress on both the security front and the political front, which I shall take in turn.
First, on security, over the past 12 months the number of international security assistance force troops in Helmand has risen from about 7,700 to more than 20,000. The Regional Commander South, Major-General Nick Carter, will therefore continue to review the balance of forces across southern Afghanistan. As announced last week, as part of that, responsibility for Musa Qala will be transferred from UK forces to other ISAF forces. The transfer gives ISAF the opportunity to redeploy UK troops to central Helmand, thickening our forces in the most heavily populated area of the province, where the majority of our troops are already based. Further changes in Helmand are likely in due course to ensure that force lay-down is in line with the campaign priorities set by Major-General Carter.
The early stages of Operation Moshtarak are now complete. We have achieved significant success. The operation has created the space for district Afghan governance to emerge, removing the Taliban’s hold over a large area of central Helmand. Immediate stabilisation activity has begun. The Afghan Government, supported by the UK-led provincial reconstruction team, have launched their district stabilisation plan. This has set priorities and committed resources and manpower to deliver key services in Nad Ali. Three thousand local Afghans have been employed to work on development projects in cash-for-work programmes.
Last week the Secretary of State for International Development and I walked down a lane that only weeks earlier had been known as “IED alley”. The Afghan police were on patrol where previously they had been absent. Locals were selling fruit from stalls where previously commerce had been too dangerous. The Royal Anglians told me how different things were from their first tour in 2006, when they were involved in head-on fighting with Taliban units. This time, they had settled in with speed. The response from the locals had been warm. In total, 1,000 Afghan national security forces personnel have taken part in the latest operations across Helmand, and we expect more than 2,500 to take part in the next phase, including 1,000 Afghan gendarmerie.
But let nobody underestimate the task ahead. Only the first part of Operation Moshtarak has been done. The area has been cleared, but we now have to hold and build. Together with our partners, and in particular the Afghans themselves, we have to provide security for confidence and governance to grow. As the suicide attacks in Kandahar show, the Taliban will come back at us. We cannot take our eye off the ball.
I, too, have just come back from a visit to Afghanistan and share the Secretary of State’s cautious optimism that things are progressing and moving in the right direction. However, Operation Moshtarak does not include the Sangin area, and I am concerned that as areas of responsibility are handed over to the Americans, Sangin, which is very much a British focus, seems to be left out and is turning into our Achilles heel. My former regiment, the Rifles Regiment, is based there. Can the right hon. Gentleman provide more information about that area, which seems to be left out in the cold?
The hon. Gentleman anticipates me. I am coming to the issue of Sangin, as people would expect me to do.
We cannot take our eye off the ball. In other parts of Helmand, UK forces are continuing to support the Afghan Government to bring security and governance to their people. It is a difficult task, which our forces face with resilience and courage. Sangin in particular is one of the most difficult places where our forces are operating. Sangin is Afghanistan in microcosm—an extraordinarily complex situation where poor governance, the drug trade and tribal grievances fuel the insurgency. 3 Rifles are doing a remarkable job in the most difficult circumstances, and the casualties, sadly, reflect that.
The answers to the problem in Sangin will not be provided by the security effort on its own. The problems are political, and the answers will be political. Governor Mangal has acted with determination. He has replaced those who have fallen short or who have abused power—the district governor, the chief of police and other senior security officials. Progress in Sangin is slow and it has, sadly, been hard won. Providing security is difficult and dangerous work and we should expect these challenges to endure for some time.
Although the Secretary of State is right that troops on their own cannot provide the entire solution, troop density levels in counter- insurgency operations are still very important. Ten thousand British troops account for roughly two thirds of the population, and 20,000 Americans account for one third. Does he not think that that balance is out of kilter, and that we need to put it right?
The changes that Major-General Carter has announced will address that issue to a degree, but not to the fullest extent, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows and the mathematics will clearly tell him. Kajaki is another area that we need to think about, and plans are being worked on, but I am not in a position to say what the proposals are, because they have not been completed. However, people are aware of the very issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, and of the need for a proper balance of forces throughout Helmand province.
In the Task Force Helmand area of the province, we need to be able to take full advantage of the increase in troop density from, as I said, 7,700 or thereabouts a year or so ago to 20,000 now. That is not counting the additional ANSF personnel who are flowing into the province as well. Further rebalancing is therefore being looked at, but there are various propositions and none has been finalised, so I am afraid that I cannot tell the House that there has been more than the handover of Musa Qala. But Musa Qala will help, and all the troops from that area will be redeployed to central Helmand, giving additional support and troop density to the people operating in that area.
Just as in Sangin, political progress is needed throughout Helmand to consolidate the military progress that we have made. On 7 March in Marjah, President Karzai held a shura and listened to the grievances of local people. The significance of that should not be underestimated. He was told in no uncertain terms that the people did not want the Taliban, but nor did they want Afghan Government officials who abuse their power. I totally agree with the Foreign Secretary in the approach that he set out last week. The security that ISAF can provide will become permanent only when it is provided increasingly by the Afghans themselves, and consolidated by a political process of reintegration and reconciliation.
Building on the agreements at the London conference, we will support the Afghan Government’s national peace and reintegration programme. President Karzai has announced his intention to hold a peace jirga at the end of April; the trust fund to offer economic alternatives to those who renounce violence and who work within the democratic process has already received pledges of more than $140 million; and a good start has been made on the growth of the Afghan national security forces, with recruitment in the Afghan national army increasing sevenfold since the end of 2009. We have opened a new window of opportunity for governance, development and the political process of reconciliation and reintegration to take hold. We have the time to succeed, but we certainly have no time to waste. Our forces are shouldering a heavy burden to protect our national security, so let me directly address some of the accusations that have been made in the past week.
It is fair to say that in Iraq, and in entering Helmand in 2006, we—I include our military planners in this—did not, with hindsight, get everything right. Risk is inherent in military operations, and as the military will tell us, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. In both cases, the situation on the ground changed rapidly, and we had to adjust posture and learn lessons quickly. For instance, in 2006 when UK forces first entered Helmand, insurgent fighters came at us in groups of up to 100; now they increasingly use IEDs, which, as we are all too aware, cause the majority of UK fatalities. In 2009 more than 70 per cent. of the UK’s fatalities involved IED strikes, compared with 20 per cent. in 2006. As the situation evolved in Afghanistan, the force lay-down, the air support and the breadth of available equipment have had to change, too, but some requirements cannot be delivered overnight.
However, let me be clear: no commander has been asked to achieve objectives for which they have not been equipped or manned. No urgent operational requirement to address changes in circumstances or new threats has been turned down by the Treasury. As the circumstances have changed, so have the resources. Funding from the Treasury reserve has been provided at the level required to meet the need. It has risen from £738 million in 2006-07, when we had about 6,000 troops in Afghanistan, to an estimated £4.5 billion this financial year to support 9,500 troops.
The Defence Secretary mentioned urgent operational requirements. He will know that BAE Land Systems in Hadley in my constituency has worked very hard to meet those requirements, yet today people there are in fear of losing their jobs if the Government have awarded the upgrade to Warrior, with the new cannon, and the upgrading of other armoured vehicles, to foreign companies rather than British companies. Would he like to state on the record what the Government’s position is?
On the Scout vehicle, we have run a competition, in which two companies have been involved, both of which have been treated fairly. It has been a long and thorough process, and an evaluation has been made. Of course we are mindful of the position of jobs, and there are jobs created in the UK as result of both those bids. Overwhelmingly, however, when we come to take a decision on the Scout, which will happen in the very near future, that decision must be based on capability. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is the wrong priority, but I do not. I am as much wedded to protecting British jobs, British companies and British industry as anyone else. As I said, a lot of jobs in Great Britain are coming from both the bids. We must be mindful of that, but we must be mindful, overwhelmingly, that we are buying a vehicle that is the best that we can get for our armed forces. That is the basis on which the decision will be taken and the basis on which BAE Systems has been treated, along with its competitors in this process.
The Secretary of State mentioned Op Telic and referred to lessons learned. What I picked up during my last visit to Afghanistan was the fact that we are now on Op Herrick 10. Each time we have been there, the brigade commander has almost had to reinvent the wheel in working out what counter-insurgency tactics are most appropriate for Helmand. The consequence of this has not gone unnoticed by the Americans. Given the name of this debate, “Defence in the World”, I pose this question: what do we bring to the table that assists the Americans or allows us to stand up and be counted? We used to be experts in counter-insurgency, but we have now fallen behind the curve, and that is something that this House needs to address.
I would say to the hon. Gentleman that that is a little harsh. The Americans learned some huge lessons in Iraq around the time of 2006-07, and all credit to them for that. At the time when that campaign was going south at a worrying pace, American minds, at the very highest level, turned to how to turn the situation around, and we should be every bit as respectful of the capability that they showed in doing that. The hon. Gentleman has just been to Afghanistan. If he gets out in the area in which Operation Moshtarak is taking place, not only in the American area but on our side of the line in the Nad Ali area, he will see that some superb counter-insurgency lessons have been learned and are being implemented. We must all try to make absolutely certain that those lessons are properly understood and embedded across the entire force. It is all right having that excellent understanding where the main effort is, but we need to ensure that every battle group has the same level of understanding and campaign continuity. It is very important to improve campaign continuity; I accept what he says in that regard.
On this occasion, the Secretary of State is quite wrong. I want to ask him about the lessons that have been learned in Afghanistan, and before that in Iraq. They have been extremely hard-learned, because we had completely forgotten how to fight a counter-insurgency war. As most of the casualties have come from IEDs, why did this country sell its Chubby sets, which would have protected routes, and why are we still using a mediaeval system of Barma route clearing? When will Talisman—I am grateful to the Minister for the Armed Forces, who recently wrote to me about it following the previous debate—be fully operational in Afghanistan?
Talisman is in theatre and being used. Of course lessons are learned all the time, but the IED threat in Iraq was significantly different from the IED threat that we face in Afghanistan. In Iraq there were shaped charges aimed overwhelmingly at armoured vehicles on semi-metalled roads and so on. In Afghanistan, small IEDs are being laid on an industrial scale to maim and injure our troops. There are very different methods and devices, and of course we have to learn as quickly as we can from the changing threat.
We have deployed a 200-strong counter-IED taskforce, along with specialist equipment, to find and disable IEDs and to help identify and target the networks that lay them. Of course, we cannot find and prevent every IED laid by the insurgency, but we can ensure that our troops have the best equipment available to protect themselves from the threat. Since 2006, the urgent operational requirement process has provided for 1,700 additional heavy armoured vehicles as the threat of IEDs has grown, including first Mastiffs and now Ridgbacks, which offer world-leading protection. At the repair facility in Camp Bastion, I saw one Mastiff that had been blown up six times, once in Iraq and five times in Afghanistan. Every single person survived, and it has been repaired every time and is still going strong. At the joint helicopter force in Bastion, I saw the Merlins, Sea Kings, Chinooks and Apaches that our troops rely on, and I was assured that availability is meeting demand.
I find myself again disappointed by the Conservatives. Despite the record, they would have the public believe that our troops are not being properly resourced. In doing so, they are both painting a false picture and undermining public support for the mission, and for what? For short-term party political gain. Who is playing politics with our armed forces now?
The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) accuses the Prime Minister of electioneering by visiting theatre. Is he really saying that it is inappropriate for the Prime Minister to visit troops, hear from them and thank them for a major operation? [Interruption.] Opposition Members say that the problem is timing alone, but the hon. Gentleman will know—if he cares to know—that we cancelled a lot of people’s visits to Helmand province because of stage 1 of Operation Moshtarak. A lot of people in the House were not able to go, and I had to change the date of my visit to Helmand to ensure that I did not burden people. The Prime Minister had to get his visit into the window that was provided between the end of the first stage of operations and the start of the relief in place, as did I. It is quite disgraceful for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the timing was an issue. We were cancelling other people’s highly desirable trips to Helmand province because of operational need, because of the fact that we were in the middle of an operation and because the relief in place was about to start. That was what dictated the timing, and the hon. Gentleman is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
Will the Secretary of State tell us why previous visits took place just before the Prime Minister was thinking of calling an election some two and a half years ago, and during the middle of the Conservative party conference? Is there not a pattern emerging here, in which the Prime Minister of this country uses the British armed forces as some sort of photo opportunity in order to get votes?
I say to the hon. Gentleman and all his hon. Friends that I have never criticised anybody in the Opposition for visiting theatre, or for producing webcasts from it in order to advertise what they are doing. I have never done that, and I would not dream of criticising anyone on that basis. Let me explain why. It is because I will not play party politics with the Afghan operation in the disgraceful way that was done last week.
Frankly, I wish my right hon. Friend would move on because he should not give any credence or credit to the disgraceful and not very honourable remarks that were made by Conservative Members after the Prime Minister’s visit. Is it not the case that between 1997 and 2003, an extra 17 per cent. of fresh new money was given to our military services, which then decided what to do with it? To attribute problems in the field to the then Chancellor is like blaming the Treasury Secretary in America because American soldiers fall in the field in Afghanistan. The Conservative party is a disgrace on this issue.
This issue cuts right to the heart of the morale of our troops, which is damaged by people playing party politics with these matters. I think that is disgraceful. On troop morale, the right hon. Gentleman knows that when forces return from active service, they face many issues and problems, one of which is getting housing. Will he consider what action the Government could take to force local councils such as Castle Point to give priority to our returning heroes, as that would help their morale?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the treatment our troops get back here and the appreciation shown to them here is important, as well as the support they need out in theatre. We have made some changes to oblige local authorities to treat our troops properly; we must ensure that those are properly implemented and enforced so that our troops get a place on the housing list, as well as help with health.
Let me move on to some other issues raised over the last week or so. The hon. Member for Woodspring has accused the Government of cutting the order for light protection vehicles when, as he well knows, buying an initial order is standard practice to ensure that we can incorporate the lessons learned from the vehicle’s use in later orders. We need 200 of these vehicles for Afghanistan. Ordering the initial batch now means that those vehicles will be delivered to Afghanistan as soon as possible. We are simply trying to deliver world-leading equipment to our troops. Who is really playing politics with our armed forces?
The hon. Gentleman suggests that Ministers are trying to suppress news from Afghanistan during the election by quoting the Purdah code, drawn up by civil servants to guide the behaviour of civil servants to try to ensure fairness between the parties. Is he actually suggesting that the Government intervene to alter the rules governing the civil service during an election? The only person playing politics with the operation in Afghanistan is the hon. Gentleman. In the Opposition day debate that he called just two weeks ago, he at no point offered any alternative.
The Conservative leader accuses the Government of fighting wars on a peacetime budget.
The hon. Gentleman says, “Quite right”. So, should the Conservatives win the forthcoming election, the shadow Chancellor’s emergency budget after the election will presumably be a “wartime” budget. Would the hon. Member for Woodspring like to confirm what his plans are for the defence budget under a Tory Government? Would he like to stand up now and tell us? Can he confirm—he has repeatedly failed to do so to date—that he will match Labour’s promise to increase the defence budget by more than inflation in the next financial year? Once again, answer comes there none.
I rise to seek clarification on that point, because my understanding is that the Conservatives intend, on their first day in government, to examine the break clauses in a variety of contracts, including those for the aircraft carriers, possibly with a view to cancelling them to save money. That is hardly an indication that more money will be available for the defence budget, is it?
I understand that that is precisely what has been said, but it goes far wider than that. The point I am trying to bring out is this: the Conservatives’ criticism of resources and deliberate misrepresentation of what has happened over a period of time will not replace straight answers about their intentions. We have made it clear that next year, there will be a real increase in the defence budget. Try as we might, we cannot get an answer from the hon. Member for Woodspring, who, when asked, said from a sedentary position, “You’ll have to wait.” The electorate will have to wait until after the election to see what the Tory party’s intentions are.
I have been very clear that that will form part of a strategic defence review. I have equally said that it would take a very strange turn of events for the aircraft carriers to become unnecessary. That is why we ordered them and are building them, and why we are cutting the steel and getting on with the job right now.
I trust the Secretary of State will be in the Chamber when I rise to deliver my remarks, because I will be addressing some of the points he has raised. Can he give a guarantee that defence spending will be ring-fenced for the next four years, because that is what he seems to be promising? If he is not promising that, he should be very clear about it.
The hon. Gentleman must not try to put words in my mouth. I have produced a Green Paper and said that there will be a strategic defence review. He is a genuine campaigner for defence and I know that deep down, he is appalled by the lack of a commitment from Conservative Front Benchers. All I said is that we cannot get a commitment from them—
I am talking about next year. We cannot get a commitment about next year from the party to which the hon. Gentleman gives his allegiance, and we cannot get one from the hon. Member for Woodspring. I cannot go beyond next year, and I have never said that I would do so. There will be a strategic defence review. I will try to be in the Chamber to listen to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) speak more widely on the matter later.
I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I want to make some progress now.
The truth is that the shadow Chancellor will not let the hon. Member for Woodspring answer my question, because the Conservatives do not intend to increase the defence budget. They can argue all day about how much they cut the defence budget in the 1990s or how much Labour has increased it since—by they way, that increase was 10 per cent. in real terms since 1997, not including the £17 billion that has been spent from the reserve on operations and the £5 billion earmarked for Afghanistan next year—but the public want to know what the hon. Gentleman’s plans for the future are. I bet that he does not come to that, because although there is plenty of rhetoric from him, it is matched by not a single extra commitment.
The Minister of State announced today that 1 Signal Brigade and 102 Logistic Brigade are no longer coming to RAF Cosford in 2015, as planned; their arrival has been deferred by three years. Why has that happened, and what will happen to RAF Cosford during the five-year gap between the moving of the training operations to Wales and the much later arrival of the logistic brigades? That is what my constituents want to know.
Does the Secretary of State accept the suggestion by the Royal United Services Institute that over the next six years there will have to be a cut of up to 15 per cent. in defence expenditure? Does he accept the institute’s premise, and if not, why not?
Decisions about the long term have yet to be made. We have committed ourselves to a strategic defence review, I have done everything I can to try to get a defence debate up and running, and we have seen some good signs that part of that debate is indeed up and running ahead of the strategic defence review. The country will have to decide what role it wants to play in the world, and how much it is prepared to commit to the necessary defence expenditure that would underpin that role in the world. If RUSI thinks it can second-guess the answers to those questions ahead of the major decisions, it is wrong, but I am not sure that it actually said that. I have a lot of time for RUSI, and I think the hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood what it said.
The Opposition have suggested that announcing plans to proceed with major equipment programmes so close to a general election is wrong. I disagree. Last year, I published a Green Paper to pave the way for a strategic defence review. As part of that process, we will need to make decisions about the role we want the United Kingdom to play in the world and the capabilities the armed forces need to support that role. However, we will need to press ahead with decisions when they are required to maintain momentum on important projects that are integral to the future defence programme.
At the time of the Queen’s Speech, I set out the approach that I would take to decisions ahead of a strategic defence review. First, each decision would be tested against its effect on operational requirements in Afghanistan, as the main effort in defence. Secondly, each decision would make a contribution to bringing the defence programme into balance in both the short and the long term. Thirdly, we would avoid, as far as possible, significant decisions on capability that should properly be made as part of a strategic defence review.
In December I announced plans to rebalance the defence programme, including the shifting of additional resources towards the campaign in Afghanistan. We have now worked through the details, and I shall be announcing decisions relating to several equipment programmes over the next few days. In each case I have been given detailed advice on the requirements, listened to the views of the service chiefs and considered the question of long-term affordability. The decisions I will announce are not being rushed through, but are being judged carefully against the tests I have set out. That is the right way to proceed.
The £5 billion figure is astonishing. If that amount is required, it is required, but it is bleeding our armed forces dry.
I ask the Secretary of State to think back to 2002-04. What a shame that we did not put in the right amount up front then to allow our armed forces’ stabilisation projects to continue appropriately. That would probably have allowed us to expedite our exit from Afghanistan, rather than continuing on a prolonged course which, as I have said, is costing more and more each year. Five billion pounds is an astonishing amount to spend when we are seeing no exit strategy.
I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstood what I just said. This year, according to our latest estimate, there will be an extra £4.5 billion—not just the £35 billion, approaching £36 billion, in the defence budget—for the Afghanistan operation. We estimate that next year there will be a requirement for an extra £5 billion. That will not come from the defence budget, and we will not be “bleeding our armed forces dry”, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. An extra amount will be provided from the reserve, through the urgent operational requirements process. If the hon. Gentleman insists on looking backwards and flatly refuses to look forwards, let me tell him that by far the biggest cut in defence in modern times took place in 1995-96—a real-terms cut of 10.24 per cent. Who was in government at that time? It was the party that the hon. Gentleman supports.
Afghanistan is the main effort for defence but the armed forces continue to undertake their standing commitments, including defending UK airspace and waters, maintaining the continuous nuclear deterrent and, of course, defending the overseas territories. For instance, we currently have 1,200 personnel deployed in the Falkland Islands. The Government are fully committed to the defence of the south Atlantic overseas territories. We have made all the preparations necessary to make sure they are properly protected. Our deterrence force consists of a wide range of land, air and maritime assets and can be reinforced quickly should the need arise, but we do not judge that to be necessary at the current time.
The military and maritime presence around the Turks and Caicos Islands, for instance, is wholly inadequate. More importantly, what response have the Government given to the US Secretary of State, who talked about having negotiations between Argentina and the United Kingdom about the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands? Have we told her unequivocally to mind her own business and that that is not negotiable?
The Foreign Secretary has made our position clear: it is that our sovereignty of the Falklands is under no doubt, that we will take the appropriate measures to defend them and that we are entitled within those sovereign waters to explore for minerals. My hon. Friend needs to justify his point about the Turks and Caicos Islands. He might want to come and see me afterwards to do so, as I do not understand his point.
May I take my right hon. Friend back to the question of programmes? There is already an enormous gulf of blue water between those on the Front Benches on the question of the aircraft carrier, but that should not mean that we have to stand still on naval ordering. When does my right hon. Friend expect to make an announcement about taking forward the next stage of the Type 26 order? Can he tell me how many I am likely to get of those?
My hon. Friend cannot expect me to make announcements ahead of making the announcements, but announcements to that effect on the future surface combatant will be made in the near future.
We also maintain significant forces in Cyprus, Brunei, Gibraltar and Germany, in addition to standing operational naval commitments worldwide. We have announced today the next phase of our programme to relocate to the UK three major military formations currently based in Germany: Headquarters, Allied Rapid Reaction Corps this summer; 1 Signal Brigade in 2015; and 102 Logistics Brigade in 2018. When the programme as a whole is complete, the UK force levels in Germany will have reduced from 22,000 to 15,000. With the agreement of the German Government, our plan remains to base HQ 1 UK Armoured Division, with most of its formations and supporting units, in Germany for the foreseeable future.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have spent a fair bit of my 23 years here in Committee Rooms trying to wind him up; without succeeding, I hasten to add. I have waited a long time—it is a great pleasure to do so just before I leave this place—to say that I agree with the Government and with the Secretary of State. I wanted to get that on the record. What he has said about the Falklands is absolutely right. They are British and they need our defence. His assurance that the Government will renegotiate nothing with the Argentines is the best news I have heard for a long time, and I thank him.
Our efforts to wind each other up have been mutual, and although they have probably been mutually unsuccessful, they have also been quite enjoyable on a personal level. I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has just said about the Government’s policy on the Falklands.
The Secretary of State referred to Operation Borona and the draw-down of British troops from Germany. As he will know, under the defence training review programme RAF personnel are due to leave Cosford in 2013 and relocate to Wales. That base was due to be backfilled with the British Army, but there is now to be a delay of five years. Will the Secretary of State put on the record, for the benefit of the people of Shropshire and the west midlands, what is going to happen to RAF Cosford in that five-year period?
These decisions are not taken lightly, and they are not easy decisions, but prioritising Afghanistan and making it the main effort has consequences; there is no way around that. I know of nobody who genuinely and seriously thinks that that does not have to be our main effort at this time. Difficulties will arise and I am sorry for that, but there is no point in coming to the House and pretending, as the hon. Member for Woodspring does, that we can move the whole British Army back to the United Kingdom, and save money by so doing and do it without cost. The costs of doing this in the short term, on the kind of time scales the hon. Gentleman has pretended are a possibility, are monstrously out of kilter with the facts. That cannot be done.
The hon. Gentleman has been bidding for a continued armed forces presence in his constituency for a very long time and with considerable tenacity. I do not blame him for that, and I welcome his support for the attempt to maintain our presence in Lyneham as the location of the Hercules planes changes.
The footprint of UK forces is global. That is because the interests of this country, and the threats against it, are global. I believe it is essential for the UK to remain in the premier league of military powers, and under this Government we will remain so. In every endeavour our armed forces perform, there is a dedicated professionalism that is humbling to see. They have the gratitude of this Government, this House and this country.
May I begin by paying tribute to all our service personnel who have made sacrifices for our safety since we last debated this subject? We extend our condolences to the families and friends of those killed, and we hope that their sadness may be diminished by the pride they take in the courage and commitment of our world-class forces. To those injured, not only do we offer our support, but we must all do everything possible to ease their paths in the future. We must also thank all our civilian personnel, whose efforts in theatre and in support often go unmentioned but are none the less invaluable to our national effort in Afghanistan.
The Secretary of State talked about recent developments in Helmand, and although his description of Operation Moshtarak sounds optimistic, the House might rightly ask why it has taken us so long to get an update. The operation has been taking place for more than a month and up to 4,000 British troops have been involved, but the House has not been given an update on it, or on Afghanistan generally, for some time. On 1 February, the Foreign Secretary made a statement to the House on Afghanistan, albeit in the context of the London conference, but the last statement on Afghanistan by the Prime Minister was in mid-December—almost three months ago. Since then, we have had the appointment of a new civilian representative—Mark Sedwill—as well as the launch of a major offensive in Helmand; speculation about a major offensive in Kandahar involving British forces; the relocation of British forces from Musa Qala to the area around Lashkar Gah; and visits by both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. Surely that warrants more frequent oral statements to the House, so that hon. Members can question the Government on that specific issue, rather than on the wider issues that we are debating today, although they will understandably expect the debate to focus on Afghanistan to some extent.
On the broader issues in Afghanistan, counter-insurgency is about protecting the population, and it requires a better force-to-population ratio than we currently have in Helmand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) mentioned in his intervention. That is why the expected uplift of American and Afghan troops by this summer is welcome. Most people agree that there needs to be a rebalance between United Kingdom and US areas of responsibility, even if that might mean concentrating Task Force Helmand’s assets into a smaller geographical area in central Helmand, in a similar arrangement to the one that has been announced for Musa Qala.
British troops have fought gallantly in Musa Qala since 2006, and the move that the Government have announced should not be interpreted in any way as a downgrading of the UK effort. Rather, it represents a better match between our resources and our commitments. It is essential that the United Kingdom plays a full role in Afghanistan, including a full military role, but it must be proportionate to our force strength and configuration. The announcement that British troops will be transferring Musa Qala to American forces is a sensible one for this country. We are part of a coalition, and the Americans obviously have vastly superior levels of resources and troops. Our roles must be set out according to our relative strengths.
Let me turn to the main topic of our debate. Since the last strategic defence review in 1998, the world has become a more dangerous place. Transnational terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the battle for cyberspace and the effects of climate change are all playing a part in destabilising the equilibrium of global security. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 completely altered the western view of global security. It is worth pointing out that an attack that cost al-Qaeda only $250,000 to stage ended up costing the United States economy alone $80 billion. That is the scale of the change that we have seen. Transnational terrorism continues to pose a real threat. Although largely defeated in Iraq, al-Qaeda is threatening the stability of Pakistan, the horn of Africa, south-east Asia and the Arabian peninsula—notably Yemen. On a visit to Saudi Arabia only last week, I was struck by the seriousness with which the authorities there are focusing on that threat.
On proliferation, while countries such as Libya have seemingly given up their ambitions for weapons of mass destruction, North Korea has successfully tested two nuclear bombs. Iran is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon, and continues to be a net exporter of terrorism and instability to its neighbours in the region and beyond. The nature and behaviour of the regime in Iran, and the risk of triggering a nuclear arms race in the middle east, are a cause of growing anxiety. In my view, this is the biggest emerging threat that we face. The possibility of state-on-state warfare—most recently demonstrated by the Russian invasion of Georgia and the subsequent occupation of 20 per cent. of its territory—cannot be ruled out, especially as the competition for scarce resources heats up in some of the world’s most unstable regions.
Other threats might seem remote to the British public, but if they were to become a reality, they would have a devastating effect on our way of life. The proliferation of biological weapons and their use by terrorist organisations and other non-state actors are a real threat. Nuclear terrorism, including the use of dirty bombs, is another. The House should make no mistake: we are already living in the era of the dirty bomb. The first ever attempted dirty bomb attack was carried out in Moscow by a group of Chechen terrorists. The bomb was not detonated, and it was later found by the police, but neither the terrorists nor the source of the caesium has ever been identified. None the less, the terrorists successfully sowed the intended seeds of fear in the minds of both the populace and the authorities. Nuclear proliferation, particularly in the middle east, needs to be seen in the context of that type of threat.
I shall come to that. I think that we need to consider the full range of threats at home and abroad.
On top of the issues that I have mentioned to do with biological weapons and dirty bombs, the use of an electromagnetic pulse device that could destroy all electronic communications infrastructure over a distance of hundreds of miles is also being considered and researched, and possibly being tested. All those different things need strategies to deal with them in the wider context of our security in a dangerous world. Like it or not, cyber warfare is a modern-day reality and attacks are increasing in both frequency and seriousness—from the mass attack on Estonia to the targeted attacks on British companies and institutions.
These threats are occurring on top of our contingent overseas operations, such as Afghanistan, maritime security in the Gulf and reacting to natural disasters such as the recent earthquake in Haiti. We know from bitter historical experience the difficulty of predicting future conflict, its nature or its location. We cannot base our future security on the assumption that future wars will be like the current ones. That is why we must maintain generic capability able to adapt to any changing threats.
The default position for the UK is and will be to operate as a partner within one alliance or another. However, the UK has unique national interests and we cannot always—nor should we always expect that we can—depend on our partners when Britain’s direct national interests are threatened. That is why I said that although we agreed with much of the process and the output of the Green Paper, we cannot accept its assumption that Britain will always operate as part of an alliance. Most of the time, we will engage in operations as part of a coalition, whether through NATO, the European Union or coalitions of the willing, but we have unique national interests and must maintain the unique capability to act on our own if required. That is why that has to be an essential part of the strategic defence review.
Considering the instability around the world, any defence and security review—increasingly, they are synonymous—must be carried out in a logical sequence. It must begin with our foreign policy priorities, outlining what we believe to be our national interests. We must then consider what we believe to be the threat environment in which those interests will exist so that we can try to determine the strategy we need to respond to them. Only then can we determine the military capabilities we will require in that threat environment and only then can we come to the specific equipment programmes that will make those capabilities a reality. Finally, we will have to confront the harsh facts of the economic climate in which we will have to operate given the catastrophic economic management of the current Government.
Of course, we could try to carry out the process the other way around, and it has been done many times in the UK. In other words, we could begin with the budget and see what we can buy for it. However, that would end up, as it has in the past, with unintended consequences for our foreign policy and our wider capabilities. We would have missed the opportunity to return some real empiricism and stability to policy making.
I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend deal with the subject matter of this debate in the context of a broader global landscape. Does he agree that it is important that we do not lock ourselves, through treaties or arrangements of the St. Malo-type, into grand visions that do not work? The most that we should be prepared to do, given his proper insistence on our national interests, is to enter into discussions, but we should certainly not lock ourselves into arrangements with the French, the Germans or anybody else.
The most important element is that the defence and security of the United Kingdom remain the sole preserve of the UK Government. We already have a defence alliance—it is called NATO. There might be a role for the European Union where NATO cannot or will not act, but it will always remain a secondary role. The cornerstone of our defence must be and will remain NATO, not least because it brings in the might of the American defence umbrella. The idea that we would leave behind the United States’ defence umbrella, knowing that some of the minor players in Europe, not least those who are neutral, would be there for us in our hour of need, seems to me a ludicrous way of taking forward defence in the United Kingdom.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and I have set out on a number of occasions what the foreign policy objectives of a forthcoming defence review under a Conservative Government would be. First, and obviously, we must be able to defend the United Kingdom against threats to our territorial integrity and our wider international interests. Those interests are both broad and deep in a globalised world, not least because we have an estimated 12 million British citizens living abroad. We are an international hub for financial activity and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the G8, the G20, the Commonwealth and the European Union, and we are a leading member inside NATO. Our domestic interest must also be protected. When required, the armed forces must be able to augment and support civil emergency organisations during times of crisis. Defending the UK also means maintaining key strategic tasks such as a continuous, at-sea, submarine-based nuclear deterrent based on the Trident missile system.
Secondly, we must be able to defend our 14 overseas territories, with the main focus rightly being on the Falklands. The legislation that was recently passed in Argentina, attempting to exert Argentine sovereignty over the Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and the British Antarctic Territory, is completely and utterly unacceptable. I hope that the Government are prepared for any contingency that could arise, although Argentina would be very foolish to test our national military capabilities, our state of readiness or our will to act. The Falkland Islands are and will remain British.
Thirdly, when required, we must be able to come to the aid of NATO allies in a significant way under our article 5 obligations. That, of course, requires the NATO strategic concept to be dealt with in a much clearer and more creative way than it has been in the past. That will be a major task for the Government after the general election.
Fourthly, we will need to be able to project power on a strategic level alongside the United States and France, which are without doubt our two most important defence and security partners. A future Conservative Government will continue to build on those relationships.
Fifthly, we will have to have the capacity to conduct extended stabilisation and nation-building exercises in order to provide stability and security, albeit as part of an international coalition. That will involve us working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development on conflict prevention.
Sixthly, we must be able to extend meaningful military co-operation with elevated bilateral relations. We need to continue to work closely with countries with shared, mutual interests and geostrategic importance, such as Norway and Turkey, or Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Where Britain has strategic interests that are better protected within elevated bilateral relationships, we should pursue them vigorously. As I have said, however, there can be no doubt that it will be the United States that remains our No. 1 strategic partner. When it comes to the European continent, on a bilateral, sovereign basis, France will be our No. 1 European partner given its willingness to spend on defence and to deploy its forces more than many others on the continent, with notable exceptions such as the Danes, the Estonians and the Dutch in Afghanistan. We will invite some key partners to make submissions to our defence review, and we will welcome contributions from those who see Britain as a key strategic partner.
Finally, we must be able to enhance UK influence by leveraging our natural national advantages, such as intelligence and our excellent special forces. We must understand the diplomatic and economic value of maximising defence exports and the good will generated by joint training exercises or expanded training capacity for overseas officers. Defence diplomacy is effective and it represents good value for money.
I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the potential for productive bilateralism with France, alongside our relationship with the United States, but does he agree that we must continue to exercise some caution? We shall not be able to share intelligence with the French as we do with the Americans, and there will be no incentive to share technology with them as there is with the Americans, until France has a long track record as a reliable NATO ally, which will take many years to build—although I very much hope that it will build.
That caution is certainly something that would have to be taken very seriously, but if we are able—especially during the presidency of President Sarkozy—to see France oriented more towards NATO, taking a more Atlanticist view of defence and security, it will be in the interests of the United Kingdom, NATO and, I suggest, France.
Globalisation means that Britain’s national interests no longer stop at Dover, Gibraltar or the Falklands. Consequently, globalisation has major implications for how we organise our national and international security structures and identify our threats. It goes without saying that the challenges that that represents to our armed forces are numerous and complex. The 21st-century strategic environment demands that western militaries are able simultaneously to conduct war fighting, peacekeeping, continuous deterrence—both conventional and nuclear—and humanitarian operations. It is a very different environment from that which our military faced in times gone by. Furthermore, that environment requires western Governments to supplement military operations through an array of soft-power tools, such as international aid, defence diplomacy, and the spread of information and ideas.
If the nature of the 21st century forces us—the west—to re-evaluate current war fighting, we should assume that our enemies are forced to do the same. It is in that context that we can understand the types of threat we are likely to face in defence in the world in the future. There is an ongoing debate in the UK on what form future warfare will take and how it will impact on the strategic defence and security review. For example, insurgencies are not a new phenomenon, despite what we sometimes read in our media; they have been fought in some form or another for hundreds of years. Our history books are littered with one insurgency or another—sometimes in the same place. The counter-insurgency operations being conducted in Afghanistan are not a guarantee of what warfare will look like in the future, but are in many senses a continuation of past trends.
As we scan the horizon now, there seems little prospect of the UK being involved in a direct state-on-state conflict, but there is always the possibility of the UK being dragged against our will into state-on-state warfare between other nations. Even state-on-state warfare would not necessarily take the same linear, symmetrical and conventional form it did in the 20th century. The current superiority of western conventional military might, coupled with the advantages offered by globalisation, has led our adversaries, not least in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the region, to look beyond the approach of choosing between conventional and asymmetric types of warfare, and to adopt a hybrid warfare approach instead.
The current direction of development in Chinese military thinking seems not to be to attempt to match America’s conventional capability but to develop the technology that will deny America access to its own capability. That represents a major change in how we will have to think. With hybrid warfare we should assume that our adversaries will simultaneously employ a mix of conventional weapons and irregular tactics that may include organised crime and acts of terrorism, both of which we have seen related to threats to the UK in the recent past. We must understand that the conflicts of the future will go beyond the conventional arena and threaten our social well-being, domestic infrastructure and economic capabilities. The taste of what we got on 9/11 was only the beginning of what we might taste in the future, and it is a very unpleasant menu.
It is clear that the commitments that we have already entered into with Taiwan should be honoured. We should regard the jury as being out on the military development in China. I hope that China will become an increasingly liberalised member of the international community, that we see democratic reform and further liberal market reform, and that China develops a defensive posture. On the other hand, it is impossible to rule out the fact that China might develop none of those, maintain its position as an autocratic state and try to develop offensive capabilities. We might find that China is a great opportunity; we might find that it is a tremendous threat. We would be wise to exercise caution until we are clear about exactly which direction China is taking, but we would also be sensible to extend a hand to China that says, “If you become part of the international community and play a constructive role, that will be welcomed by the west.”
When we consider the types of threat and of operation that may be mounted, it is instructive to look at what happened with Russia’s invasion of Georgia. It involved heavy armour, air strikes and ground troops, which is all very conventional, but it was augmented—in fact, preceded—by a surgical cyberattack on the Georgian Government and a sophisticated information operations campaign aimed at the Georgian people and the international community. Therefore, perhaps the biggest change that we need to make as we go into the years ahead, following whatever defence and security review we have, is an intellectual adjustment to the nature of both the threats facing us and our responses to them.
In the future, our investment—it might be difficult for politicians to sell this—may well be in defence technologies that we cannot see in the way that we were able to see naval fleets, armoured divisions or fighter squadrons. It will be a challenge to explain to the public why we have to apply such change in the light of the technological advances being made by those who threaten us. Therefore, saying that we can focus only on “the war” at the expense of “a war” is simply not good enough for the defence of the British people, but it would be an easy way out for any Government whose first and foremost responsibility ought to be the defence of the realm.
Will the hon. Gentleman and others reflect on the fact that while we can measure our nuclear strength, and even our conventional capacity, against potential adversaries, there is no mechanism for Parliament to understand whether we are ahead of the game in cyber warfare or lagging substantially behind, and what our investment is in research and development in that area? Parliament has not been told about that and we need to know.
We are here today to ask questions of the Government. These are the debates that the country needs to have. We need to focus a great deal more on the types of threat to us that will emerge in the future. I wonder whether the British public are aware of the extent of the cyber threats being faced by industry and our national institutions. I wonder whether they know that there was a dirty bomb in Moscow and whether they are aware of the organised crime that underpins the transnational terrorism that we face. There are many things that we need to face up to.
I remember writing a pamphlet on nuclear terrorism and offering it to one of the editors of our national newspapers as an exclusive. The reply was, “I could not possibly print that. Our readers would be terrified if they saw it.” That is exactly the point: we have to start to tell the public what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.
Many right hon. and hon. Members have had the privilege of being briefed on the threat posed by an electromagnetic pulse. If this country has the good fortune to have its defences run by my hon. Friend, will he undertake to receive representations during the strategic defence review on the threats posed by an electromagnetic pulse and on the potential answers, which are not that expensive?
As my right hon. Friend knows, other countries, notably the United States, have spent a lot of money protecting their critical national infrastructure from an EMP threat. That goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), and to the fact that I am not sure how widely appreciated that threat is. The Government did not state this, but I am sure that when they, under Tony Blair, brought to the House of Commons plans for the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, that threat was in their mind. If there is the threat of an EMP weapon that can take out critical infrastructure, the only way to maintain nuclear deterrence is to have a continuous at-sea deterrent somewhere very far away from our own shores, where we can maintain that posture. We need to get that across to the public so that they understand the need to maintain our nuclear deterrent, and a submarine-based deterrent at that.
On the important subject of cyber security, does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps we can learn lessons from the Americans, who have just appointed a four-star combatant commander to sit alongside commanders from the United States Central Command, Joint Forces Command and Southern Command, and others who advise the Defence Secretary and the President on cyber warfare? So serious is the issue that they now have a four-star general looking at that issue alone.
I detect in the House an appetite for further debate on the subject, and no doubt those hon. Members waiting to speak would thank me for not taking the debate further and instead leaving them to do so themselves. My hon. Friend is right: the issue will become bigger; it is live.
The Secretary of State acknowledges the size of the threat that we face, and of the frequency and the danger of the attacks that we are under. We as a country cannot avoid investing in the technologies that we require. As I said, we are talking about things that we cannot see, and it may not necessarily be easy to sell them to a sceptical electorate, but that is none the less what any Government who take our national security seriously will have to do.
As we face very wide ranges of challenges in global security, we will need to take a new political approach. The past 13 years have shown us that Labour has not only let down our armed forces, but failed to drive the radical change that is required inside the Ministry of Defence. The equipment programme has been grossly mismanaged and is underfunded by some £35 billion. We have had four Defence Secretaries in four years, one of whom was part time, even though we were heavily engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. No Secretary of State, however committed, can be on top of the complexity of the issues that we face when constantly being moved around by the Prime Minister as just another piece on the political chessboard.
The liability for that position lies with Tony Blair and the current Prime Minister for failing to give serial Secretaries of State the time or backing that they needed, politically or financially. We now know that the 1998 strategic defence review was never fully funded, and that troops were sent to Iraq without all the equipment that they required. As the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) said during the Chilcot inquiry, within the MOD
“there was quite a strong feeling”
that the 1998 SDR
“was not fully funded”.
Sir Kevin Tebbit said that, as permanent secretary, he had to operate under a permanent crisis budget. The former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Walker, said that the SDR was underfunded by almost £1 billion, and we all know that the helicopter budget was cut by £1.4 billion in 2004.
Only last week, the Prime Minister, who had been described as dissembling and disingenuous by former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, Lord Boyce and Lord Guthrie, told the House, and members of the armed forces and their families on the British Forces Broadcasting Service, that the defence budget is rising every year in real terms. Yet we now know that there has been a real-terms cut to the defence budget on four occasions since 1997—in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2007. The defence budget also fell below 1997 levels, again in real terms, on four occasions: ’98, ’99, 2000 and 2002. Our armed forces cannot afford, literally or figuratively, another five years of Labour.
The truth is that the Government are all over the place on defence. Next year, the interest on the debts that they have run up for this country will be one and a half times the defence budget. It took us 2006 years to run up the first £450 billion of debt in this country; it took them four years to run up the second £450 billion. That is what the country will have to live with. That is what our defences will have to operate within—the toxic economic legacy of Labour. The changes that our country faces are great; we need a new, Conservative Government.
I enjoyed the speech by the shadow Defence Secretary, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). It was wide-ranging, and included a lot of material that I have read in documents from the Royal United Services Institute and others. I did not quite understand his little rant at the end—this is not a Second Reading debate, and there are not many Members in the Chamber, although most of us are interested in security and defence issues. He was sufficient unto his moment, however, and I wish him well.
The debate is about defence in the world, and my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary focused a bit narrowly, if I may say so, on Afghanistan. I do not entirely blame him, because the attempts to change the Chilcot inquiry evidence given by the Prime Minister, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer when the Iraq conflict was launched, were fairly unworthy. I was genuinely surprised and concerned by the proncunciamentos from certain former senior officers, including chiefs of staff who are now Members of the other place. They have a right to speak—[Interruption.] Some say that they have a duty to speak, but if our soldiers decide to become party political animals when they retire, the relationship between the military and the Crown might alter, which should give us some cause for reflection. That is all that I would say.
I asked the House of Commons Library about the finances, and I have listened to the conflicting points of view that have been expressed today. I was told that the defence budget went up by 31 per cent. between 1997 and 2003—by 17 per cent. in real terms, which is about £7 billion extra on top of the steadily inflation-plus growing defence budget. I have never been able to understand why the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the time is blamed for the distribution of that money, having given our military many extra pounds and pennies.
We have 140 officers at the rank of general costing £6 million-plus leading our armed services across the Army, Air Force and Navy. We have a very good Ministry of Defence senior executive capability, who are also handsomely paid. It is surely their job, having been given the extra money, to decide how it should be spent. If Iraq and Afghanistan came de novo blindside, and had never happened before in recent military experience, it would be difficult to adapt, but we fought a war in Iraq in 1990. Our soldiers, who were stationed in the region, were knocking on Saddam Hussein’s door for several months before the invasion, and we have been in Afghanistan for nine years. On the whole, when we make a comparison with the beginnings of other conflicts, whether of the first or second world war, or other major military campaigns throughout our history, we can see that we begin poorly and finish well. Our armed forces adapt very, very quickly and invent new techniques.
I am not a military expert and I always defer to Opposition Members who have been serving officers, but I am at a loss to explain why all these generals, admirals and vice-marshals have been incapable between 2001 and today, or between 2003 and today, of restrategising and reprioritising. We have many more admirals than we have ships on deployment overseas. We have a large number of major-generals. I sat next to a major-general from the Irish Guards in a second-class compartment on the train from Doncaster last week. I do not mind how MPs travel or whom they meet on the train, but it is a rum show when a major-general from the Irish Guards has to travel on an off-peak cheap-day standard class return ticket to make modest economies for the military.
I do not want to focus on Afghanistan. Instead, I shall widen out to other geostrategic concerns. The hon. Member for Woodspring spoke about our enemies and adversaries, but he did not define them. I tried to tempt him to say whether China might be one in future. I agree entirely with his analysis. We want a liberal, friendly China, but undoubtedly the extraordinary rate of increase in its military prowess is very powerful.
The hon. Gentleman spoke warmly of President Sarkozy. We have seen some interesting remarks from the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition about Mr. Sarkozy and his height. The shadow Defence Secretary would never be accused of heightism, but he cannot seriously engage with France and appeal to France to be our ally while spending all his time attacking every article of French defence policy.
The French presidency, which takes over the European Union when the Spanish presidency finishes this July, wants to see the establishment of a new intervention force under PSC. I can see the eyes of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen glazing over at that bit of jargon. Now that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has left, let me tell them that PSC stands for permanent structure co-operation under the Lisbon treaty and is a very significant development in our common approach to European defence activity. The French presidency also wants greater contributions to the financing of European security and defence operations. Those are two examples of what France stands for—in other words, more common European authority and more money for Europe.
I am interested in the point about the funding of PSC. Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting a funding mechanism that sets down specific contributions according to GDP for each member of the European Union for PSC? If he envisages that or a different mechanism, what impact will that have on the rather pathetic levels of funding that some of those countries are making for their existing NATO obligations, without adding new ones?
I am making no comments; I am talking about what the French are proposing. If the Opposition are serious about their new desire for a bilateral relationship with France on security and defence matters, they will have to take that on board. I have read reports in which the shadow Defence Secretary was quoted to the effect that, in forging a bilateral relationship with France, we will sink the European Defence Agency. If he wants to correct me, I am happy to take the correction.
The French are fully committed to the European Defence Agency, as I believe we should be. It is preposterous that so many countries in Europe have their own procurement, research, development and implementation policies, so each country in Europe is making its different military vehicle, helicopter, rifle and even, at times, bullet. That seems to me to be an absurdity. We in Europe are rich in men, if we take on board Turkey, but we are very weak and poor in kit.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. As he knows, I am no fan of the EDA. Leaving aside the European element of the European Defence Agency, why should countries such as the United Kingdom, which has a large private sector research budget, want to share intellectual property with countries that do not invest in such defence capability?
It is roughly for the same reason why, on the day that the Falklands war broke out 28 years ago, the very first call received by Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, was from François Mitterrand, offering her all the details, capabilities and research technology behind the Exocet and the Super Etendard. He understood instantly what was at stake. The rumour goes—I am sure it is only a rumour—that within a day, British arms salesmen were going round their clients saying, “You see what happens if you buy from the French? They betray their secrets to someone else.”
I am very interested, because a crucial issue is coming up. The right hon. Gentleman suggests that we would not have had those problems had we had a common procurement policy in Europe. If he is suggesting that the EDA should become a common procurer, that is a very different argument from the one currently put forward by EDA proponents.
I am making one simple point: on the issue of our soldiers and those of our allies in Europe who are prepared to fight, patrol and take containment measures alongside us, the notion that we can have 27 separate procurement policies—46, if we enlarge the number to include the Council of Europe—is just not sustainable.
I do not want to clog up this debate, because other hon. Members want to speak. Will Opposition Members allow me to make a few points? I shall try to compress what I would like to say.
Whenever I, as a NATO Parliamentary Assembly member, go to Washington, I find that the comments and suspicions that undoubtedly existed eight, nine or 10 years ago about European defence capabilities—hugely fuelled, let it be said, by the speeches, pamphlets and comments that the hon. Member for Woodspring has energetically produced over the years—have all evaporated. Now, four-star generals, senior members of the State Department and the Department of Defence tell me that the United States wants a more coherent European approach.
Today, in Latvia, there are processions commemorating the Waffen SS division from Latvia which fought in world war two alongside the Nazis. One of the Opposition’s new party allies will be taking part in those celebrations. The Conservatives cannot insult Mr. Sarkozy, Mrs. Merkel and the other leaders of Europe’s centre-right parties by pulling their party out of a formal political alliance or family grouping with them and expect to be taken seriously. Therefore, when I hear the Opposition say that they have suddenly fallen in love with France, that all the jokes about France are inoperative and that all the xenophobia and contempt for France that we have heard from them in recent years is inoperable, I think that most French policy makers would take it with a big pincée de sel—pinch of salt.
I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman’s wandering ramblings about defence policy, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) was trying to say that very few countries in Europe actually procure. The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to put the figure at 27 members, because France is the main, big procurer, and that is why we are seeking better bilateral relations. To push that apart into a wider European policy seems rather pointless when we already have NATO.
I am sorry but the Italians produce helicopters, the Germans produce tanks and—if the Opposition are serious about taking power, they really will have to educate themselves—a number of European countries produce different naval vessels.
Let us move on to the wider strategic questions. Who are our adversaries and enemies? I agree about cyber terrorism, terrorism generally and failed states, but I am not sure that it is the job of military forces to make successful such states. I am also very concerned that, under this Government and without any clear thinking from the Opposition parties, we do not have an holistic approach to bring together all our foreign policy players—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development, the different Departments that spend money overseas and, of course, the Ministry of Defence.
Our soldiers very bravely stopped the most awful butchery in Sierra Leone some 11 years ago, and today that country is the biggest per capita recipient of DFID aid. I am sure that the DFID people down there work very well, but why, after 11 years, is Sierra Leone the poorest country in Africa, despite the huge DFID and modest military presence? We have to ask much harder questions about our overseas aid. I say that to my hon. Friends, too, who to some extent just bow before the contemporary political god of foreign aid and do not ask searching and hard enough questions about whether it delivers what we desire—not simply the alleviation of poverty, which in many sub-Saharan countries has not happened, but better governance and more stability.
Does my right hon. Friend agree, though, that the Ministry of Defence, in promoting the comprehensive approach, along with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID, has moved considerably, particularly on Afghanistan? When I recently visited Afghanistan with the Defence Committee, we were told that our provincial reconstruction team in Helmand set the example of the best performance of such teams across the whole of the country. Does he agree that we are in fact making progress in this area and showing a way forward?
I am always happy to say that British is best, but I do not want to focus too much on Afghanistan. I am worried that more of our soldiers have died there than died in the Falklands, and considerably more than the number who fell in Iraq. That is often described as President Bush’s war, but the successful election that has just been held there suggests that we may now be moving towards a more stable Iraq. Yes, there will be violence and explosions; for heaven’s sake, the British isles have known plenty of those in the past 30 or 40 years. However, I always now say to Iraqi asylum seekers who come to see me: “You can go home. You can return with the English you’ve learned; you no longer need to demand the right to settle and stay permanently in our country.”
We need to look at other parts of the world. The glaciers and ice around the north pole are melting at a ferocious rate, and very soon we will have warm water there. That is warm water not in the sense that you and I would go swimming in it, Madam Deputy Speaker, but in the sense that it is fully accessible to merchant and other naval vessels from China, Japan and Korea going to Europe and right through to Canada and the United States. Alongside that new waterway, we have some powers whose commitment to settling differences by peaceful negotiation and resolution under international law or methods that are democratic is, to put it mildly, open to question. Therefore, among our priorities over the next period, let us not underestimate the importance of the Royal Navy. We will need to have a northern dimension to our foreign and security policy before long, and we should be thinking hard about it now.
I do not want to keep teasing the shadow Defence Secretary about my favourite country, France, but he spoke so warmly of Tory-French relationships that I wonder whether he would care to comment—although we cannot make this a duet—on the fact that the French Government have just sold four Mistral helicopter and troop-carrying warships to Russia. The admiral in charge of the Russian fleet in the Black sea has said, “If we’d had these warships during the Georgian conflict, what took us some 40 hours we could have done in 25 minutes.” In exchange, Russia is selling arms galore to Venezuela and Nicaragua, and has offered military aid to Guatemala. I do not know whether this is a new form of the old trade triangle, whereby the French sell their hi-tech kit to the Russians, causing great concern in the Baltic regions and around the Black sea littoral states, and in exchange the Russians sell their kit to southern American countries, causing further problems of stability there. If we are to engage with our French friends on that matter, we need to be more fully engaged in Europe.
We also need to explain to our nation as a whole—I do not think that we have done so—what is at stake in our military presence in far-flung corners of the world. The support when the coffins come back is clearly enormous, but are we articulating sufficiently, with clarity and authority, the fact that 21st-century Britain must maintain a defence profile and must be involved in security and defence issues around the world? I say to many of my hon. Friends and, above all, to the utterly irresponsible Liberal Democrat party, that we cannot afford to give up our nuclear deterrent. I have just come from the funeral of Michael Foot in Hampstead. Michael was passionate about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I am a huge admirer of his, but on that he was wrong. It would be the utmost folly for my party to think that the British people are ready to sign up to any significant reduction in our deterrent capability.
We must also consider whether we as parliamentarians are sufficiently engaged in defence debates. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that any chatter from the Foreign Office that the very modest funding for the Western European Union might be reduced or removed will be wrong. It is important, as Members of all parties take part in it and learn about defence issues. I should also like to see a stronger NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation after the election. I say to the Clerks, a very distinguished representative of whom is sat at the Table, that some of the proposals to make working at the assembly more difficult, onerous and unpleasant are not to be encouraged.
In passing, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who is standing down at the next election. He was a distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence and a distinguished leader of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation, and we will sorely miss him.
May I place on record, I think on behalf of the Defence Committee and probably also on behalf of the whole House, the fact that the contribution of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) to the defence of this country has been utterly outstanding and beyond compare?
I obviously believe firmly that if we are returned to power with a handsome majority, the defence of our nation will be secure in the hands of my party, as it was under Ernest Bevin and Denis Healey and has been since 1997 under successive Defence Secretaries and Foreign Secretaries. In case for any reason that majority is not quite as handsome as I might wish, I say to the Conservatives that they have not served the cause of the defence of our realm by their chipmunk moaning and groaning about every aspect of defence policy. There has been some playing of politics. I am as partisan as the next man, and it is a difficult matter—Lord Salisbury famously said, “If you listen to the doctors you are never healthy; if you listen to the theologians you are never saved, and if you listen to the generals you are never safe.” I believe that this Government and our armed services have helped preserve the safety of our nation in recent years. Whatever happens, if I am returned to this place I will continue to give them my full support.
I welcome this opportunity to take part in a debate on defence in the world, and I am glad that the Government have found time for such a debate in the last few weeks of this Parliament. I start, as others have, by paying tribute to all those who serve in our armed forces, thanking them for their courage and dedication, often in very difficult circumstances, and sending condolences to the families of those who have recently lost their lives or suffered injuries serving this country. We pay tribute to all of them.
There are serious decisions to be made about defence, some of which will perhaps be taken during and as a consequence of the general election. It is probably even more true that the big decisions will be taken and debated in the year that follows, during the strategic defence review that all parties have agreed is essential. In the course of that review there will be changes, and we must above all ensure that our forces are adequately protected and that our collective security is guaranteed in whatever configuration emerges at the end of the process.
Recent headlines have sometimes made it seem that there is a gulf between what the Government are doing and what the service chiefs, personnel, specialists and even the British public are saying. In Iraq, the recent parliamentary election has been praised as a milestone in Iraq’s history. It was the second parliamentary election in seven years, and it has broadly been properly conducted, but the scope of the accompanying violence cannot be overlooked. At least 37 people were killed in 136 attacks, mostly in Baghdad, which consequently experienced, at 53 per cent., the lowest voter turnout of any province. While triumphal assessments are being made of the election as passing successfully and with little disruption, the reality of Iraq’s continuing instability, and its potential to derail the country’s political development, should not become simply an afterthought.
As for Afghanistan, we have already heard much in course of the debate about Operation Moshtarak. We have been in Afghanistan for nine years, throughout which period our troops deserve praise for their service and dedication in everything they have done. When we hear first hand the accounts from service personnel when they come back, we realise what an incredible task they are undertaking on our behalf, usually in the most trying of circumstances, ranging from searing heat to freezing cold, and extraordinarily difficult geography and terrain. There is no doubt about the scale of the challenge that we continue to face, and the problems of strategy, equipment and personnel all remain.
Operation Moshtarak is the most important campaign in Afghanistan since the original invasion in 2001. We are not going to win in Afghanistan in military terms alone, so it is very reassuring that NATO allies are beginning to take this sentiment seriously. It is to be hoped that the battle for hearts and minds will, crucially, turn a corner. With the most likely next phase of the operation being a planned offensive in Kandahar, a key Taliban stronghold, maintaining the coalition’s momentum while minimising civilian casualties and maintaining public perception of the offensive is going to be quite a tall order.
Last week, the assistant deputy coroner dealing with the cases of Corporal Sarah Bryant, Corporal Sean Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Private Paul Stout reached a striking verdict of unlawful killing, citing a shortage of more suitable off-road vehicles and the inadequacy of training for detecting improvised explosive devices. We should all take stock of that. Crucial shortages mean that we are still not taking sufficient measures to equip our troops properly to do the job in Afghanistan. It is shocking that the Ebex metal detector became available to those soldiers who died only four months into their deployment, up to which point the soldiers had to scan the ground for IEDs. Everybody is aware that IEDs are the biggest single threat facing our troops and failure to provide them with enough metal detectors is simply unforgivable.
I very much welcome the fact that at the London conference on Afghanistan, President Karzai changed his tune to recognise the need for the political solution alongside the military effort. Announcing his peace jirga, he spoke of inviting to talks those Taliban interested in making peace. I very much hope that that will begin the process of political dialogue, which we all hope will in due course—no one should imagine it will come quickly—lead to some sort of lasting political settlement.
It is quite clear to me that stability will not come to Afghanistan quickly, so our efforts should also look to forming an international strategy that effectively engages the regional players for a wider peace. There will be no long-term or sustainable peace without the co-operation of a contact group of neighbouring forces such as Pakistan, India, Russia, Iran and other stakeholders such as Saudi Arabia. At the London conference, more than 75 nations and international organisations, including representatives from all Afghanistan’s neighbours, were in attendance. All those neighbours are engaged in regional co-operation, and most are affected by the crime, drugs, terrorism and migration that spills out over Afghanistan’s borders.
Speakers in the debate have already referred to the Falklands. I repeat others’ comments to make it clear that there is an all-party view on the issue. Britain’s assertion that the Falkland islanders’ sovereignty is not up for negotiation must be absolute. Any Argentine offensive would have to be met with force. It would be a spectacular error on the part of Argentina if it were to launch any offensive, but it is vital to prepare for such a contingency.
The strategic defence review is essential, and long overdue. It is 12 years since the last one, and nine years into the so-called war on terror, so it is clear that some fundamental questions need to be asked again. In my view, the review must tussle with three or four key questions, the first of which is what kind of power the UK wants to be, and where on the spectrum of force projection we see ourselves. In the previous strategic defence review, we concluded that Britain wanted to be a force for good around the world, that we were committed to expeditionary warfare, that we were a willing coalition partner, and that we saw the role of our armed forces as a great deal more than simply defence of the realm. Despite the difficult experiences of the past 10 years, I believe that that was the right conclusion, and that that should remain our strategic position, but it is only right that the question should be addressed afresh in the course of a strategic defence review.
We must also decide what we are committed to do on our own and what we are prepared to do in concert with others, because sustaining quite so comprehensive a range of capability as we have had in the past may no longer be feasible. We must consider what the balance should be between preparing our armed forces for the wars of today and preparing for the engagements that we can anticipate. We must consider what contingency planning we need to do for the possibility of state-on-state warfare re-emerging in years to come, and ensure that we configure our forces in the right way to meet that.
However, if a strategic defence review is to be genuinely strategic, it must be comprehensive. A review would be undermined before it began if there were exceptions and exemptions from its scope. Everything—absolutely everything—including the replacement of Trident on a like-for-like basis, must be included. We must re-evaluate every commitment, including the amount spent on staffing and the remarkable number of top brass retained at the MOD, some of whom are a long way from having any meaningful field operation or duty. A comprehensive strategic defence review is the vehicle for that, but it would be neutered beforehand if a raft of exemptions pre-empted it—that would make it neither comprehensive nor strategic.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his usual courtesy in giving way. As I understand it, both the Government and the Opposition have said that there will be only one exemption from the strategic defence review: we have said that there will be a strategic nuclear deterrent when the review is over. Do the Liberal Democrats share that view, or do they want that question put into the review?
I thought that the Government and Opposition had said rather more than that—I thought that they had said that they were absolutely hellbent on the method of sustaining the nuclear deterrent that was distilled in the White Paper—and, indeed, subsequently voted through the House. If the hon. Gentleman’s question was more broadly whether the nuclear deterrent should be included in the review, I must say that it should be. The Liberal Democrats have said nothing to the effect that we believe a decision should be taken at this stage to cancel the deterrent. The position is as stark as the Conservatives’ posture suggests only if one subscribes to the belief that the only possible way in which to sustain a nuclear deterrent past the late 2020s or early 2030s is through the mechanism that the Government devised in their White Paper. I do not believe that that is the case. It is therefore only right and proper that the decision taken at that time should be covered by the strategic defence review.
Let me make the Conservatives’ position crystal clear. Our position is that outwith the terms of reference of the review, there will be a strategic nuclear deterrent, and it will be submarine based. As far as I know, there are only two possibilities for a submarine-based strategic nuclear deterrent: ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. I do not mind looking at cruise missiles again, but I would be amazed if they were found to be viable. What is the hon. Gentleman’s position? Is he saying that, in the unlikely event of the Liberal Democrats’ leader becoming Prime Minister, there will be a strategic nuclear deterrent?
We have a nuclear deterrent. It is there, it is paid for, and it has another 20 years of life in it. The point is that the hon. Gentleman already seems hellbent—now, here, in 2010—on deciding that there should continue to be a nuclear deterrent during the 30 years between 2030 and 2060. He view appears to believe that that should happen irrespective of any other development in any part of the globe. He has already made that decision, and in so doing has held in contempt the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which calls on the nuclear states to use their best offices and sincere endeavours to negotiate away nuclear deterrents over a period of time.
I cannot say now what the strategic environment will be in 2030 with any more certainty than the hon. Gentleman can. What I can make clear is this: while it is certainly not the Liberal Democrats’ view that we should do away with our nuclear deterrent in the aftermath of the election, it is ludicrous to conduct a review of our defences that we portray as strategic, long-term and tackling fundamental questions, if a precondition of the debate that is to take place is an absolute certainty that, irrespective of anything that happens in the world, we are hellbent on being a nuclear power for the 30 years between 2030 and 2060. I am not saying that the Government have said that; I am saying that that is what the hon. Gentleman said last time he rose to speak at the Dispatch Box.
As I rise to speak at the Dispatch Box again, let me say this to the hon. Gentleman. The nuclear deterrent that we shall require to replace the existing nuclear deterrent will take a long time to construct. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that he can wait 10 or 15 years before deciding whether or not to start building the next generation of nuclear deterrent, he is taking us, and the electorate, for fools. As for the commitment in the non-proliferation treaty, nothing in the treaty requires us to get rid of our nuclear weapons as long as other countries have nuclear weapons too, and that is something that my party will never do.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
No one is saying that we should close off the option for future Governments now, but it makes nonsense of a strategic review to take the position adopted by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), and to say that, come what may, we will remain a nuclear power for all those decades.
What we do know is that the context of the strategic defence review will be driven largely by finance. We know that whoever wins the election, the Treasury will make life difficult for the Ministry of Defence, especially in the light of the public deficit. All of us in the defence community within the political sphere will have to kick up rough to help to keep the Treasury at bay.
One of the critical elements with which the strategic defence review will have to grapple is undoubtedly procurement. Bernard Gray’s devastating report last October highlighted how far off the mark we are when it comes to ensuring that projects proceed on budget or on time.
We had some exchanges earlier about the impact of certain procurement decisions involving jobs. Of course the state of the British defence industry and jobs is important, but three priorities are involved in the making of procurement decisions: we must have absolutely the best equipment for our armed forces, there must be value for money for the taxpayer, and we must sustain and support the British defence industry and jobs. The three priorities come in that order. The first is military, the second financial, and the third industrial. It is perfectly possible for armed forces the size of ours to sustain a meaningful defence industry, but we should not allow the tail to wag the dog.
The hon. Gentleman’s speech has been very interesting so far, but will he now remind me of the Liberal Democrat position in relation to the aircraft carriers, which he explained so movingly to the trade unionists who came down to visit him a couple of weeks ago?
The position on the aircraft carriers is the same as it has always been. We believe that absolutely everything should be covered by the strategic defence review; of course, that includes the carriers. We supported the Government when they took the decision to commission the carriers and we continue to support the work that is going on in building them. We believe that the strategic posture of being committed to expeditionary warfare is the right one, so the flexible use of aircraft carriers has a large part to play in that. We would have thought it unlikely that a strategic defence review that will commence its work this summer and then carry it out over a year or so would think it a remotely practical or sensible option to cancel carriers upon which so much has already been invested and so much work done. Nevertheless, I repeat that everything is to be considered by a strategic defence review if it is to be meaningful.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he does not intend to examine the break clauses in contracts on day one of a Liberal Government, or a Liberal-somebody else coalition, with a view to either cancellation or pressing the pause button, so that no work is continued until the defence review is completed, which seems to be the view of the Conservatives?
Certainly not. We have no intention of doing some quick and dirty defence review on the back of a fag packet before the real one takes place. All aspects of the procurement programme will be looked at in a measured way during a strategic defence review, which is only right and proper.
To give the hon. Gentleman credit, the one policy that has been thought about in detail over a long period is the Liberal Democrat policy of signing up to a Euro army—a policy that I think is gravely mistaken. Does he accept that unless the Liberal Democrats recant of this heresy, it would mean that the British Army would be reduced even further?
I know nothing of any such policy as the one that the hon. Gentleman describes as admirably consistent. Let me make it perfectly clear: the Liberal Democrats remain completely committed to NATO and believe that NATO and the United States are our critical military allies. But we can see that the countries of Europe cannot possibly expect the United States to make as much provision for our security in the next 50 years as they have in the last 50. The United States has every right to expect Europeans to do more on our own behalf and to shoulder more of the responsibility for our collective defences, and it is incumbent on us to do so.
Therefore it will remain the case that people joining the British armed forces will join just that—the British armed forces. However, on different occasions they might find themselves deployed under the flag of the United Nations or of NATO, or, in other circumstances, as part of a European force, as they already have been in Bosnia and are being deployed in other parts of the world. I do not think that anybody should have any hang-ups about that. It is an entirely healthy thing, and I hope that the Europeans, in years and decades to come, will shoulder more responsibility in looking after our own defences. We in Europe have a larger population, and a larger GDP, than America and it is wrong for us to expect the Americans to do so much on our behalf. In the years to come, we must do more on our own behalf.
There is a problem. We know that the black hole in the defence budget is variously estimated at between £21 billion and £35 billion. The British taxpayer deserves to know how much debt he or she is expected to carry and the attitude of denial—we have heard about MOD witnesses being unwilling to give candid answers to questions—is simply unacceptable. We will not get the procurement budget under national control until we open procurement up to much more detailed parliamentary scrutiny, such as many other western democracies take for granted. Things are far too secretive and opaque, and letting the sunlight in will help to bring the budget under control. The strategic defence review must determine the future of procurement; it must also be considered in the context of wider questions, such as what we want the armed forces overall to do.
We have touched on the nuclear issue. We are approaching the eighth non-proliferation treaty conference in New York this May. It needs to be made clear what the Government are hoping to see as an outcome from that, and also what we are prepared to offer during the conference to try to achieve that outcome.
While Russia and the US continue to discuss possible cuts of up to a quarter in their nuclear arsenals, the UK Government are unwilling even to review their nuclear policy during the course of the strategic defence review. Of course the UK must look towards a multilateral process for our eventual disarmament, but at present that goal seems ever more distant. Similarly, despite the supposed urgency of the replacement decision back in 2006, the Government seem happy to push back the initial gate decision, which was originally scheduled for last December, and there are now concerns that these delays will leave less time to debate the subsequent main gate decision, which, according to the National Audit Office, threatens the overall programme timetable by increasing the technical and commercial risk. Overall, we need to be asking serious questions about the role of our nuclear deterrent, and whether we are going about delivering it in the most effective way.
The Government’s record on defence leaves a great deal to be desired. We keep hearing from them that no specific requests from the military have been turned down. That may be literally true, but it is a misleading assertion, because any specific requests from the armed forces are made only in the context of the financial straitjacket within which they know they are operating. We also hear about the additional moneys that the Treasury contributes to the conflict in Afghanistan, and previously the conflict in Iraq, but the problem with is that it is only really contributing to the marginal and additional costs of those conflicts, not to the total cost.
To use an analogy, if I ask a very good friend to drive me up to Scotland on a matter of life and death and offer to pay for the petrol for the journey, they may consider that that has covered the cost of the excursion, but if I do that time and again, that will eventually take a toll on their car, which will also have to be addressed. I believe that that is exactly the analogy we should draw in respect of what the Government have done. The Treasury has given additional moneys to cover the marginal costs, but no stock has been taken of the depleted capital of the Ministry of Defence, or the effect on its equipment and its manpower. There will be a lasting painful legacy from our undertaking two operations during the course of this decade without adequate resource underpinning them, and we will feel it for many years to come.
I am delighted that there will finally be a strategic defence review, but there must also be a defence procurement programme in place to support our troops—our servicemen and women—and ensure that they are properly equipped to do the job. We have to make sure that that is the case, and that they are properly equipped to do the job we send them out to do.
First, may I pay tribute to the service personnel who have lost their lives over the past year? This time last year, many of them were from Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall, serving in 29 Commando and the Royal Marines. This year, the Rifles—including Devon and Dorset—have lost a number of personnel. Although we do not forget about those who are injured, of course; we must ensure that we take them into account, too, as well as their families and close friends who support them.
I was a little confused by the contribution on behalf of the Liberal Democrats by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), as I always am when he speaks about the strategic nuclear deterrent, because all the issues he raises as questions were addressed in the White Paper. It looked at the alternatives, and dismissed them for very good reasons. What I find of most concern, however, is that a Devon Member seems to display such an absence of understanding of how significant and fragile the skills base is that contributes to the maintenance of the current nuclear deterrent and its future design. In respect of the House’s 2006 decision, that is tantamount to a unilateralist position of not going forward with the deterrent.
Is the hon. Lady seriously suggesting that we should sustain a nuclear deterrent—or a particular configuration of one—because of its impact on the industrial skills base? That is an extraordinary argument. Surely the one must follow the other. We cannot have a nuclear deterrent in order to sustain jobs.
The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the position very substantially. The purpose of the nuclear deterrent is not to keep the work force in place for its own sake. The point is that we probably could not ever bring that work force back into being if we were to let them go. That was the whole point—or at least one of the substantial points—of making the decision in 2006.
The hon. Gentleman also took part in the debate on the equipment stories that—partly thanks to inaccurate attacks by the Tories in the press—have been dominating the news. The Government are committed to ensuring that our troops have the right kit to carry out their responsibilities, although new vehicles and armour are certainly not the whole answer. We have to be among the people to be successful in a counter-insurgency struggle. Military operational commanders have repeatedly stressed the importance of having a range of vehicles from which they can select the most appropriate for a specific task.
In the past three years alone, the Government have approved more than £1.7 billion of work on new vehicles for operations. That has included 280 Mastiffs, which offer world-leading protection against mines and roadside bombs, and the new Ridgback vehicles that will go out later this year. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition has admitted that the Government have made good progress. On Sky News, on 18 August 2009, he said:
“On the issue of troop carrying vehicles I think great progress has been made and I pay tribute to the government for that”.
However, there is an election in the air.
Can the hon. Lady explain why the British Army went through operational exercises Saif Sareea 1 and 2—in 2001 and 2002, if my memory serves me correctly—to practice armed action in a desert environment in Oman? Given the time it took to get equipment to Iraq, why did we not start purchasing it earlier? Why did we have to wait all that time for urgent operational requirements to supply our troops once they were in field, in theatre and in battle? Why was the equipment not available before they went there?
My recollection of Saif Sareea 2 was that it happened immediately before the Iraq invasion. Indeed, one of the lessons learned from it was that, because of the wear and tear not only on the Snatch vehicles but on all types of vehicles, such vehicles needed to be commissioned. Indeed, that is what happened.
The most recent land vehicle issues have related to the evolution of improvised explosive devices. I recall that, when we were on a Defence Committee visit in 2006, we met a couple of young men who had recently been responsible for going into a property in Basra and listing the variety of IEDs, which were only just beginning to be used at that time. The types of vehicles that would need to be deployed changed as a result of that.
The hon. Lady has served on the Defence Committee for a long time, and I know that she will want to be completely accurate in the record that she sets before the House today. The IED threat has emerged in the transition from Iraq to Afghanistan. Is it not the case that, in Afghanistan, Snatch Land Rovers and other lightly armoured vehicles have needed to be up-armoured under urgent operational requirements, even as a response to the threat from RPG-7 rocket launchers, which are not IED threats?
In trying to respond to the points raised by Opposition Members, my hon. Friend is putting herself into the position of our generals and senior MOD officials. One of the most moving parts of General Mike Jackson’s memoir tells of an IED blowing up paratroopers in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. This is not new. The real question—which I am prepared to ask, as I am not part of the defence establishment—is: why have all our generals, air marshals and admirals not taken the responsibility themselves to allocate the budget in a way that best serves their troops? Why is all this the fault of my hon. Friend, or of the Minister for the Armed Forces? Indeed, why is it the fault of Opposition Members?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I was going to make that point later. It is remarkable that people can look at what has happened with the wisdom of hindsight, and from a rather jaundiced point of view, when they were not prepared to speak up at the time. We have only to look back at the evidence given to the Defence Committee to find out that no one was particularly forthcoming on these issues, or on expenditure issues. The House needs to address that matter and get to the bottom of it.
Improvised explosive devices remain the greatest threat in Afghanistan, but that issue must be addressed not only by armoured vehicles but, for the reasons I was outlining, by the tactics, techniques and procedures used by our troops on operations to enable them to avoid and detect mines and IEDs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is right to refer to Northern Ireland, because a great deal of our experience there has been used in developing counter-insurgency techniques for Afghanistan. Comprehensive pre-deployment training is provided for all troops deployed to Afghanistan, and when personnel arrive in theatre, they are provided with further reception training, a large part of which concentrates on IED recognition and avoidance.
Urgent operational requirements have been approved for more hand-held mine detectors, in addition to new explosive disposal robots, 30 of which are already in operation. Further investment has also been approved in that area. There is also a 200-strong counter-IED taskforce, which has new equipment to find and defuse mines and IEDs, and to identify and target the networks that are laying them.
In addition to the current focus on Afghanistan and on war-fighting operations, the Green Paper and the strategic defence review must take into account the importance of defence diplomacy and the long-term strategic role of our armed forces in representing British interests on the world stage, supporting the work of the Foreign Office and forging links with other countries, as well as looking at the way in which aid can support all that work. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham has referred to that issue.
The Green Paper sets out the key questions on our role in defence in the world that the strategic defence review will need to address. Where should we set the balance between focusing on our territory and region, and engaging threats at a distance? If we are working at a distance, what are the lessons to be learned and their implications? What contribution should the armed forces make in ensuring security and contributing to resilience in the UK? How can we better use the armed forces in support of wider efforts to prevent conflict and strengthen international stability? Do our international defence and security relationships need rebalancing in the long term? We have already heard some views on that. Should we adapt the current relationships, or do we need additional ones? Of course, the main effort remains—and no doubt will remain when the strategic defence review comes before the House—the situation in Afghanistan. That main effort is being deployed, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, with consequences that we will have to cope with in the rest of our defence policy and posture.
“Adaptability and Partnership” is the title of the Green Paper and nothing contributes to our forces’ adaptability more than the Royal Navy. A lot of the statements that have been flying around in the context of Afghanistan, the run-up to the election and the strategic defence review have suggested that the lessons of the last strategic defence review have not been fully understood by some, especially how our capabilities have been modernised through “jointery”, which enables the Navy to adapt to every level of landlocked conflict while maintaining all its standing roles.
In some of the previous debates in this place and outside it, there has been a danger of people being somewhat Army-centric because of Afghanistan.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that that approach is somewhat misguided—I am sure that is the point she is about to make—given that at one point 40 per cent. of the forces on the ground in Afghanistan were Royal Navy forces?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend’s point, which relates to the whole issue of the future role of the Royal Navy. The aircraft carriers are central to the Navy’s current adaptable role, and I cannot see in any form of future threat analysis that such adaptability would be surplus to requirements. On the future surface combatant—the Type 26, as it has now been designated, was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) in an earlier intervention—I hope we are coming closer to deciding what the design will be, and therefore closer to knowing whether one of the variants could be based at Devonport, where we have an important skills base not just for the nuclear deterrent but for ship repair and maintenance. Of course, we will want to put forward the argument that there is no sense in putting all our eggs in one basket as far as base-porting is concerned—and especially not in a basket such as the congested port a little further along the coastline.
Recent issues associated with the availability of ships for Haiti and the Falklands demonstrate the need, over technical capability, for the numbers that the simple variant of the Type 26 could provide. It is perhaps not surprising, given that the Navy’s natural habitat is the oceans that make up 70 per cent. of our globe, that the Navy should take an interest in climate change not only in terms of preparing its armed forces to work in changing climate conditions, but of anticipating the impact that climate change will have on the nature of conflict and the context in which it might occur.
The Defence Committee, on which I serve, had a recent interesting briefing from Rear Admiral Morisetti, who has been appointed for a period to consider and prepare for these issues. I hope that some of the work he is doing will surface and become part of the work that feeds into the strategic defence review.
Many Departments of State are signing up to the 10:10 campaign. I understand that, for instance, the Foreign Office, the Home Office, the Department for International Development and many other Departments have done so. The Secretary of State for Defence has pledged his support for the initiative and encouraged individual sites to sign up, but so far only the Royal School of Signals has done so—and well done to it, but a more genuine, extended commitment from the MOD would be welcome and is, indeed, absolutely necessary. If my hon. Friend the Minister cannot deal with the issue when he responds, I hope that somebody will write to me about how 10:10 is being pursued in the MOD. I do not underestimate the scale of the task, because 1 per cent. of our land mass—as well as a huge number of properties—is the responsibility of the MOD.
The Navy is also pivotal in dealing with piracy. Many Devonport warships have been involved in recent times in operations in Somalia, Yemen and so on. That underlines the importance of international co-operation. A ship that falls prey to piracy could be sailing from a port in one country to a port on the other side of the world; it could be owned by a third country and crewed by people from all over the world, sailing through international waters. That is precisely why there is a role for Europe in defence.
I also took note of the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham about the importance of alliances and the bigger role that might perhaps be played by the Parliamentary Assemblies of NATO and the Western European Union. I would add the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to that list. There has been much debate over the question of burden sharing in this Parliament, and I sometimes wonder whether, with more organisation, we parliamentarians might not play a more focused role in trying to shine the spotlight on that.
In reforming the House, we have voted to give greater independence to Select Committees, allowing them to vote for their Chairs in future. If our party does not get the handsome majority to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham referred in future Parliaments —perhaps that might not happen immediately, but at some future point—we would need to consider as a House how we scrutinise defence and how the Government carry out such scrutiny, as well as the role that a Defence Committee could play. I want to draw hon. Members’ attention towards our report, produced in a previous Session, on the future of NATO and European security and defence policy. We looked at how things were done in other countries and, with the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), I went to Copenhagen. It was interesting to see how, with a hung Parliament, they were able to carry out defence scrutiny in a way that had some consistency over the period of a Parliament. With all parties having committed to a strategic defence review in each Parliament, we might also need to consider, as a House and as a Defence Committee, how we perform our scrutiny role in evolving a defence policy that can have the support of the whole House over a period of time.
There will be huge challenges to be faced in that future Parliament. Budget constraints are unlikely to ease. I say unlikely, but I cannot see any circumstances in which they will ease, even if we argued for defence to be better recognised—a case that all those present for defence debates would advance. Defence is a core activity of any Government and the nature of procuring equipment and services is, quantitatively and qualitatively, very different from other departmental expenditures and procurements.
One proposal advanced in the Bernard Gray report was that we should attempt to obtain a 10-year commitment to defence spending. That is a big ask, but it could reap huge benefits. There is a unique case to be made as far as defence is concerned. The Government have gone some way towards that in talking about having a 10-year planning horizon, but as that evolves we should keep it well under scrutiny.
In concluding, I want to mention the huge public support that exists for our armed forces, which has never been more evident—whether at Wootton Bassett or during armed forces week—and is spreading to more and more communities. I also want to mention last year’s Command Paper, the external reference group that has been set up to make sure that its findings are carried forward and developed, the recognition study from which that was built, and the work of the Royal British Legion and myriad charities that have responded in a way that recognises the increased tempo and sustained deployment of our armed forces.
Just last week, the Big Lottery Fund committed the substantial sum of £35 million to a programme called Forces in Mind, undertaking to work closely with existing forces’ charities to help people who come out of the armed forces, or back from deployment, with that period of adjusting to civilian life, which can sometimes be very difficult. That recognition needs to be matched in the quality of the work that lies ahead on the strategic defence review, which I hope will benefit from the work of the Defence Committee, not only in this Parliament given the many reports that we have recently worked on that will flow into the work of the strategic defence review, but in the next Parliament as well.
I should like to use the opportunity presented by the final defence debate of this Parliament to look back over the Parliament and see how we—the Ministry of Defence, the armed forces and the Select Committee on Defence, which I shall come to at the end—have all done. First, however, I should like to jump the gun by saying what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy). The knowledge and amount of research that she has brought to the Select Committee, and the commitment and dedication that she has always shown, have been second to none. I should like to thank her very much for that on the Committee’s behalf.
The courage that the armed forces have shown over the course of this Parliament in the face of extraordinary danger has been the sort of which Kipling and Henty would have been absolutely proud. They have also had to learn new skills of governance and logistics, new languages, and how to collect and disseminate intelligence. We ask a great deal of them and we are very lucky indeed to have them.
Let me look back at the beginning of this Parliament. In the summer of 2005, we were at sort-of war in Iraq. We were in Afghanistan and were about to deploy the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps to Kabul. We were planning for the deployment, in June 2006, of 16 Air Assault Brigade to Helmand province. As the Committee said in its April 2006 report:
“The Southern provinces will be a testing security environment”.
We were then, as now, masters of understatement. Nobody believed at that time that not a shot would be fired, but in defence of the then Secretary of State for Defence, that was not what he actually said. However, I did believe, and said, then that Iraq was going to be a much easier proposition than Afghanistan, and I think that has proven to be true.
At that time, the armed forces were overstretched and the Ministry of Defence was short of money for many reasons that people have tried to explain from different perspectives. First, NATO had been a success and the cold war was over. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said that we had won the cold war, and in a sense we had. NATO’s very success had led people in Europe to believe that defence was not a priority for spending. That went for the whole of Europe, including this country; it certainly went for the Labour party and, frankly, for the Conservative party as well. Secondly, as a result of all that, Government public spending had risen significantly on things such as health and education, but comparatively little on defence. The Government are right to say that defence spending has steadily risen, but wrong to say that that was all that mattered.
The third reason for the money shortage was that fewer modern weapons were needed to achieve the same effect because they are so astonishingly powerful. Last night, I watched David Dimbleby’s “Seven Ages of Britain”, which explained that when the Maxim gun was invented, six of them could have the same effect as six entire regiments of soldiers. The natural consequence has been that we have been getting rid of soldiers and buying more of the modern equivalent of Maxim guns. However, we are now beginning to discover that although Maxim guns can kill very efficiently, they cannot, unlike soldiers, win the hearts and minds of a country. They cannot hold the night, and they cannot be in more than one place at one time. Neither can they win the battle of ideas back at home. They cannot persuade the people of this country that it is right for the Maxim guns to be out there in a foreign land. When one adds the effect of 24-hour news, the carnage produced by modern weapons becomes unsupportable. We now need a process of transition back to the notion of having more people, however powerful the weapons that they wield.
So, back in 2005 the armed forces were overstretched. They were fighting two wars on a peacetime budget. They did not go under, but it sometimes looked close in both Basra and Helmand. In Basra, the initial deployment showed that our inadequate recent experience of deployment overseas meant that logistics were heavily stretched. There was a serious misreading of the fundamental problems in Basra. We thought that it was more a matter of criminal gangs operating in a city where there was a lot of money, as opposed to a genuine insurgency, and locals were not listened to enough. Perhaps, too, the eyes of the armed forces and the MOD were too focused on the need to deploy more and more troops to Afghanistan, so we nearly failed in Basra, but we did not. Indeed, the general result has, partly because of the quality of our armed forces, been that Iraq has been more successful than not, but we have suffered some reputational damage there.
In Helmand, the problem has been that, in the initial years in which we deployed to the southern part of Afghanistan, we deployed in numbers that were too small. We were there in penny packets, and the concentration of our forces on the ground being thin was partly a result of having too few forces because we had relied on having so many powerful weapons. It was also partly because our European NATO allies did not regard it as their battle. Europe as a whole failed to lift its sights and see the importance of the battle in Afghanistan. Europe is at last beginning to wake up to some of the threats that that region poses. My conclusion is that the armed forces, in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq, have been very stretched indeed; they have been surviving, but only just.
During this Parliament, how has the Ministry of Defence done as a whole? During the period, it has produced the defence industrial strategy, which I think is a good one, but according to the defence industry it has become moribund through lack of funding. Perhaps the defence industry would say that, but if it is true that the defence industrial strategy has become moribund, it ought not to have been produced in the first place, or it ought to have had a much greater eye on the need for funding right at the beginning.
A number of right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned the fact that in 2005, and earlier, the Ministry of Defence was not doing procurement very well. We could say that actually it never has. I recognise many of the difficulties pinpointed and highlighted in the Bernard Gray report as having been prevalent while I was in charge of procurement. It is a long-term weakness of the Ministry of Defence that would take Hercules to clean up. Luckily, in the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) there was such a Hercules, who appointed another—Bernard Gray—whose report on procurement is one of the most valuable documents ever to come out of Government.
The response of the Ministry of Defence has been—frankly—muddled. I was in entire agreement with what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton said about the need to firm up the 10-year budget for defence procurement, because the difference between a 10-year rolling budget and a 10-year indicative planning horizon is one that gives rise to some mirth.
The Minister for defence equipment and support made it plain to the Defence Committee that he does not really agree with very much of the Bernard Gray report, whereas the Minister for strategic defence acquisition reform has told my Committee that he does accept the report. To coin a phrase, “We can’t go on like this.” Only with a united team at the top of the Ministry of Defence will there be any hope of achieving progress in what may be the most difficult problem the MOD faces. It needs to be approached with drive, unity and a vigour that does not exist at the moment, because of that division.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a great prize to be achieved? Bernard Gray said that
“the UK’s allies are by and large complimentary and in some cases envious of what the UK has done to drive reform in this area.”
We should not beat ourselves up too much, and if we can go even further with defence reform, we could lead the world in it.
I entirely agree. The hon. Lady correctly pinpoints some praise that Bernard Gray rightly expressed about the Ministry of Defence and the operations at Abbey Wood, which needs to be highlighted. One can go further. One could say that the greater the problems we have discovered in the MOD and its procurement process, the greater the opportunities to provide further money for the defence of this country by putting those problems right. I am not a total pessimist about everything—unlike my usual stance on such things. I believe that we have a great opportunity to make things better.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the past many mistakes have been made in defence procurement that have cost this country dear? If better judgments could be made, money would not be wasted but would go directly into the right kind of procurement, to ensure that our troops are better supported.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I would go further. Many of those mistakes are ones that she, through her diligent research, has brought to light. The country and the armed forces should be grateful to her.
We could go through many individual procurement projects—some have been good, some have been bad. The Prime Minister has said that the armed forces have never had such good personal equipment. He is absolutely right. When the Committee visits the armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq or wherever, they are full of praise about their personal equipment. But let us distinguish properly between their personal equipment and other equipment, such as vehicles, about which they do not always say the same thing.
The urgent operational requirement process has sometimes worked well and sometimes less well, but it does work quickly. However, it works at considerable cost. In the face of urgent requirements, we should not begrudge that cost, but we should wonder whether the process could be better dealt with by better anticipation and foresight, so that the suggestion in the Bernard Gray report that some things should have been discovered long in advance bears some fruit—we have been in Afghanistan for a very long time.
The right hon. Gentleman will know of the observations the Defence Committee made about the FRES—future rapid effect system—programme. We now have what I call the dogs of war, such as the Jackals and the Bulldogs—the names of various dogs. We have acquired a suite of vehicles to do that work, but we have done it in an ad hoc, disjointed, pragmatic way, rather than through the strategic process we were promised FRES would be.
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman is another whose assiduity on the Defence Committee brings great enlightenment both to us and the defence world, and also great enjoyment.
Some projects have, such as FRES, been a disaster. After the Secretary of State spoke this afternoon, I was still not sure whether the FRES project is dead. The Minister for defence equipment and support told us unequivocally that it was dead. The chief of defence matériel told us a fortnight before that it was not dead; it was alive and kicking. It was alive, then it was dead and now, after the Secretary of State’s comments this afternoon, it is alive again. My word for the FRES project was not “disaster”; that was the Minister’s word. My word, or rather the Select Committee’s word, was “fiasco”, and a fiasco it was. A great deal of improvement must take place in procurement, but it is an opportunity that we must make the most of.
During this Parliament, the Committee has done its best to hold the Ministry of Defence to account. We have done so across the full range of the MOD’s responsibilities. In doing so, we have been ably and energetically supported by a team of Clerks who have given us great dedication and impartial help. We have also received specialist advice from military and other advisers. On behalf of the Committee, I give them all our grateful thanks. I thank all members of the Committee. They have worked in a deeply constructive way to achieve the truth, and to praise or condemn without fear or favour. In my view, the Defence Committee has been the House of Commons working at its very best, and I give them my thanks for what they have achieved.
What has the Committee achieved during this Parliament? We have produced a number of reports and I shall run through a few of them. We did a report on the future carrier, several reports on Afghanistan, and three on the nuclear deterrent in time for the debate in the House on replacing the submarines. The report on educating service children was considered one of the best reports that the Defence Committee has produced, even though it was not on an overtly military matter.
We have mentioned FRES already. We have also done several reports on Iraq. We did an interesting report—a quick report—on the UK-US arms trade treaty, which has not yet borne fruit, although we hope that, at some stage, the United States might actually ratify that treaty. A report on medical care for the armed forces pinpointed many of the important issues that the armed forces face, and we wanted to stress how well we felt that the armed forces were treated in medical matters.
The report on the future of NATO has already been mentioned. The issue of Russia and whether it is a threat to this country was considered in a report in July last year. We did a report on helicopter capability last year. We also produced one on readiness and recuperation earlier this year. Perhaps the culmination of our work on reports was the report on defence equipment, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and came out this month.
I am quite certain that we have made mistakes. We can sometimes mistake the enthusiasm and professional optimism of military officers for the whole truth, but sometimes we also rely rather too heavily on the Ministry of Defence, which is the only Department we can get some information from, although it is also the very Department that we are meant to be scrutinising. In reaction to that, we have to go to the defence industry to get a more balanced view. Then we run the risk of falling into its pocket.
I want to end where I began—with our armed forces. The armed forces remain perhaps the only institution of this country that retains the respect and the admiration of this country. That is based on a degree of sympathy, because the country feels—rightly or wrongly, although I suspect more wrongly than rightly—that they are not being well treated. That is a shame, because it would be so much better if the country’s admiration of our armed forces were based not on sympathy, but on an understanding of what they do, and why and how they do it. I believe that it will be one of the main tasks of the strategic defence review, under whatever Government and whoever takes it through, to increase that understanding and, in so doing, to reinvigorate the link between the armed forces of this country and the people they so bravely serve.
I spent this weekend preparing for today’s debate. On the way up on the train, I read through the speech, had a quick read of The Times and moved on to the ISTAR––intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—report, which we are to look at tomorrow in the Defence Committee. Having read the ISTAR report and The Times, I rewrote the speech in my head. When I arrived at the Library, I looked at the speech again.
One thing that has been referred to a few times today is the disconnect from the public on the issue of defence and an understanding of the nature of defence and its broad and wide implications. Looking at today’s edition of The Times, I felt that there was a lot there that addressed many of the issues of Britain and defence in the world.
The defence and security of our country is, for me, the primary role of Government. From defence and security comes the capacity to generate our economic wealth and the ability of citizens to engage with services such as health and education, which improve their mental and physical health, and in turn fuel our economic wealth. Hon. Members might say that that is a simplistic assessment of the role of Government, but behind that simplicity lie complex questions, which we face in the coming election and the next Parliament as we undertake the strategic defence review. Many of the questions that must be addressed were there in the articles in The Times.
What is the nature of the relationship between the state, the public and the military? What is the responsibility of the state to the military? What expectations do the public have of the military, and what is their relationship to, and understanding of, the role of our defence forces in the world? What are the rights of our military, and what are the implications of those questions for defence, defence policy and planning for future conflicts?
There is a story in The Times about the DNA testing of soldiers killed in 1916 and found in a mass grave in Fromelles. It made me think of my grandfather and the diary he wrote after being called up as a Territorial reservist in 1914. He sailed from Ireland about two days after war was declared. His diary details the excitement at the start of war, and the boredom punctuated by lots of football matches and exercises. Then there is a strange gap. The first battle of the Somme and the march south took place. Among the first things to be discarded were documents—the books used by the military for procurement. That was quickly followed, as people dashed for their lives, by the discarding of weapons.
When it was realised that the Germans were not pursuing, the troops stopped, turned and prepared to fight. They then discovered that they could not get new equipment, because they had to fill in a form in triplicate and hand back the faulty equipment. If they had thrown away the books and thrown away the guns, they had no way of getting new armaments. The Army has moved on and its procurement process is not as arcane, but clearly we have quite a torrid history of failing to address the needs of our troops at the front line and how we keep them appropriately armed to carry out their tasks.
In 1916, my grandfather records in his diary the fact that he finally received his first blanket, having slept without a blanket for the first year of the war. He was killed in 1917, and my father never knew him.
That war brought together a nation in looking at the issue of remembrance. Seeing the monuments at Thiepval and Ypres brings home the horror of war—the sacrifice and loss—most powerfully. We are struggling to address the issue of remembrance, and our failure to lead in that manner is leading to inappropriate demonstrations by the public, seeking to find a way to honour and remember. It is leading to the events at Wootton Bassett, which some find distressing, as I know from speaking to members of the armed forces while in Afghanistan. Some find that the events give a degree of succour to the enemy, who use the demonstrations to show how much we feel our loss and how, if the losses keep happening, there will be an opportunity for the Taliban and al-Qaeda to succeed. We have to find a new way of articulating remembrance that allows dignity and recognises sacrifice, but does not wallow, in a sense, in the loss of people who have sought to take on a role that most of us would back away from. It is important that we take a lead on that.
The generation that came back in 1918 did not talk about war. Indeed, my father did not talk about his experiences in the second world war—some experiences were too horrific for words—but we learned a great deal about mental health in both the first and second world wars. Today’s military are encouraged to talk and share, but we still have not got it right. We know that more people took their lives following the Falkland war than died there, so setting matters right following Iraq and Afghanistan is critical. That is an area where we still have work to do, although I have been impressed by much that has been done to allow decompression, and by the use of a buddying system to allow people returning from the front to relive, reconsider and re-examine some of their experiences.
Page 3 of The Times has an article about human rights for soldiers; there were comments about the fear of extending the protection of the Human Rights Act 1998 to soldiers fighting overseas, and about how that move would hamper battlefield commanders. Interestingly, the issue of the human rights of civilians was addressed in an article on the story of a family killed in a night raid in eastern Afghanistan. The family had rejected blood money and had vowed to carry out suicide attacks until the perpetrators were brought to justice. That raised many questions in my mind, including whether they would have threatened suicide attacks on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and what effect such threats would have had.
The article also brings us to critical issues: the higher expectation on western forces to uphold human rights in war zones; the newly understood essential nature of engagement with civilians in war zones; their role in combating insurgence; and their vital role in providing intelligence and rebuilding the peace. The comprehensive approach—a new joined-up defence strategy, engaging foreign policy, international development aid and our armed forces in a multinational force for good—is a new concept. It brings new challenges and new ways of operating.
The eastern Afghanistan night raid also brings us an old problem in a new format. US officials have refused to identify the forces involved, breeding suspicion in Afghanistan and among our own public. Our public do not like it when they think that we have broken the law. They do not like it when we will not be honest and straightforward about what we have done in their name. The UN has been critical of the use of paramilitary groups to carry out night raids, highlighting the need for regulation and accountability when it comes to such forces.
The use of paramilitary groups in the past helped bring us to our current conflict in Afghanistan. The arming of Taliban insurgents and mujaheddin to fight the Russians in Afghanistan has brought years of war, generations of families avenging deaths, and tribal conflicts. There is an urgent need for the licensing and regulation of private security forces in conflict zones. I understand the vital role that they play, but I feel that they need to be clearly accountable, and clearly regulated.
The Times carried an article about Mumbai, where the Indian police are said to have prevented an attack that could have jeopardised the Pakistan-India peace talks about Kashmir. There have been times when I have felt that if we could sort out Kashmir, we could sort out Afghanistan. Kashmir has been a training ground and a hideout for the Taliban, Islamist insurgents and al-Qaeda. Billions of dollars have been diverted from education, health, and infrastructure planning in India and Pakistan to fund the fighting in Kashmir. We are talking about two nuclear states with large parts of their armed forces concentrated on their borders, posing a risk to the rest of the world because of that conflict in Kashmir. It has resulted in both India and Pakistan facing the challenge of internal insurgencies. China sits on its border with Kashmir and, indeed, with Afghanistan, but it has taken no part in winning the war or in trying to build peace. How China’s role in such conflicts will change is a key question for our future defence planning.
The Times details a successful attack by Pakistan’s army on a Taliban school in south Waziristan. It was not a school as we know it—for education, reading, writing, and work skills—but a school teaching 150 to 200 boys how to slaughter, how to behead the enemy, and how to be a suicide bomber. It held out the promise not of a better job or a chance to improve the quality of life of the boys’ families, but of a heaven, depicted in murals on the walls as a place of flowing rivers and swimming girls. How we combat such indoctrination—such fatalism—is a key task for our diplomats in engaging in dialogue and alliances, and for our aid workers in offering hope, new aspirations and new potential to young men who see martyrdom as a better future than the life that they face on earth.
Interestingly, the Pakistani forces used lessons learned from the British frontier warfare manual published in 1939 to win that battle in south Waziristan. Whether we have yet devised a successful manual for securing peace and rebuilding communities is a more complex question. For it is the return of civilians and the reconciliation and re-integration of ex-fighters that is the critical task that Pakistan’s army now faces. It is no longer simply a case of one army facing another on the battlefield, with the winner taking all; it is about winning not just the war, but the peace.
The press tell us that the public are tired of war—of the relentless toll of deaths, and of seeing no possibility of success—but The Times editorial today talks of the success of a more democratic future for Iraq after recent elections there. There were 38 people killed, and 136 attacks on polling stations; names were missing from the electoral register, and there was some intimidation by security forces. However, there was also the successful engagement of 62 per cent. of the Iraqi people. Sunni candidates stood, and there will be a Government, increasingly held to account by a people growing in confidence of their rights and in their awareness of the responsibility of Governments to their people.
The letters page held a great deal of discussion of the sort that we have had today—discussion about the equipment, training and funding of our armed forces. The Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, is quoted as saying:
“The equipment that our people are using is frankly the best that they’ve ever had in any of my 40 years of service and it’s getting better all the time, so in terms of numbers, in terms of quality, both are increasing.”
Other letters say that the quality of training, equipment and funding has not been right. The public are, for the first time, unsure who to believe, as our senior military personnel are increasingly seen as politically biased, which is an extremely dangerous position.
There has been talk of the role of the Defence Committee in this Parliament. I have been fortunate enough to serve on it for only slightly over a year, and I am still on a learning curve. I am deeply indebted to the other members of the Committee, whose knowledge is great. For me, the Committee’s role in a future Parliament is to hold these senior officers to their statements when they are questioned about funding, training, and equipment. They cannot be allowed to say one thing when in the Ministry of Defence and another to the Committee. Evidence to the Committee must be truthful and straightforward if public trust is to be rebuilt and we are to know what our forces are doing, what they need and whether they are being successful.
We must understand the problems that we face and how we fight an enemy when our technology does not always offer the edge that we have grown to expect. Fighting in an international coalition, often under the overall leadership of the United States, brings difficulties, as it is hard for the public to understand how we can help ISTAR and not solve the problem of IEDs. New challenges, too, are coming our way extremely fast, as climate change gives rise to defence and security issues arising from food and water shortages, migration, the fight for mineral resources, and the growth of international criminality. Interestingly, The Times carried an article saying that 18,000 people had been killed in the Mexican drugs wars in the past three years.
There are new ways of trying to deal with defence. Baroness Ashton, as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, brings a new voice to the defence world. We are moving into complex times, in which there is a demand for greater transparency and openness in relation to defence training, spending and equipment. Each death heightens calls for the withdrawal of troops and prompts questions about why we are fighting. We must address how we meet those demands without providing information, propaganda and intelligence for the enemy.
There is increasing interest in our defence and security, and our military are under observation as never before. This debate is important, and it is one that the next Parliament must continue with even greater vigour.
It is a privilege to follow a speech such as the one that we have just heard. I do not necessarily agree with all of it, but a thoughtful and personal speech adds a great deal to any debate.
This is probably the last speech that I will make in the House. Those who like to check such things might find that it is probably my first major speech on defence in the 23 years in which I have been a Member. The reason is straightforward: it is a subject that I have always found very, very difficult to handle. Because it is probably my last speech, I want to speak personally, rather than do what I have normally done over the years, and speak as a party politician limbering up for a general election. I want to say a few things that have occurred to me over time.
I shall pass on the issue of the nuclear deterrent tonight, on whether our troops have enough equipment––although that is important––and on whether we should spend more, the same or less on defence. I leave that to others who are fighting the general election. My focus will be a personal one, in the hope that an insight into what goes on in this MP’s mind when it comes to defence matters might be of use to those who come after us.
During my 23 years in the House, I have always found decisions on whether to take military action, even in self-defence, the hardest of any that I have ever had to make as an MP. The reason is straightforward: I find those decisions difficult because I am being asked to decide whether I should be party to a decision to send someone else’s children to war, knowing that they may well be killed. I find that deeply agonising because I know what it is like to lose a child. I have a shrewd idea that knowing that the life of your child is being given for their friends and their country may be of some help—indeed, it may be a great help—but it will never eliminate the pain, and that is what concerns me.
When considering whether it is right to send other people’s children to war, my starting point has always been to be against it unless there is absolutely no alternative. I have always believed passionately that such decisions should be made in Parliament, rather than by the Government of the day. Leaving them to a handful of Ministers—I do not mean to besmirch their reputation, and I do not have anyone in particular in mind—is not what I consider democracy should be about. This is the sort of parliamentary reform on which we should focus, rather than on whether the next generation of MPs should travel first-class or economy. Real matters of life and death should be at the top of our list of issues.
Despite my reservations, let me put it on the record that I have always accepted that I have a duty to the 70,000 people I have represented over the years to help protect and defend them. Although my starting point is to say no, the approach that I have always taken is to think through whether a given situation threatens my constituents personally. If it does, whatever my reservations, the use of military force is probably inevitable and totally justified. I used that analysis when confronted by the war in Iraq and the military intervention in Afghanistan. On both occasions, I concluded that the answer on the threat to my constituents personally was no, which is why I am one of the very few on this side of the House who did not vote for the invasion of Iraq. It is why I am probably one of the very few people on either side of the House who is worried about, and did not even support, the decision to intervene in Afghanistan. So that I am not misunderstood, may I make it absolutely clear that now that the House and the Government have taken those decisions, we are duty-bound to give total and absolute support to the troops we sent there? We must play a full part in helping to solve the problems that I still believe we helped to create in the first place.
I am very aware that such an approach may not be what my constituents want of their MP. I have always been aware that it is not what my Whips want of me, but that is a separate issue. To make sure that I was not taking leave of my senses when thinking like that, I made it my business over the years to distribute thousands and thousands of questionnaires, including some on such subjects. Clearly, if I were coming back, I would be one of those who regretted the disappearance of the communication allowance, but I will not go there for the moment.
The interesting thing about that exercise of checking what my constituents thought and think is that a majority of them have always agreed with me. The majority of my constituents have told me over the years that they, too, did not support the invasion of Iraq, and a majority of my constituents up till now keep telling me that they are deeply uneasy about our involvement in Afghanistan. Perversely—it is a sad reflection on all this—invading Iraq made my constituents less safe, rather than safer. That was the very criterion that I used as my test, and it was turned on its head.
Invading Iraq was not a good decision for my constituents, and for a straightforward reason. The invasion of Iraq and other factors have fuelled terrorism. Terrorists use as one of their favourite tactics attacks on aviation. My 70,000 constituents live next to the boundary fence of Heathrow. What might happen if there were a terrorist attack there could well have serious implications for them. Large numbers of those who sent me here work for airlines, and clearly they are more at risk now than before. Looking back, I am afraid that I have to say to some people that I have no regrets about the decisions that I took on such defence matters. That is, perhaps, why I did not speak as often as others.
There is one other matter on which I want to say a few words. I shall touch on the work that I have been doing, in the belief—I hope it is the correct belief—that I might have been helping to make the world a safer place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said in his opening speech, and as I see it, conflict prevention is as important for peace as conflict resolution. Probably one of the things that I will miss most when I am no longer an MP is the conflict prevention work that I have been able to do on behalf of this Parliament in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
To put that into context, I shall take the Russia-Georgia war as an example. I was one of those who was quickly brought into its aftermath. Within a few days of the end of the fighting in South Ossetia, I found myself in a war zone for the first time in my life. I found myself in villages where the only people left were the elderly. I saw their traumatised state, the destruction and the hastily dug graves in the gardens of some of the people who lived in the village, and it dawned on me that the innocent people in any conflict that is allowed to start do not care whether it was a Russian bomb or a Georgian bomb that destroyed their house or killed their friends. They just did not want it.
That taught me something. There will be those, I suspect, who say, “What has that got to do with us? It is but a minor matter some long way away from us. Why should it exercise our minds?” My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring put his finger on it when he spoke about the importance of NATO. I give NATO total support. It is part of what I believe in, but I worry about NATO enlargement. We could so quickly go one or two steps too far. Let us not forget that there was a moment when there was considerable pressure to allow Georgia to join NATO. If that had happened, article 5 would have applied to that attack upon a member state of NATO, and what was then a little skirmish over in eastern Europe and the Caucasus would suddenly be our problem. These issues, however remote, however small, can have dreadful implications for us.
In case people think, “Ah, well, it’s only happened once,” may I say that it might happen again? Those who study the newspapers carefully will have seen the reports over the past couple of days about a fake message on the internet and on television in Georgia that the Russians had again sent tanks down the Roki tunnel and that the President of Georgia was dead. We should thank our lucky stars that nobody in the Georgian military pressed a button or pulled a trigger, but they could have done. Conflict prevention goes on and on.
One lesson that I learned from that example––I could use plenty of others––is that in the case of Russia and Georgia, fighting did not suddenly start out of the blue on 7 August 2008. It had been coming for a long time, escalating bit by bit. It does not matter who started it, who followed or who was to blame. It was developing. The rest of us saw the warning signs, and we either ignored them or decided that it was nothing much to do with us, but it is something to do with us, and it could have been catastrophic. That is why I argue that conflict prevention is as important as conflict resolution.
When we consider those subjects, we would do well to remember that the two world wars in the 20th century started in Europe. We could usefully reflect on the possibility of more problems of the sort that I have been talking about. The list is long and, I fear, getting longer—Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh, the Caucasus north and south, the Balkans, and Transnistria. The list goes on, and they all remain potential threats to the peace of Europe. It is up to us to pay attention and take action at the earliest possible moment, or such episodes will show once again what can happen when a country gets its defence policy wrong. As I said, with Russia and Georgia that did not happen overnight, and we need to learn from that.
The lesson that I have learned more than any other during my work in the Council of Europe is that defence is not just about having enough military personnel and equipment to do the job. Defending one’s constituents properly requires permanent vigilance and engagement with those who might start or be caught up in conflict elsewhere. One way that this Parliament can do that is to enhance the importance and the interest that it shows in the work done on its behalf by those MPs who represent it in the various international assemblies of parliamentarians around Europe.
I worry about the incessant attacks by the media on Members who go abroad, who are not here as often as others, and who are mocked and denigrated in the newspapers. We must stand up to that and enhance the work of those bodies. If we know parliamentarians in another country, it is much harder to treat them as unknown people against whom we can send troops. Those assemblies offer us an opportunity to meet other parliamentarians and understand their problems. Only then can we play a real part in conflict prevention. It is essential work; it is crucial work; and I hope that it will carry on.
I suspect that I might be out of order for a second, but I hope that you will bear with me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I want to end with a personal comment. My 23 years here have been a wonderful experience. There have been good times and, dare I say it, in the past 12 months some bloody times, but overall it has been great. Overall, it has been enjoyable most of the time, boring some of the time.
The last thing that I want to say in a speech in this House is the most enormous thank you to my constituents, because without them I would never have had the privilege—the honour—of being able to serve them and my country in this House.
Before I dare launch into my speech, may I pay tribute to the contribution of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire)? Like him and, I think, most Members, I take very seriously decisions on sending anyone into armed conflict, and I agree entirely with his remark that prevention is better than such action. I also agree absolutely that there must be time for parliamentarians to meet other parliamentarians. One thing that we on the Defence Committee value when we visit other countries associated with conflicts is the ability to speak directly with their elected representatives, because we learn so much from them. Equally, it is important that they have the opportunity to see how we work and to learn from us. There is nothing better than that personal contact and I agree entirely that, when we reform the House, whatever we do, we cannot lose that work and leave people bogged down here, not being a part of the world or engaged in the very things that he outlined.
As it is the end of this Parliament, I want to discuss what has happened in that time, but first I turn to current matters. Afghanistan is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and I had the privilege of having the Welsh Guards march through Merthyr Tydfil last week, not for the first time. They are just one example of a group of young men—young men in their case, but supported by many young men and women in the other services—who saw a very difficult summer in Afghanistan last year, and one wonders not only at their courage, but at the forbearance of their families, which is important in all that they do. The troops had a tremendous reception in the valleys, as one would expect, as many of them were from Merthyr Tydfil and the surrounding area.
The Defence Committee’s most recent visit to Afghanistan showed us that there is a change, partly because the US, with the election of a new President, has dramatically changed its view of what it is trying to do in that area. He may have taken a long time to decide some things, but from my discussions with some of those young men last week it was clear to me—indeed, it has become clear to me as I have visited Afghanistan over the past seven years—that we were going to have this opportunity now. The shaping and conditioning that those young men previously did is now paying off, and all they wanted from me was to know that what they had borne, and what they had done, had been important and valuable.
It is important that people in this country who talk loosely about what happens on the ground in Afghanistan think about the effects of their words. It is easy to comment on how deficient our armed forces might be and what problems we might have in supplying them, but that language needs to be measured, because although in the UK it may represent a political skirmish, on the ground it can have a material effect that causes real damage to people in theatre. People in this country need to think clearly about that.
It is a shame that the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) is not in his place, because I wanted to pay tribute to him as Chairman of the Defence Committee over this Parliament. I served with him throughout that period and it has been very interesting. I shall tell a story about his courage, because in his speech he made the point that sometimes we have a bit of fun, and some events are humorous for the wrong reasons. I remember being in Basra with him and we were sat talking to some local politicians and sheikhs. There was a mortar attack, and he had obviously absorbed all the training that he had received, because he donned his flak jacket and helmet and lay under the radiator while still trying to conduct the meeting. It is a picture that I have in my mind. I know that what goes on tour should stay on tour, but I simply assure the Ministry of Defence that he is an absolute devotee of its training, which he carries out to the letter.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. That is enough Defence Committee anecdotes, but that story is an example of the right hon. Gentleman’s courage and tenacity, and all Committee members will want to put it on record that his chairmanship of the Committee has been of great value.
The right hon. Gentleman remarked on each area of the MOD and made a point about the Department overall, but I make it clear that when the Committee has remarked on the MOD, we have not meant the individuals who make up the Ministry. A lot of courageous people work there, many as civilians. Indeed, people in the Ministry are not trying deliberately to get questions wrong; that in itself is wrong. However, there are deficiencies in how it performs and how it is organised. The Gray report was of great importance in evaluating some of those deficiencies, and the question of how we spend money is crucial, because we are clearly spending it inefficiently. Everyone knows and agrees about that but Parliament’s job is to find out how we can avoid it, stop it and put it right.
Like all Defence Committee members, I think it is for us to try to find out what is really happening. Party politics does not reside in the Committee in that sense, because it is in no one’s interest to develop a false analysis of the situation. The prescription for what one might do next is where the politics comes in, and that is different, but if one does not understand where one really is, whatever decisions one makes, they are likely to be deficient, because they will have been based on a false premise.
There is a problem with obtaining the information that the Committee requires to undertake such inquiries. We conducted an inquiry about the renewal of Trident that went against the MOD’s wishes. It did not want to do that inquiry then, but we did not ask the MOD’s permission to start it. To start a debate, we thought it important that Parliament obtained important information on what the MOD was going to do about Trident; it was not for the MOD to dictate to us that we should not start an inquiry, so we carried on and conducted an inquiry without any co-operation. That changed as we went along.
Currently, there is a difficult question about ex-chiefs of staff who make statements that they did not make when they were in uniform. They sat in front of me and I asked them directly, “What was the condition? When will FRES be available?” I remember Michael Jackson telling me, “Its first in-service date is 2009.” The programme was a shambles. It was not that the chiefs of staff did not have the money; they could not decide among themselves how best to spend the money. That is what they are paid for—that is their job—and it is no good saying to me after the fact that in some way or another, “It was very difficult, Dai, and we did not have the money.” If they had come to me at the time, and I had been the Chancellor of the Exchequer, heaven forfend, I would have said, “When you can properly spend the money I am already giving you, and you can show me you are, I might give you some more.” That is the guts of the argument. Bernard Gray makes the same point in his report when he says that there is no magic bullet. Nobody has got this process right, whether it is the Americans, us, the French, or anybody else. We will probably never get it arithmetically and perfectly correct, but we can try to make it as efficient as possible.
For some time, I have been asking questions about how to do this because process is important, and I am disappointed. A document called “The Defence Strategy for Acquisition Reform” has recently been published, alongside the Green Paper. It contains a lot of initials and acronyms, as one would expect, and has at the back lots of descriptions of various programmes, with something called “PACE”, and the so-called terms of business agreement process, and this, that and the other. It looks like more McKinsey to me—more management-speak and buzzwords.
I spent 25 years as a trade union official and I went into numerous companies. I would ask simple questions such as, “Your company’s in trouble and you want to make redundancies—who in this company is given the responsibility for maximising profit out the door?”, and be told, “We don’t know.” I would respond, “There we are then—it is obvious why you’re not making money, isn’t it? It’s because you’ve got all these fancy consultants coming in, they’re giving you all these fancy descriptions and programmes, and all your little workers are beavering away filling in all the boxes and giving you the forms, and the system is not working.” Of course it was not working—such an approach will not solve that sort of problem. We need a different way of looking at it, and the Gray report suggests how that might be done. The strategy document sets out a mechanistic process that, frankly, will not do the job that the Minister and everyone else wants done.
Whatever happens as regards kit, what is important is the people. We all know that; everyone will nod and say that it is absolutely correct. We have everyone from reservists, who do a fantastic job and are often not properly recognised, through to young people—teenagers—whom we are trying to equip while asking them to do hugely sophisticated jobs. I have spoken to young guardsmen who are 19 or 20 years of age: boys from the valleys who were probably not the best academic students at school. They have gone into the military and had really good training, but now we expect them to exercise heroic or courageous restraint—whatever the new doctrine is called—in deciding whether to shoot the bandit in front of them on the basis of whether there would be an effect on the associated civilian population. That is a highly sophisticated, graded decision for them to make, especially when somebody is throwing rocks at them. That is the level of what we are asking these people to do, as well as physically carrying round all the kit and running about in the warm or the cold.
Training is crucial for that purpose, and that is where the investment has to go. I hope that the training academy in St. Athan comes off, not because it is on my patch—it is not, although there would be an associated effect on my local economy—but because there needs to be a process that trains these people in all the different skills that will be required for the future. In deciding what to do about defence expenditure, let us not lose the people in the discussion about the toys. It is obviously important to discuss some of the big-ticket items because they cost so much, but it should be possible to put a lot of investment into training the people, because at the end of the day they will operate the hardware and have the material effect. More importantly, they are the people who engage with the enemy—not just in a kinetic way, but directly, face to face, in talking to them and trying to win them over to a different position.
How we do all this in the next Parliament is an issue that has popped up in several speeches, probably because we are all thinking about it. Whether hon. Members have decided to leave Parliament or not, they have an affinity with it, and they know that it needs to reform itself and do things better. As regards scrutiny, we need, for example, a way of dealing with previous chiefs of staff. If we could get better answers at the time, we would not need to deal with the problem later on. There are ways in which we could do that. The Defence Committee could take evidence in private: not everything has to be revealed to the enemy. Parliament had the confidence to do that before, when it gave the Defence Committee the responsibility of conducting a review about the capture of our boats on the river between Iraq and Iran. There are different ways in which we could do this as a Parliament, and that is the debate that we need to have. It is possible for these people, when they are in the job, and without being disloyal to Ministers or to the chain of command, to give a graded response so that Parliament can know where it really stands, because unless it knows that, it will make a mistake about where it goes afterwards.
If I may take this liberty, Mr. Deputy Speaker, let me say what a pleasure it is to be called by you once again. You will possibly have a few more stints in the Chair. You are a worthy occupant of that Chair. You stood for Speaker, and you would have been a wonderful Speaker. There was much competition. As you pass out of the world of politics and into the other world, you will be missed by many in this Chamber.
It is a pleasure to follow yet another of my colleagues from the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard), who was highly commended by the Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who is not in his place.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) on her thoughtful, and indeed courageous, speech. It is more difficult to make a personal speech in this House, and she made a very personal speech. She brings a thoughtful touch to some of the issues that we face on the Defence Committee. Her remarks about the relationship between conflict and what those involved in conflict suffer, and have to deal with, are very timely just a few days after Combat Stress launched its 90th anniversary appeal. It is worth putting on record the fact that Ministers and Opposition spokesmen seem to be working together very effectively to address some of those issues. With 180,000 personnel having served in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past nine years or so, we can expect as a result some 8,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and 50,000 to 60,000 cases of mental illness involving people who have been exposed to conflict in those two countries. That is a very considerable challenge, to which I hope that she will have the opportunity to return in the Defence Committee in a future Parliament.
I wish to return to the comments of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney about the vexed question of the role of the defence chiefs in the defence debate. They have extraordinary responsibilities, and they are placed in a very difficult position, under politicians who are necessarily political. I have enormous sympathy with what has been said about the need for the Select Committee to be able to operate effectively on the basis that we are being told the truth, and the whole truth. This is an issue that we need to address, but there are no instant solutions, because we do not want to politicise our armed forces; I agree with the hon. Member for Bridgend about that. One could argue that these people have been politicised because they have felt compelled to pursue a particular “line to take” as opposed to pursuing their own line, and I fully understand the perception of those on the Labour Benches that they have been politicised in the other direction for other reasons.
We have to have a rational discussion about this problem, which arises from the subject that I am going to address—the state of the defence budget and the state of the Ministry of Defence—and relates fundamentally to the old story of the quart and the pint pot. All the problems arise because for a considerable period, decisions about the allocation of resources and priorities have been based on trying to produce more effect than we have been prepared to pay for.
If we are to have a debate about defence in the world, it should be about our global role. The real question that lurks behind the earlier exchanges between Front Benchers is whether we can afford a global role. It is about money: the question is whether we allow this single fiscal crisis to relegate the UK for all time. In one matter we have no choice: rebalancing the public finances and reducing the annual deficit must be the first priority of the next Parliament. The strategic defence and security review, as I prefer to call it, must redefine the UK’s strategic priorities, but in the context of the fiscal crisis that the next Parliament will inherit.
The recent interventions of the chiefs of staff and former chiefs of staff are profoundly depressing, not because they betray division and dissension within government but because those people all seem to accept that massive cuts are inevitable. Let us thank them for one thing: they are confronting us with the truth, which this Government and the increasingly dysfunctional Ministry of Defence have increasingly been denying for years.
I agree with the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney that there are many good people in the MOD, and there have been many good Ministers under this Government, but Ministers, civil servants and even senior serving military officers have become inured to the permanent state of crisis in the Department. The present state—crisis in the MOD—is now regarded as normal. However big the black hole in next year’s budget, it can always be tided over. In that way, “normal” in the MOD has become more and more divorced from reality. That is what Government and Opposition must face as we plan for the future.
The chiefs of staff are telling us that, as we hear about whether we should scrap this or that project, or even whole services, the truth is that the MOD is bust. It cannot balance its books, and its outgoings exceed its income. A larger and larger deficit of one sort or another has been rolled forward and accumulated. The choice is not whether we can maintain the status quo or find some savings and limit our global role for a while. The situation is far more serious. In defence, there is no status quo to defend. I am reminded of Ronald Reagan’s quip that
“the status quo is Latin for ‘the mess we are in’”.
That is an apt description. The status quo, or trying to muddle along for a few more years on the present basis, will simply not be an option. The crunch is now. The money in the MOD has run out now. An attempt merely to stand still financially will have dramatic consequences in the forthcoming review.
The Royal United Services Institute recently published a chilling paper by Professor Malcolm Chalmers, and Doctors Paul Cornish and Andrew Dorman of Chatham House have made the same analysis. Chalmers sets out how, even if the defence budget were maintained at present levels in real terms over the lifetime of the next Parliament, and assuming all the natural defence costs such as inflation and 1.5 per cent. annual unit cost growth, there would still have to be dramatic cuts in capability. He forecasts that the number of trained military personnel would have to fall by 8.5 per cent. from 175,000 today to 160,000 by 2016, and that ground formations would have to be cut from 97 to 89, major vessels from 57 to 52, and available aircraft from 760 to 700.
Those are rough and ready calculations, but in fact capability would probably fall away faster than that. Fighting vehicles, helicopters, other aircraft and ships have been used so intensively on operations in recent years that their serviceable lives will inevitably be shorter. For example, in July 2008 the UK armed forces had 522 helicopters. According to parliamentary answers, the MOD projects that by 2020 there will be only 303—a cut of 42 per cent. That takes account of the 62 Future Lynx and 24 Chinook helicopters recently announced. What effect will that have on operational capability, and our global role?
Defence could yet be in a far worse position, whoever wins the election. On the basis that the structural deficit must be halved in four years—that is what we have all voted for in this place—while health and overseas aid are ring-fenced budgets, the MOD, along with all other Departments, is in line for a cut of 11 per cent. between 2010 and 2016. According to Professor Chalmers, that will mean a 19 per cent cut in military personnel, to just 142,000, and cuts in ground formations from 97 to 79, in major vessels from 57 to 46, and in available aircraft from 760 to 615.
Why should health and international development budgets be ring-fenced and not the defence budget? Surely, given the state of the economy, an incoming Government of whatever political persuasion ought to look at the books as they are and decide on the priorities. I understand the importance of health and international development, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that the provision of equipment to servicemen on the front line ought not to be sacrificed?
You will be pleased to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I will refrain from being drawn into a debate about international development or health. The figures that I gave are illustrative, but the point is that the defence budget is in a terrible mess and there will be renewed pressures on it. I shall come later to what I think should be done to it.
We have heard in the debate that our defence procurement is not a model example, but it is not as bad as that in many other countries. We are also not unique in being in financial difficulties following the recession. Given the need to address security, is it not even more urgent that we share procurement with our allies and have greater integration of budgets, so that together we can prove a more powerful force?
I share the hon. Lady’s view, and the Defence Committee heard telling evidence from the director of Abbey Wood that multilateral projects are politically very complicated and tend to run hugely over budget, whereas bilateral projects, perhaps with other countries opting in without having control of the project, are a much better way forward. I am all in favour of bilateral projects with France and the United States, and we cannot afford not to have them wherever it is practical to do so.
I am grateful. In fact, I was going to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that it is important in such discussions for people to use precise language. Usually if there is mention of procurement with our allies, people such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham and Brussels, West (Mr. MacShane) suggest that that should mean a Europeanisation of the whole exercise, as distinct from bilateral arrangements, which can be between a number of countries on different issues, and represent a much better way of proceeding. I was not going to mention the aircraft carriers—but since the hon. Gentleman invites me to do so, I would welcome his views on that subject
I think the hon. Gentleman knows that we are on record as having supported the aircraft carriers for as long as they have been in the programme.
I do not want to get too involved in this, but bilateralism is different from integrating budgets. It is integrated budgets that gave us A400Ms, Eurofighters and complicated multinational programmes that inevitably become extremely expensive. Those are not the model for procurement that we want—nor do we want to share technology with other countries that are not prepared to invest in technology.
I was talking about the inevitably huge cuts in capabilities—in ships, aircraft, ground formations and so forth—that would follow from flatlining or cutting the defence budget. If that fails to drive home the state of crisis in the Ministry of Defence, let us open Bernard Gray’s “Review of Acquisition”, published last year, which says:
“The UK’s level of ambition around capability is significantly out-of-balance with resources available on any realistic short-, medium- or long-term basis.”
What he means by that, as he has explained in many seminars and talks since, is that if defence spending were to flatline for the next decade, the MOD would be able to afford its existing contracting commitments—and nothing else for the next 10 years. Just think about that: no new orders for defence equipment for a decade. What would happen to our defence industries then?
I hear about this hierarchy of requirements that puts defence industries at the bottom of the Liberal Democrats’ priorities: tell that to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws)—but perhaps he was not in the Chamber when that was said. As I recall, we heard the Liberal Democrat spokesman declare that the first priority was the best defence equipment for our armed forces, then the financial constraints, then the defence industry—so the defence industry comes third.
No, the hon. Gentleman will have his chance when he concludes the debate later. The point is that our defence industries are a huge strategic asset. Defence research and development has already been cut by 22 per cent. between 2002 and 2008. As a former Defence Minister, Lord Salisbury, has remarked, we are eating the seedcorn of the industry’s future. The defence industry—including in Liberal Democrat seats such as Yeovil—currently employs 300,000 people. It exports between £4 billion and £10 billion each year, and we still lead the world in key technologies. The UK is the second largest defence exporter—second only to the US—with around 20 per cent. of global defence exports, but we will soon be overtaken by others, even the Chinese, if we contemplate continuing cuts in research and development. A strategic, diplomatic and economic asset will be destroyed unless we address the shortcomings of the defence budget.
The debate between the defence chiefs about what to cut misses the point. The big choices facing us are what should be our global role for the next decade and beyond, and what are the potential costs and benefits of that role. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary told RUSI last week:
“have not waited thirteen years to return to office simply to oversee the management of Britain’s decline”.
I suspect that the Secretary of State, whom I welcome back to his place on the Front Bench, rather shares that view. I am sure that he did not take on his job to oversee the management of Britain’s decline.
There is the answer to the Secretary of State and his challenge earlier, but what do we mean by maintaining a “global role”? Yes, the UK is a member of the UN, NATO, the EU, the G8, the G20 and the Commonwealth, but Germany, Italy, France and Spain do much of what we do in the diplomatic sphere, so why must we accept the expense of our particular global role? For British prosperity and security, the UK’s global role is not a lifestyle choice; it is an imperative. It is not merely an expression of our values, but it defines who we are as a nation. Our geographical and historical inheritance has granted us unique capabilities and advantages that few other nations have, and it is in the interests of all free nations as well as our own that we use them for our and their benefit. How would Europe or India or the US have turned out today without Britain’s global role in the past?
In the past, there was nothing inevitable about the abolition of slavery or the defeat of fascism or the facing down of communism, and in the future there is nothing inevitable about the continuing spread of democracy and free trade—yet we depend upon democracy and free trade utterly for our own prosperity and security. We must play our role in the world simply because we can—unlike almost every other nation. That role reflects our values and our interests. I pay tribute to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). How can we play our role in conflict prevention unless we have the means to do so?
In today’s world, overpopulation, shortage of food, competition for resources, the risk of environmental catastrophe, mass migration, accelerating technological change, nationalism and extremism are all on the rise. These factors are now aggravated by global recession. Is this the moment to substitute hard power for the myth of soft power? Advocates of soft power are those who have decided to rely on a free ride on the hard power of others, including our own. Can we, too, risk opting out of our global role? Which nation would usurp our role as America’s most influential and enduring ally? Are we to encourage the US to become unilateralist? Who would protect our shipping from the Somalian pirates? Who will win the friendship of the oil-rich Gulf states if we abandon them? Who will invest in NATO if we disinvest? Which other nation or nations would gain from our retreat? Will they promote freedom and democracy, or will it be something much darker?
Free trade, democracy and human rights, and international peace and security are mutually beneficial for all peoples and nations, but sustained diplomacy to promote those values must be underpinned ultimately by the threat of resort to force. The purpose of military capability is not because we intend to fight wars. We cannot afford to fight so many wars as we have in recent years, but we must always remain able to deter them and to be prepared for the unexpected.
Military capability is not some theoretical concept. We need the new smaller surface warships, or how can we patrol the many parts of the world where we need to deter aggression or give humanitarian aid? The great strength of the Navy is its ability to loiter, perhaps unseen over the horizon, but still exerting a presence nevertheless. We need more drones to track terrorists, to support ground troops and to provide intelligence. Incidentally, the technology brought to bear to protect our armed forces in Afghanistan gives the lie to the idea that a low-tech insurgency can be met by low-tech armed forces in response. Fast jets do not just protect our own airspace but our ground forces, and a surgical strike capability is a massive sub-nuclear tactical deterrent. Flexible, deployable capability gives us that indefinable and indispensable quality that a powerful nation needs—it is called “influence” and it takes decades, not years, to create such capabilities, and it would take decades to recreate them if we gave them up just because of a short-term fiscal crisis.
How much would it cost to maintain those capabilities? Defence spending in 2008-09 was £36.4 billion, or 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product, including the costs of operations. A phased programme to increase defence spending by up to £7 billion to £10 billion a year, plus inflation over five years, would raise the share of GDP to nearer 3 per cent.—a wholly reasonable peacetime share of national income. With savings of perhaps £3 billion in procurement and overheads and a moratorium on discretionary operations, we could maintain a broad spectrum of capabilities and retain the UK’s global role. I believe that that would be outstanding value for money. That is the choice.
What we cannot afford to continue to do is to fight wars not just with a peacetime budget, but with a peacetime mentality. Yet, as the papers produced by RUSI and Chatham House show, that is what this Government are guilty of doing. Public spending choices in the next Parliament will be the toughest since the 1930s. We must not repeat the mistakes with defence that our grandfathers made then. Can we afford our global role? The question we should be asking is this: can we afford to lose it?
I should begin by associating myself with comments made by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House in praise of the courage and bravery of our armed forces in active service, particularly in Afghanistan. It has become a sobering but important tradition in this House that each week we honour those who have fallen in the line of duty. I pay tribute to those brave men and women in uniform who are still in the service of their country and to their families, many of whom are my constituents. Of course, those families sit at home and worry, but they are incredibly supportive.
Among those service families is the family of Able Seaman Nesbitt, the first servicewoman in the Royal Navy to be awarded the military cross for her bravery under fire. I was fortunate to meet her and her family last week at a civic reception held in her honour in Plymouth. Her service and courage are a testament to the men and women who leave Plymouth on Royal Navy deployments.
It is also a privilege to follow some expert knowledgeable speakers in this debate, most of whom are members of the Defence Committee. I am not going to follow their broader arguments. I am afraid that my speech will focus narrowly on the Royal Navy, which is important to my constituency—home to the largest naval base in western Europe. We have some 2,500 civilian and naval personnel supporting our fleet worldwide. The future of the naval base and the associated dockyard, which employs many more of my constituents in vital maintenance work has, as a result of this Government’s announcements in the maritime change programme on the continuing need for three naval bases, been offered longer-term security. The dockyard will therefore continue to support our domestic and international defence requirements.
Babcock Marine, the company that runs the dockyard, continues to grow and aspires to grow further. It well understands the importance of its work, and especially the importance of the quality and efficiency of the work it produces for the Ministry of Defence. The medium to long-term prospects for the company and Plymouth’s work force were, after a period of uncertainty, largely resolved with the announcement that Devonport would be the centre for the deep-water maintenance of the surface and submarine fleets.
Labour understands just how important the Navy is to our global reach and in supporting our allies. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who is my constituency neighbour, is also a member of the Defence Committee and a long-standing and well-informed voice on defence matters. A few months ago, when we last debated defence, she raised the issue of sea blindness in the planning of a future strategy for our national defence. I am proud to say that under this Government, we have had clear vision: the Navy has been supported, new vessels and equipment have been procured, and programmes have been continued. Before my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) seeks to intervene, I assure him that I am a steadfast supporter of the carrier and of British shipbuilders, and that I understand the importance of both in enabling the UK to project its power and influence through the Navy.
We must not fall into the trap, as many Opposition Members seem to have done, of believing that the Navy is no longer relevant—nothing could be further from the truth. The Navy is vital to this nation’s defence and to our ability to maintain relevance at the top tables of international diplomacy. I also take issue with the opinions of General Lord Guthrie, a former Chief of the Defence Staff, who told the BBC last week that there should be a ruthless re-examination of defence priorities, resulting in the bulk of spending going to the Army at the expense of the Royal Navy. He is second-guessing a detailed strategic review, and his comment was not helpful. We in Plymouth—from where the taskforce left and to which it returned, fewer in number, at the end of the conflict—have not forgotten the Falklands war. Although there is no suggestion of another war, and clearly diplomatic and Foreign Office effort has been put into ensuring that no further military action is required, there has been a raising of the temperature in the south Atlantic. We need to be ready, should the unlikely need arise, to protect the interests of the Falkland Islanders. We would need a strong Navy and carriers, which are already being built.
We must not retreat to a fortress Britain position, as the Conservatives, by proposing little more than an emphasis on Army numbers, suggest we should. I am concerned about the fact that in the Opposition day debate on Monday 1 March, no direct comment was made about the Navy. Opposition Front Benchers fell short of the mark from Plymouth’s perspective, with only one direct reference to the Navy throughout the debate. We must invest in a military that can respond to ever-changing threats to our national security, which must include ensuring that our Navy is capable of meeting global challenges. The Navy must be able to take our air defence to places where there is no friendly country willing to allow us to use air bases, and to take our Army personnel and Royal Marines to a position in which they can make landings. It must also be able to stand off and offer firepower in support of our land-based forces.
We cannot be sure what situations we will face in the next five or 10 years or beyond, but a number of scenarios have been referred to by other right hon. and hon. Members. We can expect—at least we hope we can—a drawing down of our forces in Afghanistan as the Afghan army and police become able, perhaps over the next five or 10 years, to take a more responsible role for the security of their country. We might then begin to bring our troops home. We must hopes that our troops will not be called on again in the near future to go into action abroad to engage in so lengthy a conflict in defence of our home security.
If that is a medium to long-term hope, why would we increase our Army by up to three battalions? On a good day, the Conservatives think we should do that, but on any other day they are unclear on the matter. Our Army is the best in the world—I in no way wish to suggest otherwise—but the lobby to increase its numbers greatly, at the expense of the other services, needs open and transparent discussion in the House, as part of the strategic defence review. I acknowledge the comments by the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) on the importance of that discussion in enabling the wider public to understand the precise role and risks that we face and to which our armed forces are expected to respond.
The risks beyond 2030 that defence strategists are considering include mass migrations as a result of global warming, the need for further major humanitarian missions as a result of increasingly erratic and severe weather patterns, conflict over scarce resources such as water, increased piracy and cyberthreats. In each of those serious scenarios, there is a vital role for our naval forces, which must not be ignored. We need mobility and flexibility, but will we need an enlarged land-based standing Army—and if so, where will it be based and what would we expect it to do? Let us have that discussion. In my view, that is why the strategic defence review is vital—it will bring some sense to the debate and, more importantly, facilitate an understanding of the UK’s strategic defence needs and wider role in global security.
I urge Defence Ministers—I am afraid I am going to get very parochial now—to consider the proposal to reduce staff at the Defence Equipment and Support and Defence Storage and Distribution Agency depots, including the one in Ernesettle in my constituency. That links to some of the concerns raised by Bernard Gray. If there is to be a re-examination of the shape of the future Royal Navy and future service competence as part of the strategic defence review, there must therefore be a need for a reappraisal of the support services offered. Therefore, it is premature for us to downsize that depot at this stage, because it may need to be brought back on stream. Those plans need to be part of the wider discussion, and decisions should not be taken arbitrarily now. Local trade unions are concerned that there appears to be no flexibility in the plans being proposed, largely by the military, which takes me back to Bernard Gray’s suggestion that DE&S should be moved outside total military control. I know that my Front-Bench colleagues do not necessarily agree with that position, but what is happening at Ernesettle gives me cause for concern. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will re-examine the proposals.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his cogent description of the Government’s priorities. I do not think that my electorate in Plymouth will have any doubts about where the Government stand, and I believe that that will give them some guidance when they come to make the decisions on defence issues that are important to their long-term security.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) on making an excellent speech this evening—as, indeed, he always does. I think it right to examine the global landscape and demonstrate a global perspective in defence debates.
I pay tribute to all Her Majesty’s armed forces who are serving in Afghanistan, to a few who are in Iraq, and to those serving in other theatres around the world including Northern Ireland and the Balkans, although there are fewer there now. I pay particular tribute to all who have lost their lives in the service of their country, and to their families who have suffered so much in the cause of freedom and liberty. I also recognise the sacrifice that people have paid through being injured and maimed. Many of them are multiple amputees. We salute their courage, and recognise them here this evening.
I thought it right for my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) to point out that the country needs a strategic defence review that is led by foreign policy, takes account of assessments of current and future threats—when the future can be read—and then matches those with military capabilities. Only then should specific defence programmes, and defence procurement programmes, be examined in detail.
I sometimes think that Members feel slightly embarrassed about referring to the British national interest in the House when it comes to defence and foreign policy matters. I do not think they should be, because this is a special nation. The United Kingdom is still a force for good in the world. If the United Kingdom were not giving assistance in certain countries—through the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and other Government Departments—there would be other foreign players in those countries. I do not think that every country in the world necessarily believes in the same values as the citizens of this country, and, indeed, Her Majesty’s Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition.
To be a force for good in the world, we need the wherewithal to exercise influence, and to ensure that the values we espouse as a country are shared by those whom we want to receive them. Those values are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and the ability of people to go about their business in trying to ensure that their own and their families’ lives prosper without fear of being killed or persecuted for something they might say or believe.
We in this country should be proud of the global influence that we have had for many centuries. It would be a miserable day for our nation’s history if we had to withdraw, through lack of resources, from the many good things that we do around the world. People talk of the threat to our national security posed by the Taliban, or al-Qaeda and its affiliates al-Shabaab and Jamal Islamiyah, or whomever it might be—on these shores or elsewhere—and it is entirely true that those organisations and terror groups pose a threat to us. However, I believe that the biggest threat to our national security is this country’s national debt. If we do not have the money to pay for many of the defence programmes that have been discussed here today, and for future programmes, we shall not be able to protect ourselves from multiple threats, whether they are state-on-state or posed by the terrorist organisations that I have mentioned.
I have had the privilege of visiting Afghanistan. I pay tribute to all the regular and reserve forces from Shropshire, and—as we approach St Patrick’s day—to the Royal Irish Regiment based in the county. Afghanistan represents a critical mission for our armed forces. We must stay the course for many reasons, but for three in particular. First, a premature withdrawal would provide a huge boost for jihadists around the world, and we cannot allow that to happen. We cannot fail: we must be resolute in our commitment to the mission, and we must see it through. Secondly, a premature withdrawal would be a terrible blow to the credibility of NATO. Although it is an imperfect military alliance, NATO has served this nation, and indeed others, well for more than 60 years. Thirdly, and I think most importantly, a premature withdrawal would be unfortunate—to say the least—for all the brave armed forces personnel, both men and women, who have already sacrificed so much by dying or being maimed for their country. We must see the mission through to ensure that their sacrifice was not made in vain.
I agree with the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman has just expressed. However, while we speak of winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan, we are in grave danger of losing the hearts and minds of the British people. Does not the possibility that the hon. Gentleman’s arguments in favour of our staying in Afghanistan are beginning to fall on deaf ears pose a graver danger at present?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. I know that he has spent a long time thinking about the issue during his long service on the Defence Committee. I pay tribute to him, and to his colleagues on both sides of the House who also serve on the Committee. In answer to his question, I would say that it is incumbent on all Members to go to their constituencies, as I do, and try to make the case for the mission in Afghanistan.
My fourth point—it is as important as the first and second points, but perhaps not as important as the third—is that if al-Qaeda, its affiliates and the Taliban regrouped in Afghanistan, whether together or separately, Afghanistan would become a failed state again. Having regrouped, those organisations would set up their terrorist training camps and launch themselves into different parts of the world, including, I believe, the cities of the United Kingdom.
When our forces come home, whether to Wootton Bassett or any other town or city—as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Rifles will parade through Hereford on 1 May—vast numbers of people are out there to welcome them home. Does that not demonstrate that although there may be concerns about the political issues relating to Afghanistan, the support for the men and women in our forces on the ground is absolutely solid?
The hon. Gentleman makes some good points. I grew up in Herefordshire and would like to pay tribute to the Special Air Service, which has taken significant casualties in terms of loss of life and injuries. The House recognises the major contribution of the special forces and the Special Forces Support Group, including the Special Boat Squadron, which has played and is playing a significant part in Afghanistan. I am glad that the city of Hereford is recognising the excellent and significant contribution of the Rifles. I was in Basra palace in Iraq the day that some of the infantry and light infantry regiments became 2 Rifles. The Rifles have taken significant losses even over the last few days and weeks. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the case has to be made time and again, and it is incumbent on all of us as MPs to make the case in our constituencies. The media must also ensure that their reporting of the war is fair and balanced and takes on board the comments of Members who have visited Afghanistan many times. The media in this country and others have sadly lost colleagues in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we pay tribute to those journalists who are prepared to go to the front line to report back the very issues that we agree this evening need to be reported to the British public.
On Argentina and the Falkland Islands, I am glad that the Secretary of State made it absolutely clear that the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands is not in question and that there is no dialogue or negotiating going on with the struggling Government of President Kirchner in Argentina. I am also glad that reference was made to the Government’s resolve to ensure that the military garrison on the Falkland Islands is staffed up to the levels that would be required to ensure that the right message is sent back to Buenos Aires. I would not expect the Minister to comment but I hope also that the appropriate level of naval protection will be sent or is in the area, including submarine protection. I hope the Minister agrees that it would be far better for the international community, particularly those Latin American countries and our Commonwealth cousins, for the Royal Navy to be going to places such as the gulf of Aden and the Indian ocean off the east coast of Africa and the horn of Africa to protect international shipping, including shipping from Latin America, the Caribbean area and—dare I say it?—the United States, rather than sending more ships to the south Atlantic to respond to the Argentine Government’s rhetoric and actions. I hope that the great people of Argentina will see beyond the unhelpful and highly charged political rhetoric of President Kirchner and say that this is not a route down which they wish to go again. They have been there before and the consequences were severe for that nation. We stand completely behind the people of the Falkland Islands.
We heard an intervention earlier on armoured vehicles and on BAE Land Systems. It is regrettable that nearly 100 years since the first use of the tank—a British invention—in 1916 at the battle of the Somme, which was referred to earlier, it is likely that the manufacture of armoured vehicles in the United Kingdom will cease as a result of the Government’s dither and delay over the new armoured reconnaissance vehicle. I would have wanted the CV90, the scout vehicle, to go to BAE Land Systems, not only because it does a great job in my constituency but because it would have kept that defence engineering capability within the United Kingdom, rather than its being outsourced to General Dynamics, which will use companies in Austria and elsewhere. If that is not the case and the Government have not awarded the contract to GD, I hope the Minister will make that clear this evening. If there has been a cancellation of the whole scout project, I hope the Minister will make that clear as well. It is clear that the British Army requires that vehicle, as well as the new cannon on the Warrior. That is long overdue and it affects my constituents, who work so hard and so well at BAE Land Systems and the Defence Support Group in Donnington.
The Minister was kind enough to write to me today and he has informed the House today that Operation Borona—the draw-down of some of the British Army of the Rhine from Germany that was due to take place in 2013-14—will now be delayed, for the large part, to 2018, a five-year delay. What does that mean for the west midlands? The Secretary of State is an MP from the west midlands, and the former Defence Minister, now a senior Whip—the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar)—who has just taken his place on the Front Bench also represents the region. Defence procurement and manufacturing are critical to the west midlands. What does the delay in the draw-down of British troops mean for the west midlands and west midlands jobs?
In 2013, a significant number of people will need to leave RAF Cosford in Shropshire to be relocated to Wales as a result of the defence training review. I am one of many who believe that the defence training review project—the largest private finance initiative in British history, at £13 billion—has been flawed from the very beginning. The vast majority of people whom the MOD expects to move to Wales will be unable or unwilling to do so for a wide variety of reasons, one of them being the price differentials in housing. I pay tribute to the PCS union for the hard work it does in my constituency. If the union is right—it often is—more than 74 per cent. of the existing personnel at RAF Cosford will not be able to go down to St. Athan as part of the DTR project.
Let us say that the majority do move to Wales in 2013. Previously the west midlands region was unhappy about that, but had consoled itself by thinking that the British Army would backfill vacancies into places such as Cosford. However, the written ministerial announcement today of the delay until 2018 means that there will be a five-year gap from when people leave Cosford until the British Army returns to the west midlands. I hope the Minister will tonight say what will happen to RAF Cosford in that five-year period. I understand that BBC Midlands this evening has run a story in which an MOD statement suggested that job losses will not necessarily be forthcoming and are not inevitable. Will the Minister confirm that that is his view? Will he go further and say that he will guarantee that there will be no job losses at RAF Cosford as a result of the delays to Operation Borona? The people of the west midlands are right to want the British Army spending British pounds in British towns, not in German towns.
Despite the peace dividend in Northern Ireland, there has recently been an increase in dissident activity, and I hope that as the MOD scrabbles around to make up for the many financial planning errors it has made—with the oversight of Ministers—it will not leave the Security Service and the Police Service of Northern Ireland without the necessary level of support from the Northern Ireland garrison. There have been some sharp attacks on people who have given long and distinguished service to our nation, such as former Chiefs of the Defence Staff and of the various services, and that is unfortunate because, ultimately, it is Ministers who decide; yes, they take advice from senior military officials, but it is Ministers who make the final decision. I therefore think it wrong for the buck to be passed.
Turning to the horn of Africa, it is intriguing that, despite the Royal Navy and other navies from Europe and around the world being deployed in the area, piracy there has increased. There needs to be a review of the Royal Navy and international navy presence in the horn of Africa. If that is not delivering the results we all want, instigating a review would be a sensible step.
Last week, I mentioned in the House that automatic ship transponders, which give ships’ global positioning, are apparently being turned off by some shipping companies because they fear that some Somali pirates are able to track them. That issue needs to be raised with the International Maritime Organisation and with shipping companies directly. Turning transponders off does not help the international navies in trying to protect ships, and it also might make insurance null and void. This is a serious matter.
The rules of engagement are extremely important too. I would be interested to learn whether the Minister has had any discussions with his Foreign Office colleagues on how pirates might be brought before the courts. I know that the British Government have been liaising closely with the Government of Kenya, but there has not been as much progress as we would perhaps have wanted. It is therefore right that the British Government should look for other partners in the region—such as Tanzania—where these pirates can be brought before the courts.
Cyber-security has been mentioned this evening, and a couple of Members asked what is happening in the House on that issue. I am pleased to be able to say that a new all-party group on cyber-security has been established, albeit only three months ago. I had the great honour of being elected its chairman, and I invite all Members who are interested in cyber-security to get involved; we have some great speakers lined up over the next few weeks. It is a very important issue and I hope we can increase knowledge, awareness and understanding of it in the House in the coming years—subject to the re-election of myself and other members of the all-party group. I should also put on the record that I am not an expert on the issue, but I do have a particular interest in it.
When Iran is mentioned in the House, it is often in order to discuss its nuclear programme. We should be in no doubt that there is a nuclear programme in Iran. It is right that we should highlight that, and we need to try to deal with the threat as soon as possible. I hope the international community, and our European partners in particular, will row in the same direction, so we work together to ensure that sanctions are put in place and are effective.
I am particularly concerned about reports that some German companies are trying to find a way around the sanctions regime, especially as one or two of them are engineering companies. It is important that the German Government realise that sanctions are going to work only if we all work together. It is not right for German companies to undermine the European and international sanctions effort.
Notwithstanding the nuclear question, when we look around the world we can frequently see the malevolent, repressive and destabilising influence of the Iranian regime—not the Iranian people, but the regime. Let me therefore take us on a brief global tour in order to see where Iran is involved. In Latin America, President Ahmadinejad has visited President Chavez—and, indeed, President Putin has also visited Venezuela. It is clear that the hand of Iran is seeking to be a destabilising influence in Latin America, and it is succeeding. In particular, it is trying to stir up trouble between Colombia and Venezuela. That is unhelpful to the region, as it will not serve to attract foreign investment; in fact, it will scare potential foreign investors off. President Chavez of Venezuela needs to keep better company, and to focus on getting people back into jobs in Venezuela and on helping the poor in his country.
The hand of Iran is also stirring up trouble in Eritrea and Somalia in the horn of Africa, while in Europe it is still stirring up trouble in the Balkans. All over the world, the hand of Iran is a repressive, malevolent and destructive force. There are therefore many reasons why we should deal with Iran, notwithstanding the nuclear question. I could also name other countries, of course, such as Lebanon, Iraq and even Afghanistan. There is no doubt that the hand of the Iranian Government is still active there, and it is a dark hand that I believe is a threat to the United Kingdom’s national security.
There has been some criticism of soft power from Members tonight, and I think there is some merit in those criticisms. However, I want to put on the record my tribute to the work of the British Council, the BBC World Service, school and university exchange programmes and the Chevening scholarships. All play an important role in projecting the UK’s soft power and in promoting our values. They are not arms of the state—although the BBC World Service might take a different view—but it is important that we remember that these levers of soft power are vital elements in our international diplomacy. We reduce the resourcing and support for them at our peril. Britain is a force for good and should continue to be so, but it can use the levers of diplomacy and soft power and promote all the many things that make this nation great only if it has strong armed forces: strong peace through strong defence.
Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I should like to pay tribute to those who serve and, in particular, to those who have fallen. I should also like to recognise the immense support provided by their families.
I want to start by talking about the strategic defence review that is going to take place. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) gave a thorough account of the areas that he wished it to cover. If we are to have a foreign policy-led, values-led, ethical review, it will not be quick, and I want to pursue with the Opposition the question of what would happen while the review was taking place, particularly in relation to major procurement matters.
The Conservatives have said that they intend to examine the break clauses in the aircraft carrier contracts on day one of coming into office, but it is not clear whether they would use that information to press the pause button and put those contracts on hold until the review was complete. Unless they allowed construction of the aircraft carriers to continue, there would be a danger of escalating costs, work forces being dispersed, and the like. It is therefore reasonable for me, as a representative of a constituency with shipbuilding interests, to speak on behalf of the work force and appeal to the Conservatives to abandon their idea of examining the break clauses on day one, because it is simply causing fear and trepidation among the work force.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to be an advocate for his constituents, but he is quite wrong to spread fear and unhappiness among them. He must know that the position of the Opposition is very similar to that of the Government on this matter. I am sure that Ministers know where the break clauses are; we simply do not. It is wrong of him to pretend that there is some massive difference between the positions of the Government and the Opposition on the aircraft carriers, and I hope that he will set the matter straight.
As I understand it, the massive difference between the Government and the Opposition is that we have to gaze into a crystal ball to see what the Opposition will do, because we do not know. The only unequivocal statement that they have made is that they would examine the break clauses. We do not need a crystal ball to understand what the Government are doing, however, because we can read the book and see what they have actually done. They have placed the orders for the aircraft carriers. I have been at ceremonies in my constituency and elsewhere where steel has started to be cut. That is the record of the Government. The Opposition, however, have said that they intend to put the whole matter under review and to examine the break clauses on day one. The Government have never said that they intended to look at the break clauses on day one. That is the difference.
The hon. Gentleman is indulging in the narcissism of small differences. That would be fine and academic if it were not spreading unnecessary alarm among his constituents. Has he had an unequivocal commitment to the aircraft carriers from his hon. Friends?
I am satisfied with the commitments that I have had from the Ministry. I am absolutely clear where the Minister and his colleagues stand on this matter. They have been unequivocal in their discussions with me about their commitment to the aircraft carriers. They have invited me along to a variety of events, at which I have heard them expressing their commitment. I have been there when they have cut steel as part of the work on the aircraft carriers in my constituency. I have discussed with them various things that need to be put on to the carriers, some of which are far too complicated for a mere mortal to understand.
Regrettably, I have not had the same commitment from the Opposition, who have told the trade unions that, on day one of a Conservative Government, they would examine the break clauses. They were not forced to say that to the unions; they chose to do so. There is, therefore, some trepidation about their intentions, particularly as they are tying up the future of the aircraft carriers with the strategic defence review. The review will clearly be a complex exercise, for reasons that I understand, and it will undoubtedly take some considerable time. The danger, from the Opposition’s point of view, is that their options could be closed off if the review took so long that the aircraft carriers were finished before it was complete. That would obviously negate the point of examining the break clauses.
These speeches that the hon. Gentleman makes are always extremely entertaining, but perhaps he would like to think about the fact that the Government do not need to say that they will examine the break clauses on day one because the Government wrote the break clauses. If the Government wrote the break clauses, presumably that was with the idea of possibly breaking them.
But the Government have given no indication that on day one of the next Labour Government—or on any other day—they intend possibly to activate the clauses, whereas the shadow Minister has indicated to the unions that on day one the Conservatives intend to examine the break clauses. It is perfectly clear that that is the position. The work force went away aghast at the Conservatives’ position. They were, I must say, much happier with the position of the Liberals who, on this matter at least—if only on this matter—seem to be a much nicer lot altogether. They said quite clearly that they were committed to the future of the aircraft carriers.
It is important to get this straight, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being generous in giving way so that that can be done. Will he say who wrote the break clauses, who signed up to them and what he thinks was in their minds when they did the signing?
I would take the view that break clauses are appropriate in all contracts above a certain level so that should the project go awry, should it explode in money terms, should it be seen to be inappropriate, should we discover that it was not going to be produced timeously or should the company involved collapse, there is a way of getting out of it. There must always be some way of getting out of it; that seems to me to be acceptable commercial practice. However, the Government are not saying that on day one of the next Government they will examine the break clauses, presumably with the intention of getting out of the contract.
We need the Conservative party to make quite clear what they intend to do with the information that they have about the break clauses. If the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) tells me in his response to the debate that the Opposition will drop altogether the suggestion that they will examine the break clauses on the aircraft carrier contracts, I will go back and tell my constituents that the Conservatives are no longer imperilling their jobs by insisting on examining the break clauses on day one of a Conservative Government. That is what I look for.
I also want the Government to give some indication of what they intend to do once the aircraft carriers are completed. That is where an indication of their plan for the Type 26 would fit in. I hope that they will be able to give us an announcement later this week that they intend to take the Type 26 to the next appropriate level. That would give an enormous boost to morale in my and other shipbuilding constituencies. It would show a clear contrast between those who are proceeding with the aircraft carrier and who are now proceeding with the Type 26, and those who are considering break clauses on day one of any future Government. I hope that that point has not been too subtle for people to pick up. It seems to me to be a particularly important one.
Let me turn to a subject that has been touched on by a couple of hon. Members: the political ambush that was recently mounted by the allegedly neutral Cross Bencher, Lord Guthrie. I thought that it was particularly interesting that he was quoted in the paper as having said that the Prime Minister
“Particularly in the early days when he was chancellor…showered it”—
“ on other departments but he didn’t give much to defence.”
Somebody who had the benefit of a private education—not Eton like the majority of the Opposition Front Benchers, but Harrow—is complaining about the Government spending money on education for those who have not had the privileges that he had; somebody who, in his 70s, is already older than the average life expectancy in Glasgow is complaining about the Government spending money on health for populations such as mine. He is a man who, days after the Tories said that they would consider the break clause on the carriers, rode in behind them to say that he would cancel them altogether. I think that the Conservatives, having spoken movingly in favour of Lord Guthrie and his right to intervene, ought to make it clear whether his notion of a Navy operating with motorised bathtubs is one that they share or whether they reject completely his proposal to cancel the aircraft carriers.
I want briefly to make three other points, the first of which is to do with veterans. Last week, I had a ceremony in the Tradeston ex-servicemen’s club, to which BAE Systems and others came, when we presented a number of veterans with medals. We have had several similar occasions where veterans from the merchant navy, the land army and the Bevin boys have all received medals. I wonder whether the Government would consider introducing a medal for those women who were conscripted and served with the Ministry of Munitions during the war rather than the land army. They served, and their contributions ought to be recognised in some way.
I certainly want to express my gratitude to the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, its Clydeside chair, Jim Moohan, and its Clydeside secretary, Kenny Jordan, as well as Harry Frew, the Scottish secretary of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians. All came along to that event and discussed with me the threat posed to the Clydeside shipbuilding industry by the Conservatives’ proposals on the break clauses.
My second point concerns the Falklands. We are often told that we have a special relationship with the United States. Is that special relationship one in which they say, “Jump,” and we say, “How high?”, or is it more reciprocal than that? How much support can we expect from them on the Falklands? The comments of American spokesmen have not been as helpful as they might have been, and I hope that the Government will point that out to them as quickly as possible.
My final point is about co-operation with allies. I am strongly in favour of joint working with allies to try to cut procurement costs, but, as has been said, bilateral arrangements are by and large much more effective and efficient than the multilateral arrangements that are entered into simply on political grounds, which often result in time and cost escalations. I hope that the Minister will reject the clarion calls from the right hon. Member for Rotherham and Brussels, West (Mr. MacShane), whose view of almost every subject is that more Europeanisation is the answer. On the issue of defence procurement, it is clearly the wrong road.
It is a pleasure to commence the wind-ups at such an early hour. We have had a series of good contributions—a total of 11 from right across the House—and, although I tend to get rather cynical sometimes, especially after six hours of sitting in the Chamber, I have to say that they have all been of exceptional value. I must add, however, more in sorrow than in anger, that it is a pity that we did not get any Back-Bench contributions from the Liberal Democrats. If they want to be taken seriously on this subject, as on any other, they need to show a bit more interest.
It is particularly good to be debating defence on the Ides of March, perhaps slightly portentously.
Indeed; the hon. Gentleman’s comment is on the record. I think that there was a Member from the SNP here earlier, but he has gone and I do not think that he made a contribution.
Let me start by discussing the speech of the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). I rather regret that he fudged the issue of the independent strategic nuclear deterrent. He seems to think that we could whistle up a deterrent virtually overnight, but that is disingenuous. I am afraid that it is an example of the Liberal Democrats trying to have it both ways so that they can sing different songs to different audiences. That point was picked up obliquely, and understandably, by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), when she spoke about submarines.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about European defence and I intend to spend some time dealing with that. He also made a point about accelerated senility in relation to equipment, and the fact that urgent operating requirements do not really address it properly. He might have mentioned that procurement clawback is very relevant to that issue and that the two things combined are storing up trouble for the decade ahead, as we address the replacement of kit. His point about senility was well made, however. We first became aware of it in relation to sand and vehicles in Iraq in 2003. It seems that we may not have learned some of the lessons.
The hon. Gentleman wanted minimisation of civilian casualties in Helmand and Kandahar. He is absolutely right to point out that it should be an imperative. General McChrystal has made it clear that it is mission critical. Of course, we have to consider how such things play not only internationally but also on the stage at home. As I shall point out later, the danger is that we might lose the war on the home front. Our domestic audience is keen that we reduce collateral as far as possible, as I know is the case on the ground.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton was savaged by the Liberal Democrats—a bit like being savaged by a dead sheep, but there we are—when she suggested that we need to maintain critical skills. We are probably dealing with our sovereign capability, and she is right to say that we cannot simply invent skills of that sort, as I know full well from my own service: they are of a high order and need to be maintained in one way or another.
The hon. Lady asserted that we need European defence to deal with piracy. Having been nice to her until now, I point out ever so gently that she did not provide much evidence to back up that assertion. A miscellany of nations is operating off Yemen and Somalia, in a highly complex overlapping operation, which hardly depends on the EU except in so far as it relies heavily on Permanent Joint Headquarters, Northwood.
The hon. Gentleman has just referred to the fact that the headquarters is co-located with PJHQ, but the mission is one of more than 30 conducted under the European security and defence policy. He should give more credit to what is happening under that banner.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I will deal with Europe in some depth further on in my remarks.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) talked about the relationship between the state, the public and the armed forces. She cited the case of her grandfather, who is numbered among the fallen of the great war, and she spoke movingly of him. She talked about mental health and the consequences of conflict. She will of course have seen the somewhat troubling answer to a written question that I received recently from the Minister. It outlined the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and the consequences of mental illness. The figures are alarming, and we need to be mindful of the occupational effects of participation in conflict and do everything we can to reduce the toll it takes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) gave a very moving speech about his opposition to the Iraq war and his reservations about Afghanistan. Of all the things I did as a Back Bencher, I am happy to say that withholding my support for the Iraq war was the one I feel most comfortable about. Nothing I saw when I served in Iraq in late 2003 changed my mind about that conflict. Equally, I am perfectly happy—as I know my hon. Friend will be—to be proved wrong by history. The important thing is that parliamentarians made their assessment at the time and voted one way or the other in good faith.
I should declare my interest—I usually do, but have forgotten to do so this evening. It is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that I am a serving officer in the Royal Naval Reserve.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) cut to the quick, as ever, and asked where the UK should be in the world in defence terms. I would like that debate to be carried to the wider public, because it strikes at the heart of where we should be right now. We need to determine what we are and where we are going to be, whether we are to continue to be a player on the global stage or, indeed, whether we are to retrench. Upon that we can base our future spending commitments. In the minds of many, although not in my mind, is the question whether we have indeed reached another “east of Suez” moment.
We look forward to the Prime Minister being called back before the Iraq inquiry for a more forensic examination of the role he has played in curtailing defence spending. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State giggles—I am not sure what we should read into that—but let us dispense with the fiction that the defence budget has been rising every year in real terms. We now know the inconvenient truth, which flatly contradicts the Prime Minister’s assertions about increases throughout his watch and, crucially, those previously claimed between 2003-04 and 2004-05. The evidence of senior officials and soldiers, and that of the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), about how resource accounting and budgeting was applied in those vital years and the impact that cuts had on airframes in Afghanistan is devastating. RAB lives on. It is an artificial accounting construct that charges top-level budget holders interest on assets and makes it extremely difficult to hedge equipment and skills against future contingencies. It is a mechanism ideally suited to fighting today’s conflicts, but serves poorly our defence against potential conventional threats of the future.
Several hon. and right hon. Members spoke around the issue of procurement, as well they might. The UOR experience has taught us that efficient procurement is possible and that getting 80 per cent. effect is good enough if it is delivered on time and on budget. It has the added advantage of sidestepping the conspiracy of optimism that binds together officials and industry in a “bid high spec, bid full spec” compact with “bid low entryism” in the full and certain knowledge that, once in the equipment plan, projects are rarely deleted or changed. In the back of every contractor’s mind is the potential to claw back against the MOD—against a tight contract that both parties knew was untenable.
US overruns and cost ceiling breaches result in the US Department of Defence being hauled before Congress. Here, nothing much seems to happen, although in the House 10 days ago we voted for stronger Select Committees. Perhaps the authors of our procurement failures should be arraigned formally before the House of Commons Defence Committee. There will be no shortage of work. If our highly complex, multi-billion pound North sea oil industry can procure what it needs efficiently, so can the MOD.
Several hon. Members spoke around the subject of aircraft carriers—the hon. Members for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), for Plymouth, Sutton and for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson). I enjoyed my exchange with the hon. Gentleman and fully understand his partisan need to create between the Government and Opposition a gulf on the subject of aircraft carriers, although I hope our exchange clarified some of that. In so doing, I am afraid, he does a disservice to his constituents. His rhetoric is, in my view, irresponsible, and it is unkind. He should go back to his constituents and tell them that the positions of the Opposition and of the Government are extremely similar, if not identical, and explain why Ministers—his Ministers—wrote in the break clauses that he is waving like a shroud in Glasgow.
The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is not in his place— [Interruption.] I have no idea where he is, which is a pity, as I owe him a debt of gratitude because he mentioned Europe. That gives me an excuse to talk about it. The right hon. Gentleman talked a great deal about it, which is unsurprising; he often does. Conservatives are usually accused of banging on about Europe, but there are hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the Labour Benches who are just as capable of doing that as I am.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly dispelled the myth about the Exocet and 1982. He might, of course, have mentioned Belgium in rather less flattering terms, but we will let that one pass. He also talked about procurement, but although he rightly said that many European countries make things, he was unable to articulate who in Europe actually does the spending on defence matériel.
In June 2009, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) said in opening the last of these debates in which he took part:
“I…want the European Union to show what it can do when it focuses on outcomes rather than institutions”.—[Official Report, 4 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 437.]
That is a sentiment I think we would all share. The suspicion that I think he was touching on was the suspicion that a nascent EU military identity is viewed as a building block taking us towards the goal of ever closer union, rather than as a means of force generation. It is hardly surprising that the head of the European Defence Agency, of which there has been much press coverage this weekend, concluded of the six-year-old agency that although there had been a “slow start”,
“we are starting to see real progress.”
If there has been progress, it has been truly glacial, particularly as regards the EDA’s stated intention of boosting military spending across the continent.
In Committee last year, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who was here earlier, spent some time trying to convince me that the EU had brought peace to Transylvania. Truly, time spent on the Committee corridor is rarely wasted. We were at it again on 1 March, when he and I debated upstairs what forces the EDA had managed to generate. He was able to offer only three antique eastern European helicopters. I recall discussing those self-same airframes with the NATO Secretary-General during a visit to Brussels a couple of years ago. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) was at the same meeting.
Progress at the European Defence Agency has indeed been exceedingly slow. European procurement collaboration has been characterised by excessive costs and elastic time frames. It seems that complex undertakings such as the A400M and the Eurofighter are allowed to proceed only at the pace of the slowest, so the UK—the country that spends most on defence and, of that spending, the most on procurement—suffers disproportionately. A wise Government will treat with tried-and-trusted peers and view with suspicion permanent structured co-operation, with its invitation to the sleeping partners of the European security and defence policy to enjoy cover without paying the premium.
Several right hon. and hon. Members discussed the MOD in one way or another, and a surprisingly large number were really quite cutting about the top brass—senior officers, both serving and retired. Let me list those Members. The right hon. Member for Rotherham appears to have been somewhat surprised to have sat down in standard class with a major-general, late of the Irish Guards. I suspect that the gallant gentleman was as alarmed as the right hon. Gentleman. It is worth while putting on the record that it is now common practice for senior officers to travel standard class, so the right hon. Gentleman should not have been that surprised.
The hon. Member for North Devon also mentioned top brass, as did the hon. Member for Bridgend, who thought that they were biased. It is funny how people think that others are biased only when those others do not happen to agree with them. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) mentioned top brass, too, as of course did the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West, who attacked the noble Lord Guthrie for going to Harrow.
More generally, MOD reorganisation has been talked about today, and not specifically with regard to those who have lots of stars on their shoulders. Having been unkind about the European Defence Agency, I will express my indebtedness to it for some interesting facts. For example, we learn that the UK has four times more officials to uniformed personnel than Germany. Fortunately, it seems likely that the head count at the MOD will come under scrutiny in the course of both strategic defence reviews that have been promised. I hope that we will benchmark against other countries, particularly Germany.
Cutting numbers may be necessary, but it is certainly not sufficient. We must undertake a root-and-branch appraisal of the way in which the MOD supports defence output, and central to that is an attack on tribalism. The most obvious tribalism is service tribalism—perpetrated, I have to say, by the service chiefs in a way that percolates right the way through the services that they represent. If I am going to take a swipe at the top brass—it seems to be de rigueur to do so in today’s debate—it would be on that subject.
There is another sort of tribalism, which is as insidious a form of tunnel vision. Campaign tribalism is the dangerous idea that Britain now and for all time will be engaged exclusively in asymmetric warfare against Islamic fundamentalism, which truly threatens the defence of the United Kingdom. We look to a strategic defence review to establish an appropriate centre of gravity for our defence posture. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton touched on that in advocating preparation for conventional warfare.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney discussed deficiencies in the MOD, and said that we are spending money inefficiently. As I have said, he was somewhat critical of generals who appeared before the Defence Committee, and who apparently said one thing then went off and said something else when they retired. There is a learning point in this, because we are accustomed to and, indeed, benefit from the can-do attitude of our armed forces, which goes right through the military. There is sometimes a tendency for serving personnel to be positive about what they are asked to do with the resources that are available to them. As we are required to examine the evidence and consider what we are told, it is incumbent on us to moderate and allow for that natural tendency. I would therefore tell the hon. Gentleman that the fault, if there is one, rests just as much with our failing properly to interpret the evidence that is presented to us, just as much as it does with their presenting the evidence in the first place.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that I also made a suggestion about how we might resolve some of the real conflicts for serving officers so that they can say things publicly? There are ways in which the parliamentary process could allow that to happen in future—it has not happened in the past—to help to resolve the problem.
I absolutely acknowledge that. As I said in passing, the House has recently strengthened the Committee structure, so perhaps that might be part of that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned giving evidence off the record as a way of addressing the problem, given the highly sensitive nature of some of the things with which we deal.
Our edge is our technological advantage, together with the defence industrial base that underpins it. Let us not forget what really counts in conventional asymmetric and hybrid warfare. It is what this country does so very well—it is the men and women of our armed forces. Several right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken movingly of them this evening. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) used the limitations of the Maxim gun to illustrate the importance of soldiers despite advances in technology, and he rightly said that we have perhaps rediscovered that in current asymmetric operations.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) spoke about the importance of training. Clearly, he has a strong constituency interest, as well as a more general interest in the training of the men and women of our armed forces. He also argued for the return of the Army from Germany. Training is at the heart of the military, and we have seen how ready Ministers have been to economise in their attitude to the training of the Territorial Army. How can it possibly be right for regular Army training to be cut by a third last year? Who will take the rap for the apparently poor preparation for IEDs revealed by the Wiltshire coroner, David Masters, this month?
The hon. Member for North Devon spoke about Mr. Masters’s concerns about metal detectors, and he was right to do so. Mr. Masters’s court is in Trowbridge in my constituency, and I have met him. He is concerned about the men and women of our armed forces, and he is extremely concerned that we should do absolutely everything in our power to keep them safe. We owe it to our troops to optimise their safety, and we owe it to the mission too, because if this battle is lost, it will be lost on the home front among a British public who may not be up for the fight indefinitely.
I am bound to ask the Minister what sort of interpretation of the military covenant it is that leads to the diversion of funds earmarked from the early 1990s for improvements to the married quarters estate. Much of it lies in a parlous state, as the Armed Forces Federation recently pointed out, and as I have seen in my constituency. It is hardly surprising that when the Prime Minister drops in for a photo-shoot with the boys in desert combats as a politically obliging backdrop, the only smile on display is his rictus grin.
It is an unusual experience for a Minister of State responding to such a debate to begin his speech with 55 minutes remaining. I hasten to add that I will not take that length of time for my summing up. In general terms, we have had a good and well-informed debate. I pay tribute to all those heroic men and women who have lost their lives in recent years serving our national interest. We are and will always be enormously in their debt.
We began with a contribution from the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who leads for the Opposition, and who is not in his place. For once, there was quite a bit in his speech with which I agreed. He talked about the situation in Musa Qala, the fact that we are not downgrading the UK effort—I agree with him in that regard—and the fact that we leave Musa Qala in much better shape than we inherited it. I visited Musa Qala three or four weeks ago for the second time in six months and saw for myself the significant improvement in security and safety for the local citizens, which would not have been possible without the efforts of our troops.
The hon. Gentleman argued that 9/11 had completely altered the western view of global security. He is right. He also said that the state-on-state threat to our security continues, that nuclear proliferation is a real threat and danger, and particularly that we cannot assume that future threats will mirror today’s conflicts. As we move from the Green Paper to the general election and to the strategic defence review, we need to bear that in mind.
It was at that point that the consensus began to break down, although not entirely. The hon. Gentleman made some interesting comments on the role of the French, the Germans and the European Union. He said—I think I quote him accurately—that there may be a role for the European Union where NATO cannot or will not act. At that moment, the look of sheer horror on the face of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) was a sight to behold. There was then a contribution from the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who reinforced the scepticism about a relationship with France.
The hon. Member for Woodspring went on, erroneously and unjustifiably, to launch a critique of our record on funding the armed forces. He said—I am quoting—that we cannot afford five more years of the Government’s stewardship of defence. I say with conviction that, on the facts, he is wrong. Every comprehensive spending review period has increased defence spending in real terms under this Government. Overall, we have seen a 10 per cent. real-terms increase in Ministry of Defence funding. In addition, we have seen £17 billion through the Treasury reserve for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Let us look—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to this in his opening address—at what the present Government have done in the past 13 years, and compare and contrast that with what happened in the 18 years that the Conservatives were in power. I have looked at the real-terms changes in defence funding during those 18 years, and regularly there were significant, draconian real-terms cuts to the defence budget: in 1987-88, a 3.88 per cent. real-terms cut; in 1988-89, a 4.3 per cent. real-terms cut; in 1993-94, a 5.5 per cent. real-terms cut.
Just as Oppositions make statements and claims, Governments have the responsibility to act, and this party and this Government have acted in the defence of our overall armed forces. The Conservative party did not do so.
Despite the rhetoric of the shadow Secretary of State, in his calmer moments there has been some candour on these issues. I came across an interview that he gave back in October 2006, when he accepted Conservative responsibility for slashing defence spending. He said:
“I think very frankly we”—
the Conservative party—
“made some mistakes ourselves in government in that we were very keen to take a peace dividend at the end of the cold war.”
When the interviewer said to him,
“You’re saying the last Conservative government cut the armed forces too severely?”,
the hon. Gentleman responded:
“I think we were too optimistic about the security position world wide following the cold war.”
That means yes.
The Minister speaks about responsibility, but let us pause for a moment, because right now our armed forces in Afghanistan are flying around in ageing Chinook helicopters, and they do not have enough Merlin helicopters. Those are serious issues, so will the Minister, for once, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government take responsibility for the fact that, clearly, there are not enough helicopters in Afghanistan tonight?
The public expect us to be judged on our record, and in the past three years we have increased our flying-hour capacity and the number of helicopters by 100 per cent. The Merlins recently arrived in theatre, and we have further commitments and plans to increase those numbers.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) has apologised to me, because, owing to a family commitment, he cannot be with us this evening. He raised some concerns about what he described as the politicisation of the military. That does raise a risk of which our senior military personnel are mindful, so the point must be borne in mind. There was a very perceptive article from the renowned academic Vernon Bogdanor in The Times last Friday. Let me be clear that I am not absolving Ministers in any way, shape or form from overall, ultimate responsibility for spending decisions, but Professor Bogdanor said:
“Decisions on the defence budget are taken jointly by politicians, officials and the heads of the Armed Services. None should seek to evade responsibility for decisions jointly taken.”
That is an important point, with the overlay that ultimately Ministers are responsible.
I genuinely have the most enormous respect for the military, and I work with them daily. I know that many serving military officers are concerned about an impression of the politicisation of the military, and that is not in the interests of any party in this House or, I believe, our armed forces.
I reiterate that I have the greatest respect for the military, and I know that among many personnel there is concern about politicisation of the military. That is not in anyone’s interests, and it is certainly not in the interests of our armed forces.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who leads for the Liberal Democrats, commented on the elections in Iraq and on the violence, which I regret. Nevertheless, if we look at where Iraq was and where it is today, we find that those elections demonstrate real and tangible progress that certainly would not have taken place if Saddam Hussein had still been in power.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the inquest into the deaths of Corporal Bryant, Corporal Reeve, Lance-Corporal Larkin and Private Stout. I reiterate what I said last week: my thoughts are very much with the families of those brave personnel who lost their lives serving our national interest. The coroner’s criticisms have to be addressed by the Ministry of Defence. The training regime that existed in June 2008 could have been better; we made that very clear. However, we also need to be very clear that there has been a significant and dramatic improvement, with £1.7 billion spent on 1,800 new and better-protected vehicles, and a transformation in the way that we respond to improvised explosive devices.
The hon. Gentleman raised issues about the Falkland Islands. I want to restate our position. There is no doubt whatsoever about the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, and our defensive position in the south Atlantic has not changed. This Government are fully committed to the defence of the south Atlantic overseas territories, and there cannot be negotiations on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands unless and until such time as the Falkland Islanders wish that to happen.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Trident. He wrongly, unjustly and erroneously said that this party and this Government were hell-bent on renewing Trident. Our position—I want to make it very clear to him—is that we believe in seeking a world free of nuclear weapons. We have been, as is acknowledged by independent experts, the most forward-leaning of the nuclear weapons states in terms of disarmament, with a 75 per cent. reduction in the explosive capability of our nuclear arsenal over the past 13 years. We committed to starting the process of renewing Trident and keeping that policy constantly under review because not to do so would have meant effectively committing to unilateral nuclear disarmament at some stage in the future, regardless of the circumstances and of progress in multilateral disarmament.
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is the reality, and that is why Members across the House reached the conclusions that they did in the debate on the White Paper. I listened to what he said about the Liberal Democrat position on Trident, and I was no wiser at the end of his comments than I had been at the beginning.
The hon. Gentleman gave a critique of our funding record on defence. The Liberal Democrat party has published alternative Budget statements—not, I have to say, very well-thumbed documents, although I have taken the trouble to read them—and I do not recall any commitment to spend one penny extra on defence compared with the Government’s approach. Unless there are proposals from the Liberal Democrats either to raise taxes or to cut expenditure from elsewhere to fund defence, we are hearing from them merely hollow words that carry no conviction whatsoever.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) demonstrated a detailed understanding of defence and defence equipment matters. She argued that given the nature and scale of the threats that we face, we cannot be wholly Army-centric as we look to our equipment and to the strategic defence review. She makes a very good case in that regard.
The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who chairs the Defence Committee, talked about the situation in the MOD in 2005. I do not go wholly down the road of his argument. However, he accepted, with characteristic candour, that if there is a challenge on resources, there is some cross-party responsibility for that situation. He also made an important point about the need for a serious debate on the balance between equipment spend and spend on personnel; that will be one of the important issues for the SDR. I pay tribute, as he did, to the work of the Defence Committee, which does an excellent job of scrutinising the Department and the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) spoke powerfully about the situation in Iraq, the 62 per cent. of people who had voted, and the Government there rightly being held to account. She, too, raised the issue of the politicisation of the military, and stated—I think that I am quoting accurately—that the public are not sure who to believe. There is concern about how quickly some former military commanders have become partisan and politicised, and as I said earlier, that concern is reflected by serving military officers.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) made what he said would be his last speech in the House, and I pay tribute to him for his work as an MP. He spoke movingly, bringing his personal experience to the subject of the price paid by families who lose their children in military service. Nothing that any of us can say or do will mitigate their loss. He also spoke movingly about the dilemma of sending troops into conflict and made a powerful argument in favour of Parliament making that decision.
My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) talked about the courage and forbearance of families and the support for our troops that exists in the valleys. I saw that myself when I was at the homecoming parade for the Welsh Guards the week before last at Cardiff castle. He also imagined a situation in which he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He said that, whoever was Chancellor, there would be a need for the MOD and the military to convince the Treasury that they were capable of spending resources effectively and efficiently. He made a well-reasoned case for that.
The hon. Member for North Essex rightly spoke very strongly about the global role that the UK plays, which is a critical matter to be addressed in the strategic defence review. I am a supporter of and believer in our global role, but we cannot just assert that role. When I speak to my constituents, at first, a majority do not support that global role, and I do not believe my constituents are any different from others. However, after debate and persuasion, people come around to it because they see how it is in our national interest. We all have a job of persuasion to do to convince people of that case.
I am grateful to the Minister for his kind remarks. May I ask him how that global role will be defined? He says that it is something to be decided in the defence review, but does it not go way beyond the MOD’s remit? How will the Government institutionally address that question, and how would he advise the next Government to do so?
A strategic defence review is not just a matter for the military and the MOD, just as our Green Paper was not solely an MOD matter. There have to be consultations and discussions right across Government, and foreign policy will inform that debate intrinsically and directly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) spoke strongly about families, and I pay tribute to her for her work in supporting families in her constituency. She also mentioned the importance of the Royal Navy, and I agree with her that there is a false argument that the Navy is no longer relevant.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) said that debt is the biggest challenge that the military faces. If that is the case, and indeed it is a serious challenge, the Labour party and this Government have a credible plan to halve the deficit within four years. The Opposition want to go further than that, and even if they go just one year further, that will mean an extra £26 billion of public expenditure cuts. If that strategy is to be credible, we need an explanation of what implication it will have for defence spending.
There are however areas of consensus. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to see the Afghan conflict through and that we all need to make the case for the mission. He asked me about the FRES programme, and I reiterate what the Secretary of State said earlier: there has been a competition and the process has been long and thorough. We are absolutely mindful of the jobs involved, and there would be a lot of jobs in the UK through both bids. However, it is fundamental from the defence point of view that the decision has to be based on capability. That has to be the overwhelming consideration, and there will be a decision very shortly.
Now that the Minister has the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who is responsible for defence equipment and support, sitting next to him, can he clear up one question? Is the FRES programme dead, as that Minister has told us?
As my hon. Friend made clear before the Select Committee, there has been a reconfiguration of the programme. That is what he was describing, and if the right hon. Gentleman looks at the record, he will see that that is what my hon. Friend said. As I said, there is will be an announcement very shortly—
No, I want to make some progress.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin also asked about the Borona programme and mentioned the allegation of a five-year gap at RAF Cosford. Let me be clear that that is not true; there is no intention to mothball the site. On current planning, the Army will assume ownership of the site, following the Defence College of Aeronautical Engineering vacation, in 2015. It is planned for the 102 Logistic Brigade to occupy the site in 2018.
I am grateful for the Minister of State, but it is important for my constituents and people throughout the west midlands to have something on the record this evening, so that they can at least sleep in their beds without fearing the loss of their jobs. Is it not the case that, as a result of the delay in drawing down our troops from Germany, there will be a five-year gap? The Minister suggests that people will not lose their jobs, but he will know that several hundred people are not in scope to relocate to Wales under the defence training review programme, so if they are not relocating, what jobs will they have?
I reiterate to the hon. Gentleman what I have just said: there is no intention to mothball the site. The Army will assume ownership, following the vacation, in 2015. I am more than happy to talk to him in more detail about how this will go forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) is a consistent, coherent and dogged advocate of his constituents in support of the carriers. I think that he was right to highlight the revealing testiness of the response from the Conservatives when they said that they would examine the break clauses of the contract on day one of a Conservative Government. That is in contrast to the actions we have taken in placing the orders and cutting the steel. Given the alacrity and enthusiasm with which the Conservative party is committed to going significantly beyond any savings that we have put forward in the way of cuts in public expenditure, the Conservatives have a real job of persuasion to do.
Finally, the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) wound up for the Opposition. There was one issue on which I strongly agreed with him—the need to get away from the tribalism of the services. I wholly share his concern in that regard but I will take no lectures from Conservative Members on service accommodation, which has been a problem for decades. We have struggled for 13 years to manage what we inherited from the last Conservative Government, particularly their scandalous PFI scheme, which defies any logic in terms of value for money.
Overall, we have had a good debate. We should recognise that there is more that unites us on defence than divides us. Where we can, we need to make common cause, particularly in respect of our mission in Afghanistan. Our armed forces deserve nothing less.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of defence in the world.