[ Relevant documents : Thirteenth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2006-07, on UK Operations in Afghanistan, HC 408 and the Government's response (Thirteenth Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 1024); First Report from the Committee, Session 2007-08, on UK land operations in Iraq 2007, HC 110, and the Government's response (Second Special Report, Session 2007-08, HC 352); and the Ninth Report, Session 2007-08, on the future of NATO and European defence, HC111.]
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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of defence in the world.
I welcome this opportunity to debate the role of defence in the world. Given the limits that we have imposed on ourselves for these debates, I do not have time to go into detail about how all our assets are working together to prevent and resolve conflicts around the world. I will therefore focus my comments on those areas that are most pressing and which have rightly attracted the attention of many hon. Members—namely, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Time and interventions permitting, I shall also address directly the issue of ballistic missile defence.
In his leadership campaign, Mr. Clegg promised to drag me to the Dispatch Box—that may be a paraphrase, but I do not think that it does him an injustice—to discuss ballistic missile defence. I have waited and waited, however, but he has done no such thing. Then again, the Liberal Democrats have been promising to do that for the best part of two years now, and the issue has warranted only one or two interventions from them in any debate, so I suppose that a Liberal Democrat promise is made to be broken.
We had two particular objections to the ballistic missile defence programme proposed by the Americans—it did not have the blessing or support of fellow NATO members, and there did not appear to be any meaningful dialogue with the Russians about what was being proposed. My right hon. Friend Mr. Clegg, my colleagues and I have been delighted to note that both those substantive misgivings have faded away materially in recent months. NATO has now embraced the programme, which can no longer be portrayed as a simply American initiative, and a much more productive dialogue appears to be taking place with the Russians about the nature of the defence. I notice some surprise on the Secretary of State's face, and he may want to elaborate on those points. In a sense, however, much of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam was saying has been overtaken by events.
I am glad to have been able to drag the hon. Gentleman to his feet, and I shall deal in more detail with the ballistic missile defence programme later in my speech, but none of what he said is new to those of us who are involved in discussing the matter with the US, our NATO allies and Russia. The process has been going on for a considerable time. If the developments that have been happening quite overtly have come to the attention of the Liberal Democrats and allayed their concerns, I shall be pleased to hear that they now support the position in relation to ballistic missile defence that NATO has adopted for a long time.
I shall not give way any more on this matter, as I shall deal with it specifically in my speech. I am absolutely certain that my speech will pre-empt the point that the hon. Gentleman wants to make. I am sure that, in his closing remarks, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces will seek to address any concerns that go beyond the ones that I raise in the debate.
The Government's collective aim is to shape the international environment to protect our citizens, promote our economy and defend our values. The global context in which we operate to achieve that has already been well documented, in the strategic defence review and its supplementary documents and annexes, and most recently in the national security strategy. Those documents identify the threats arising from terrorism, failed and failing states, weapons proliferation and competition for natural resources. Now, other factors such as competition for food and water and a global economic slowdown add to the complexity of that environment. We recognise those challenges, which surpass political borders. They are collective challenges, and occasionally they generate individual threats.
Is not the context of this debate the fact that although the United Kingdom has, pro rata, the best armed forces in the world and we regularly punch above our weight in international conflicts, all too often our allies, who should know better, do not give us, and the United States, the support that we deserve?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for, in an early intervention, putting his finger on an issue that we need to address in the context of this debate. The simplistic answer is to agree with him, but it is not as simple as that, as he knows. The ability of our allies to punch their weight or to step up to the plate, to use two of the phrases that are constantly used in this debate, is a function of political will, capability and capacity. In the whole history of this debate, and in the comparatively short period for which I have been Secretary of State for Defence, I have seen dramatic improvements in that regard. Certain countries have gone from being renowned for being able to contribute to peacekeeping missions to being war-fighting countries that are now able to deploy their forces with effect in very difficult circumstances. Many countries punch above their weight in relation to the size of their armed forces. Other countries have used their engagement in NATO, particularly in Afghanistan, to transform their armed forces in the way that I have described.
Without going into the detail of all those countries—there are many good examples—I would say two things about what is often the litmus test: namely, which NATO countries are in the difficult parts of Afghanistan. First, when NATO met in Riga last year there were, if I recollect correctly, about 32,000 ISAF—international security assistance force—forces there, predominantly NATO forces. When it met in Bucharest, there were 47,000. That is a significant increase, and there have been additional forces since then. Secondly, of the countries that are members of NATO, whether newer or long-standing members, slightly less than 50 per cent. are represented in the south or the east of the country. Those two broad statistics generally indicate the direction of travel. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is right, but our allies are aware of it and they are making progress.
Can the Secretary of State clarify how many countries have deployed troops to southern Afghanistan? Before the President of France's recent visit to this country, it was widely trailed that France would be deploying troops to southern Afghanistan. Have there been any developments in that direction?
There have been significant developments in that direction in the sense that the French have agreed to deploy troops to the east of Afghanistan and, in turn, the United States of America has deployed troops to Kandahar to fulfil what have become known as the Manley conditions, which were the conditions attached to the report on the Canadians' commitment to southern Afghanistan. I have figures in my head but I am not entirely sure if I remember them accurately. If the hon. Gentleman wants those figures, I am happy to provide them, but they are already in the public domain. NATO has a website that makes available to the public the specific figures relating to which countries have deployed what resources to where. They are not in any sense kept under wraps. If right hon. and hon. Members wish to have access to that information, it might be less expensive to the British Exchequer if they checked on the NATO website instead of constantly asking questions of me. I am happy to be asked about those figures—I am making a slightly facetious point—but they are in the public domain.
Is it not fair to say that the weight has been on the few and our NATO allies have been shy in coming forward, but now NATO is showing a greater commitment and the countries that have shied away in the past are beginning to come forward, and that that is the matter of fact and the basis on which we must proceed?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We have repeatedly debated and discussed this matter, and I have repeatedly answered questions on it from the Dispatch Box. I have always had a realistic approach to it. It is a function of capacity, appropriate capability and political will. An increasing number of nations are showing the political will and developing their capacity and capability to deploy. Let me take the example of helicopters, which exercises this House. There are many thousands of helicopters throughout the world. It is debatable whether they are all well equipped enough to be capable of safe deployment into the environment of southern Afghanistan, for example, where helicopters are now flown routinely in a way in which, in the recent past, they would have been flown only by people with very special skills. That is why, in the context of the NATO summit, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced an initiative to enable the equipping and training of the pilots of those helicopters to allow their deployment. It is not just a question of saying, "That country doesn't have people there"—we have to ask ourselves, "Does that country have the deployable capability, and would we want those resources to be deployed alongside our own forces in that environment?" We are improving in all those respects in the international community and with our allies daily. That is reflected in my hon. Friend's comments.
I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State, as indeed we all are, for his giving way. He mentions the importance of helicopters, which we all accept are doing a fantastic job in Afghanistan and in Iraq. However, the current version of the Lynx helicopter is not up to speed in those conditions. What is the score on the future Lynx programme, given the persistent press reports that the contract is about to be scrapped, leaving the United Kingdom with inadequate helicopter forces?
It is well known that the Department goes through a process of regularly reviewing its equipment programme; it would be irresponsible not to do so. Every time that process is gone through, there is speculation. The Lynx contract is extant—it is part of the procurement programme. I have made it perfectly clear that while that process is going on I will not get engaged in giving answers to people by identifying and salami-slicing elements of the programme. With respect to the hon. Gentleman—I understand why he asks—I am not prepared to respond to every piece of speculation. I give the House the assurance that if any decisions are made to change the status quo in relation to any part or planned part of our programme, I will make an announcement to the House.
I do not intend to get diverted into a debate about procurement or equipment issues. I have a number of points to make, and I am conscious of a sense in the House that Front Benchers should not dominate these debates and there should be time for Back Benchers to contribute.
Currently, British forces are operational across more than 12 nations, whether patrolling the South Atlantic, policing international borders in Cyprus or capacity- building in Sierra Leone, to name but three of the tasks that they take on. Our troops are all working towards a common aim—international stability.
With the operational focus often on Iraq and Afghanistan, we should not forget our commitments to Kosovo. The UK contributes around 200 troops to the NATO operation in Kosovo and continues to support security sector reform throughout the region. We should not forget our achievements there. Where once there was sectarian violence and bloodshed, there is now economic development, stability and functioning democracy. In February, the Government of Kosovo declared independence. At the time, they made it clear that Kosovo would be a democratic, secular and multi-ethnic republic and that its leaders would promote the rights and participation of all communities there. Since then, there has been steady progress by the Government of Kosovo and international authorities in meeting the obligations contained in the United Nations comprehensive proposal for a status settlement in Kosovo. The security situation has remained calm, albeit tense, and there have been sporadic incidents of violence. There is no place for violence in Kosovo, now or in the future, and the UK remains committed to promoting a stable, secure and prosperous Balkan region moving towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
As the House is aware, we are preparing to send 2nd Battalion, The Rifles to Kosovo in its role as the NATO Balkans operational reserve force. The UK ORF battalion will play an important role by reassuring all parties to the situation in Kosovo that the international community and the UK will maintain their commitment to preserving peace and stability in the region. We are well prepared to meet that long-standing commitment, which we share with our NATO allies. By planning ahead, we have ensured that the UK ORF battalion has been properly force-generated and that the impact on other operations will be minimal.
Dr. Fox has quite properly raised a number of questions about that deployment. Let me take the opportunity to address the points that he has put into the public domain. First, he asked why we made the announcement on
The hon. Gentleman asked how much the deployment would cost and where the money would come from. We estimate the cost to be around £6 million and it will be met in full from the reserve, bringing our estimated costs for our deployments to Kosovo to £28.5 million during 2008-09. It is interesting to note that the cost of our deployment there in 2003-04 was £186 million. As conditions have improved in Kosovo, the costs to the UK of our presence have fallen significantly. He asked about the impact that the ORF deployment would have on our strategic airlift capability and whether it would undermine our air bridge to Iraq and Afghanistan. Since we forward-based the heavy equipment in Kosovo at the start of our commitment to the ORF and since we will be deploying the personnel to Kosovo by civilian charter, the answers to those questions are respectively none and no.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman suggested that the Government did not have the courage to come to the House to debate the issues behind the ORF deployment. As every hon. Member can see, that is not true. I am here now, and we have not yet deployed one of those members of the ORF to Kosovo. Let me point out that we are talking not about a new commitment, but about the deployment of a standing commitment, which does not in fact deploy until the end of this month. I am here now to debate the issues and will happily debate the ORF with the hon. Gentleman and any other Member for as long as I am permitted to do so.
The 2nd Battalion, The Rifles is the battalion with which I served and I hope that the House wishes it well in its deployment to Kosovo. However, the regiment has just returned from Iraq, so I ask the Secretary of State: has enough time been given for the battalion to re-engage with families and to retrain before it takes up that other commitment? The biggest question Britons will be asking is why it is yet again the British who are stepping forward when there is so much pressure on our armed services and while the rest of Europe seems to turn a blind eye to the problems in Kosovo.
First, the hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to those forces whom he served with, and as he would expect, they are greatly looking forward to going. They are confident that they will do an excellent job there, just as they did in Iraq, and that they will do so in future, if they are ever deployed again. There are 18,000 troops from the international community in Kosovo, so it is not right to say that other countries are not bearing their share of the burden of peacekeeping there. Sometimes when I consider the number of troops there, in an area the size of Wales, I draw another conclusion with regard to the number of troops we are able to deploy to other theatres. The hon. Gentleman's point is worth making as a debating point, but it is not factually correct.
Following on from my right hon. Friend's point about the number of troops in Kosovo, many of us were delighted when we were able to say that we no longer needed to have a presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For many of us it therefore seems distressing that we now have to send another set of troops to operate out of Pristina. How long does he think that European troops will have to be there in the sort of numbers there at present? If he is not able to answer that question, how will he know, and how will Europe know, when we no longer need to be present?
Broadly, although the situation in Kosovo has to be nurtured and encouraged step by step, most people think that progress is being made. Progress is evident throughout the Balkans.
First, we should not see the deployment of the operational reserve force, which is being done after careful consideration by the commander of NATO forces of the appearance he needs to present to give security on the ground, as an indication of regression. It is an indication of progress. Secondly, we have been committed for some time, with other countries, to provide the ORF to Kosovo—I think that the commitment goes back to 2003, but if I am incorrect, I shall correct the record. We have been on standby, as it were, at various stages of readiness to take action along with other countries. Other countries have fulfilled this role. We are at the highest state of readiness at this time, and it is right that we should fulfil our commitment.
We are not expected to do something in Kosovo that others are not prepared to do, as some have suggested. I repeat the point I made earlier: there are 18,000 troops from countries throughout the world in Kosovo. We are able to see the progress that is taking place because of that level of commitment. If the commanders who achieved that, working with others and the broader international community, suggest that something needs to be done and make a request, it is entirely appropriate that we respond. Of course, we need to take into account the effect on our troops and their families. We would not send the battalion if we felt we were affecting its ability to recuperate from operational deployment to Iraq or its ability to retrain and be ready for further deployment, should that be necessary in the future.
Would the Secretary of State reflect on the fact that we are talking not about European troops deployed elsewhere, but about European troops in Europe? The achievement of British and European troops in Kosovo—indeed, throughout the former Yugoslav republics—has a direct impact on the security of the UK and the livelihoods of all our constituents. We should be congratulating the Government on taking responsibility for making a short-term deployment at this time. It is better that we do it now, in a measured and careful way, than find ourselves having to make a much larger commitment in six months or so. The long-term good and prosperity of Kosovo is good for all of our nations, not just the people of that region.
I am always happy to accept congratulations for the Government, no matter where they come from— [ Laughter. ] I should be more gracious to the hon. Gentleman; he made a very good point. I am reluctant to accede to it, however, lest that be interpreted to mean that I think that the borders of Europe define where the borders of our security lie. The reality of the modern world suggests that the front line of our security can be quite far away from the borders of Europe, or indeed our own borders. His point is absolutely correct, however, and instead of interpreting every move, particularly a military move, as a function of failure, we should understand that it is our ability to change the levels of our forces as we have in the Balkans, and to use them to give a degree of security and stability to allow complementary civil work to take place, that has resulted in the painstaking progress made over more than a decade to bring that region its current stability. It also allows us to welcome the component elements of the former Yugoslavia into not only Europe but a Euro-Atlantic relationship, which reinforces what we have achieved. Indeed, we should congratulate ourselves—hon. Members of all parties, this country and our wider alliances—on our achievements, because it did not look as though we could piece things back together in that way.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the steps he has taken on Kosovo, which is a function of our ability to recruit people to our armed forces. Has he taken the opportunity to talk to the National Union of Teachers about its policy of making it increasingly difficult for our armed forces to speak to young people who might want to pursue a military career? Will he say now that it is important to have armed forces that undertake peacekeeping and that the NUT should understand that?
I reassure my hon. Friend that many debates that NUT meetings generate have the opposite effect from the one that the NUT seeks to achieve. I am not aware of evidence to suggest a reduction in head teachers' interest in having members of our armed forces make the important contribution that they have made for generations to the education of our young people. All hon. Members and the wider community know that our young people have much more to learn from what the armed forces can show them about their way of life, standards, discipline, loyalty and comradeship than to fear from engaging with our armed forces in the context of controlled exposure to what the world is like. I have no doubt that, as the public expression of admiration for our armed forces increases, as is happening exponentially throughout the country, more and more will be invited into schools to share with young people the way in which the chemistry works.
My anxiety about our armed forces' engagement with the education system is that I will be accused of allowing too much of it and people will say that I am overstretching them by allowing them to do too much across the education estate. However, my hon. Friend Mr. Drew need not fear. Sometimes, I am grateful when extreme issues are put in the public domain because they allow people to approach the subject in a more measured and sensible way than at first appears.
I thank my right hon. Friend and his colleagues for their work to ensure that we mark the contribution of our servicemen and women through Veterans day. Does he agree that working through the veterans' associations and bringing them into play in our education system on Veterans day and other occasions is a good way of ensuring that people have a rounded and well founded view of the role of our armed services?
My hon. Friend puts her finger on one of the key aims of Veterans day—a day of appropriate celebration, to which we all look forward. One of the potential benefits of veterans' badges is that young people and communities can identify by that simple method people who have experience of the armed forces and who can engage with young people. I know from my constituency that young people are hungry to hear about such experiences, which many will never have but greatly admire. They can learn much from them. On many occasions, I have seen veterans, especially those of service from many years ago, keep young children in raptures with the stories of their experiences. It is a wonderful part of life. I do not wish to be trite, but passing on such oral history from generation to generation is part of being British.
In Afghanistan, our forces are working to ensure that that benighted country never again becomes a base for international terrorists. The events of September 2001 demonstrate clearly that, in a global world, the counter-terrorist front line is often far from our domestic borders. We must and will maintain deployable, expeditionary forces able to meet that challenge, wherever it confronts us.
I regularly visit our troops in Afghanistan. On each occasion, I am highly impressed by their professional conduct and high morale in extremely challenging conditions. That reaction is common among all those who visit them, and I know that many hon. Members have done so, for which I commend them.
I am conscious of the time that I have been on my feet and the many pages that remain in front of me, but I will give way, given that my hon. Friend is one of those who have visited our troops.
Like other members of the Defence Committee, I value those visits because they give us an insight into what happens on the ground. It also makes us proud to see those men and women working very hard. However, the Ministry is putting the visits in jeopardy. On our latest visit, we were told that we will have to undergo a medical and fitness test before any Member of Parliament is allowed to go on future visits. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider that because I am sure that some of us are not as fit as others and may not pass the test?
The matter needs to be looked into quickly. I will take it away and get back to my hon. Friend. I have not been challenged about that, but I think that I need to look into it.
As well as being impressed by the professionalism and morale of our servicemen and women in Afghanistan, I have also seen for myself the positive impact that our troops are making there. That applies not only to them but to others deployed in a supporting civilian capacity, including civil servants from the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and others. They are collectively making a positive impact by creating a secure environment so that Afghans can go about their lives as they wish.
I have listened to our troops tell me that the equipment that they now use is the best that they have ever had. That is their opinion and it is also mine. In the last financial year alone, we delivered equipment worth more than £4.5 billion to the armed forces. Better personal protection and weapons, new armour, new vehicles, new surveillance capabilities and more helicopters have not gone unnoticed by those on the front line. I am sure that all hon. Members know about the quotation from the current brigadier in Afghanistan about the equipment there. Our procurement programme is now paying substantial dividends.
We, along with the international community, must continue to support the Afghan Government, and we are doing that.
On a point of clarification, the Secretary of State recently made a statement on the future rapid effect system programme, which is vital to what he is discussing. He announced that Pirhana 5 from General Dynamics is the preferred design. We want to ask several questions about that because he said that it would be subject to the completion of a package of work on risk reduction and that then it would be made available at the earliest opportunity. What do those terms mean, and what now constitutes the earliest opportunity for FRES to be delivered?
We will not be in a position to announce the in-service date for FRES until the main investment decision is taken. In essence, the decision is announced as a provisional preferred decision, because there is more work to do to ensure that we deliver the best capability and secure the best deal for defence and the taxpayer. Of course, that work will be done with the appropriate haste, when we are in a position to announce the outcome of that work, including on risk reduction, and I will make further announcements to the House. I am not in a position to anticipate when a programme of work will be completed from the start point, but it will be completed with appropriate haste to give respect to the issues that need to be dealt with.
I hear what the Secretary of State says about improved security in Afghanistan. I often think that the poppy crop is an indicator of security in the country. I have heard the various policies that he has espoused to tackle the poppy crop, but it has increased year upon year. In fact, it was lower in the Taliban years than it is now. Can the Secretary of State explain why we have not managed to tackle the poppy crop?
I would not rely entirely on the statistics published by the Taliban on the size of the poppy crop when they were running the country. The Taliban held out to the public the view that they were opposed to the production of opium, but there is clear evidence that they were controlling it, while telling the international community—and even persuading some members—the opposite. The Taliban's current behaviour, along with that of other insurgents in Afghanistan, does not suggest to me that they are a reliable source of information on the state of production at that time.
There is no doubt that the growth of poppies and the production of opium and their relationship with the insurgency are serious and important issues. Significant progress has been made in making large parts of Afghanistan poppy-free. That is independently assessed and reported on by the United Nations. There has been a concentration of poppy growth in the areas that are least secure, which happen to be the most difficult areas—the parts of the country where, by and large, there has never been any governance. Those parts also happen to be predominantly in the southern part of the country, where we and others are trying to engage the Taliban and other insurgents.
There is no doubt that the Taliban and other insurgents are taking advantage of the security situation in those areas to exploit their hold over the local population through the growth of poppies. Progress is increasingly being made in delivering security, but we need to move beyond that, to the key to reducing the growth of poppies, which is to provide alternative livelihoods. That is not just about saying—as we can, of course—that almost anything will grow in the Helmand river valley during the growing season, for example, when that soil and water are put together; it is about providing a crop that will produce cash. In order to do that, the broad infrastructure needs to be built, so that people can get crops to the market and sell them, and make a living. That is what we are concentrating on, and I shall come to some statistics on the progress being made later.
I am eternally grateful for the support that that incremental approach, with all the pillars of the anti-narcotics strategy that we have signed up to, consistently receives in the House. There is no simple solution to the problem. Aerial spraying will not deal with it, and neither will buying the poppy crop from the farmers. I notice that on his blog the hon. Member for Woodspring recently expressed a remarkably unqualified degree of support for buying the poppy crop in Afghanistan—if I have misinterpreted him, he can no doubt deal with that. I do not believe that to be the solution, nor do I understand it to be the Opposition's policy—perhaps the hon. Gentleman was just expressing a personal view.
However, that policy is not the solution, for the simple reason that the country just does not have the infrastructure to ensure that it targets the sole poppy crop. I am certain that if we offered to buy the poppy crop, as many people encourage us to do, the poppy crop would double. There would be no reason for the narcotics dealers to give up trying to get farmers to grow more. Despite the size of the crop, farmers currently grow poppies on only about 4 per cent. of the arable land in Afghanistan, so there is plenty of room for expansion. We just need to work painstakingly through the problem. There are some indications, with the way commodity prices are going, that the growing of wheat, for example, is becoming increasingly attractive to Afghan farmers, for obvious reasons. We need to work on the problem and make progress across the international community, but we also need to make progress on the complementary aspects, including the criminal justice system, by getting some of the big boys before the courts and into jail.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way again. Does he not agree that another important part of the complex situation that we need to tackle—indeed, we are responsible for taking the lead—is ensuring that the drug dealers at the highest levels in Afghanistan are dealt with? When my right hon. Friend next meets President Karzai, will he ensure that he understands that Members of Parliament representing constituencies such as mine, which supplies many of the marines to fight in Afghanistan, are looking to him to deal with the situation as a matter of urgency?
My hon. Friend makes another good point, which reinforces the part of my response to Willie Rennie that I had reached when I allowed her to intervene. It is important that key narcotics barons are taken out, brought before the courts and given exemplary sentences. It is key, too, that there should be a commitment from the top of the Afghan Government to that process and to eradicating corruption, which is a particular difficulty in some parts of the structure of Afghanistan, if not endemic.
However, we have to understand where the country has come from. The message that my hon. Friend articulated so well is given by every interlocutor—not just from this Government, but from the whole international community—to President Karzai. He is a man who faces a significant challenge in leading his country, but he is in no doubt that dealing with corruption and drug dealers is an important priority for those of us making the sort of contribution that she describes to the security and future of his country.
I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who I know has some knowledge and even, dare I say, expertise.
I am grateful for that comment. On my previous visit, I was shocked to learn that the international security assistance force continues to fly in more than 90,000 bottles of water every week for the ISAF troops. The Secretary of State mentioned infrastructure, which must be the key to solving Afghanistan. We could do more if we bought local produce. Everything in Lashkar Gar is ferried in from many miles away. With 7,000 people, the Dutch provincial reconstruction team is in a town and could help to support the local community, but it does not do so in any way, fashion or form, in the sense that it does not buy a single apple locally. That can all change if we start purchasing things locally. Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that he will see what can be done about purchasing more local produce?
I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, but with respect, there is a balance to be struck. Having growing communities depend on garrisons is not sustainable either. That of course does not undermine his point about bottled water, which is an impressive point. I shall make inquiries off the back of that point, and I am certain that I shall uncover a mixed picture. I know that our significant development in Camp Bastion puts a large amount of money into the local community because, apart from anything else, we employ local people. I will try to find out the picture across ISAF; I will write to the hon. Gentleman and put my response in the Library so that all Members can access the information.
As I was saying, we, along with the international community, must continue to support the Afghan Government, which is what we are doing. That is why all 40 troop-contributing nations to ISAF reaffirmed in Bucharest their commitment to Afghanistan, and why many—notably the French, who will deploy an additional battalion to regional command east—made additional contributions of troops. The United States has deployed a marine expeditionary unit of 3,000 personnel to southern Afghanistan. They are working closely and effectively with UK forces, complementing our efforts and allowing us to spread the writ of the Afghan Government further and faster.
We fully support the appointment of Kai Eide, the new special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, to facilitate better co-ordination of the international community's efforts in Afghanistan. There is already evidence that he is having a significant effect. His appointment will ensure that we are able to optimise the delivery of reconstruction and development into the security space that is being created by the courage and professionalism of our armed forces. That will be the decisive act in our mission in Afghanistan.
Ultimately, this will be delivered through the Afghan national development strategy, which is the vision of the Afghan Government themselves to improve conditions for their people. I look forward to the Paris conference, to be held in June this year, where members of the international community will come together again to refine and co-ordinate the implementation of the whole strategy. The road ahead will not always be easy—there will be setbacks—but there is mounting evidence that we are making real progress. Security is taking root in many areas and basic services are improving. The Taliban, who once boasted that they would drive ISAF out of Afghanistan, have themselves been driven from large areas of the country.
About 60 per cent. of Afghanistan is relatively stable, with no or very few security incidents. Since
Afghan security forces are playing an increasing role in their own security. There are now more than 50,000 troops in the Afghan national army, and the first battalion to become independently operational is now fully trained and equipped. There are also more than 76,000 officers in the police force. In the light of those expanding Afghan forces, the Afghan Government have announced their intention to take over responsibility for security in Kabul by August this year. That will be a key step on the way to achieving our ambition to make Afghanistan a stable state with secure borders.
Such security and stability are equally our ambition for Iraq.
I listened with interest to the fact that the Afghan national forces are now coming into play and are looking to take over Kabul. Does my right hon. Friend have any indication of what the next step will be and can we see the light at the end of the tunnel? By what projected date can we expect those forces to be in control of the major part of Afghanistan?
My hon. Friend asks a perfectly sensible and appropriate question. I give the answer that I always give from the Dispatch Box when I am asked to give dates relating to future developments on security matters, particularly on handing over control, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. The answer is that it will depend on conditions on the ground. An assessment by the ISAF commander and the Afghan Government came to the conclusion that their forces were reaching the stage where they could increasingly take over security in the city on an incremental basis. I am not aware that the process is taking place in any other part of Afghanistan, but it is not surprising that the capital city and surrounding area should be first, because that is where the concentration of forces and their training takes place. As we found in Iraq, we can reach a certain point in respect of the training of forces where this process accelerates. We started out with just one or two provinces in Iraq, but we can see today that many provinces have been handed over. That is exactly how we will do it in Afghanistan. My hon. Friend should keep asking the question, and I am sure that I will be progressively more able to answer it in a positive way than I am at the moment.
Coming back to Iraq, I have made many visits and seen the work that our forces are doing to help the Iraqis make the objective of security and stability a reality. Since the end of March, our forces have been supporting Prime Minister al-Maliki's security surge in Basra. After some early challenges, those operations have yielded very considerable success. On Sunday, the Iraqi security forces concluded their sector-by-sector clearance of the city, as a result of which I can report to the House the current situation in Basra: the grip of the militias has been broken, with their leadership in flight or in hiding, and huge quantities of illegal weaponry have been recovered. There are now early but encouraging signs that life in Basra is returning to normal. The city is much more relaxed, with women feeling once more able to dress as they wish, and the university campus is vibrant.
What we are seeing in Basra has not happened overnight. It is the product of years of hard work, principally by our armed forces and by the Iraqis. Through our training and mentoring, we brought the Iraqis to the point last December where they could take the lead in Basra, with the transition taking place later, when our forces could step back from the city. We have also worked hard to separate those willing to participate in the democratic process from the extremists. All that has exposed the true nature of the militias, which had previously used our presence in the city as a cover for their violent criminal activities.
All the American resources in Basra came there for two principal reasons. First, on account of the decision of Prime Minister al-Maliki, Basra became the main effort for the Iraqi security forces. Consequently, senior members of its command came into the city. They worked with and were mentored by the American troops that came with them. Secondly, they also deployed American mentor troops, particularly from Anbar, to augment the 14th Division, which was trained and mentored by the United Kingdom. The Americans came with the Iraqis as they were deployed, so they brought additional resource—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance resource and other resource enablers—with them, to the advantage of the whole operation. That accounts for all the numbers. This was not an American deployment—
The hon. Gentleman interrupts with a sedentary comment about whether that was a training exercise. He clearly does not understand what MiTTs— military transition teams—are. All the Iraqi troops, as they have been trained and developed, are mentored by the troops that operate with them. As they come forward, so do those who work with them, but in significantly lower numbers than the Iraqi troops themselves. They eat, sleep, fight and work with them, so it is not a training exercise, but a process of mentoring and ensuring that the Iraqi troops are able to continue to do what they have been trained to do. That entirely explains the position. Dr. Murrison, who is a keen student of these matters, will have noted that my explanation is exactly the same as the one that General David Petraeus gave when he was asked the same question by our media on his recent visit here.
I have outlined the reasons why the Iraqi security forces have enjoyed such strong public support, reflecting a widespread recognition that the men of violence are not fighting for the people of Basra—as they used to suggest—but against them.
I think that I have taken enough interventions. The point I am making is that the militia pretended that they were fighting for the people of Basra, but the people of Basra now know that they were fighting against them.
However, such progress does not mean that we can simply declare success now and bring our troops home. Although real progress has clearly been made, it remains fragile, and needs to be consolidated and sustained. Lasting stability requires the Iraqis to make political and, above all, economic progress. The biggest single worry for the people of Basra is not security, but unemployment. Progress is being made: only the day before yesterday, a new market was opened in the Jameat area of Basra, built as a joint British-Iraqi venture, while last week I attended a reception for the Basra development commission at No. 10 Downing street, which brought together the captains of British industry, and they showed a great interest in investing in southern Iraq. We have been following up on that with some success, but all of this will take time to fix.
This—successful—operation has shown that the Iraqis still have some way to go before they can operate without our assistance. They remain reliant upon us and our coalition partners for advice on how to plan and execute their operations, as well as for logistic and medical support and for specialist capabilities, such as fast jets, helicopters and surveillance. So our forces still have an extremely important job to do. In particular, our focus is on the following: completing the training of the 14th Division of the Iraqi army, which will provide the backbone for the long-term Iraqi security presence in Basra; taking forward the development of the Iraqi navy; and setting Basra's international airport on the path towards international accreditation. For the time being, the number of British forces in southern Iraq will remain broadly unchanged, while our military commanders continue to analyse the force levels we need to deliver these tasks in the changed and changing environment, but we will continue to reduce our force levels as conditions allow, and we will, of course, keep the House informed of our plans.
We look to Iraq's future with growing optimism, but we also recognise the real challenges that remain. Iraq's neighbours have their part to play, alongside UK forces and our coalition partners, in helping Iraq move to a stable and prosperous future—and it is as much in their interests that that future be stable and prosperous as it is in the Iraqis' interests. Syria should continue to clamp down on the movement of foreign fighters, and Iran must stop arming those who threaten the democratically elected Government of Iraq and the coalition forces. We want to see all Iraq's neighbours, including Iran, playing a responsible role in the region.
In Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq we are seeing slow but steady change towards states that are democratic and accountable, and that respect the rule of law and protect all their citizens, and change away from states that support terrorism or ethnic violence, or defy the legitimate will of the international community.
Having focused on current operations, I should now turn to future threats. It is the prime responsibility of any Government to ensure, as far as possible, the safety and security of their people, and that responsibility is at the core of Government policy. We do not believe that any state with ballistic missiles currently has the intent to target them against the UK mainland, but we know that ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction are proliferating among states of concern. The pace of that proliferation, as well as the intentions of the states developing those capabilities, is hard to gauge. However, we do know that intentions can quickly change, and we must be ready to respond to those changes.
At Bucharest, NATO again clearly set out its position on ballistic missile defence:
"Ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to Allies' forces, territory and populations. Missile defence forms part of a broader response to counter this threat."
Therefore, this is not just a US-UK issue, or a US issue with a number of other allies. This is, and has long been, a NATO issue.
From the public discussion paper we issued in December 2002, we have been very open about the assumptions and reasoning behind our policy on ballistic missile defence. As we have said many times before, the UK Government have no plans independently to acquire ballistic missile defence assets, nor do we have existing plans to host US ballistic missile interceptor sites in the UK. Nor are we engaged in any secret discussions with the US on these issues, as the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam would have us all believe. We already contribute to the US system, through the early warning radar information provided by RAF Fylingdales and by allowing the satellite data routed through RAF Menwith Hill to be used in the BMD system, and we also have close co-operative arrangements with it on technology programmes. When I announced to the House last July that the upgrade to the radar at RAF Fylingdales was complete, I noted:
There have been accusations that the Government slipped out the announcement on RAF Menwith Hill just prior to the recess. That was not the case. After consulting with the Cabinet on a US request to use the satellite downlink at the station for BMD purposes, I replied to the US Defence Secretary on
We would be foolish not to keep a vigilant eye on the world and on changes in the strategic threat. If in the future we decide that the acquisition of such technology becomes essential to the security of the United Kingdom, we will re-examine the position. However, such a re-examination would not come from a desire to follow blindly the defence policy of any other nation, but from a recognition of our need to provide for our own national security against emerging threats. We cannot delay our planning and consideration of this issue until the strategic environment is such that a ballistic missile defence capability becomes a necessity. In terms of such highly complex systems, many years of development are required to produce something that is feasible and credible. If there is a need to take further steps on participation in missile defence, the Government will—as they have done consistently in the past—present those propositions to the House and have the necessary discussions, but we would only seek to do this when there are proposals or propositions to be made that go beyond the principles agreed with Parliament in 2003, and at present there are none.
I hope that that—brief—contribution makes the Government position clear, and that now the Liberal Democrats and their leadership will, instead of constantly suggesting that they will have to drag us to the Dispatch Box to debate this matter, engage in the discussion and tell us what their party's position is in relation to this essential part of the security of this country and of our NATO allies, almost every one of which is signed up to exploring the potential of this form of defence.
Finally, I must pay tribute to those who make the UK's defence policies a reality. As I speak, British forces are making a huge contribution to international security—a contribution of great cost to some, but of great benefit to many. The men and women of the British armed forces prove themselves on a daily basis to be of the highest calibre. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, British military personnel are demonstrating once again that they are world-class professionals. But their service is not without sacrifice. Families up and down the UK know only too well what an enormous cost those in the armed forces can—and do—pay. I owe them—and this House and the nation owe them—a huge debt of gratitude. We live in a safer place because of their brave and dedicated service. In recognition of the huge amount they do for us, it is absolutely right that we continue to assess and improve our support to them, both at home and on operations. The personnel Command Paper, the national recognition study and our review of many support policies are undertaken in exactly that light.
I have no doubt the whole House will join me in thanking every member of the armed forces for their hard work in defending the UK and its interests. I commend their work to the House.
Since the previous defence in the world debate, 95 British service members have made the ultimate sacrifice and have not come home from Iraq or Afghanistan. They died, as many of their predecessors did, making Britain safer and giving a better life to citizens of countries that enjoy far fewer benefits than us. This House should never forget that.
I wish quickly to recognise an important day in our nation's history. Some 63 years ago today, Winston Churchill announced to the House that the sacrifices of millions had finally led to the end of hostilities in Europe, saying:
The declaration of Victory in Europe day brought to a close six years of total war in Europe. Of course, that in turn led to the bipolar cold war, the rise of NATO, the creation of what we know today as the European Union and, 63 years later, the interdependent, globalised world that we face today.
Since the proclamation of VE day on
That interdependence has major implications for how we think about and organise our national security structures. The luxury—although that is perhaps not how we saw it then—of the bipolar world of the cold war allowed us to set a clear direction for our national security. The unpredictability that we currently face forces us simultaneously to be both reactive and proactive, and to adapt to ever changing challenges.
Conservatives welcome this debate, and I wish to raise a number of issues: the situation in Iraq, and Iran's involvement there; the threats that we continue to face in Afghanistan; energy security, the new scramble for the Arctic and the potential threats posed by a resurgent Russia; the need to deal with asymmetric threats; and the need to maintain the primacy of NATO and to ensure its political and military flexibility to deal with changing threats.
Let me begin with the situation in Iraq, where there are grounds for optimism on a number of fronts. First, the American surge under General Petraeus seems to be delivering tangible improvements in security. Like the Secretary of State, I was fortunate enough last week to spend some time with both General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, both of whom I found to be impressive and sincere. There is also cause for optimism now that Prime Minister al-Maliki has taken on the militias in Basra. There is a tendency in this country to see the whole conflict in Iraq through a religious prism of a Sunni-Shi'a conflict, but there is also a strong nationalist tradition in Iraq, and the willingness of its Government to tackle the often Iranian-supported militias seems to have had the effect, at least in part, of uniting the Kurds and Sunnis behind the Prime Minister and of convincing the population in the south that they have not been abandoned. The Prime Minister's campaign against the militias seems to have been genuine and sustained, even if perhaps it was, in parts, inadequately planned and required British and American support. Thankfully, it seems to have had some success, but in the future the Iraqi Government will need fully to involve coalition planners, and to do so in a more timely fashion.
I would like to raise one thing that was not on the hon. Gentleman's list. One legacy of the 63 years to which he referred has been our physical presence in Germany in large numbers. Does he support the reduction in those numbers and the evolving of our presence into wider co-operation with Europe and NATO?
If the hon. Gentleman will have a little patience, I shall come to exactly that issue towards the end of my speech.
Some 4,000 British troops remain in Iraq. Some of our forces are embedded in, fighting with and mentoring the Iraqi security forces, enabling them to take eventual control of their own security affairs. Those on the ground argue that British troops are playing an important role, and that this is no time to be talking about withdrawing them from Iraq. We should listen to those voices, but the Government need to explain continuously to the British public, with clarity, exactly how they see the role of British troops developing and how the overwatch operation will change over time. In particular, there needs to be an honest appraisal of the risks posed to our troops, directly and indirectly, from Iran.
"increasingly lethal and malign influence" in Iraq. He went on to say that recent operations in Basra had revealed
"just how much and how far Iran is reaching into Iraq to foment instability".
That is an important matter. The Secretary of State has all but said that Iranian involvement has led directly to the deaths of British troops in Iraq, but we need to hear more about what is being done by British forces and at the diplomatic level to counter the threat that Iran poses to Iraqi stability. The hard-won gains of emerging democratic authority, improving stability, and the sacrifices made by coalition troops and the Iraqi people cannot be allowed to be put in jeopardy by the actions of the Iranian regime.
I would like to turn, as the Secretary of State did, to another part of the world that is a little closer to home. Many pages of European history have been written in the Balkans, which have always been vital to Europe's geo-strategic interests, and there has been no shortage of armed conflict over its territory over the centuries. The images of the wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan mean that it is easy wrongly to assume that peacekeeping in Kosovo will be a more straightforward affair. Let us make no mistake: regardless of how benign things may appear in Kosovo, our troops there will still be at risk. That is why we found it extremely regrettable that we were not given an oral statement on the deployment of our forces there last week. I am pleased that some of the questions that we subsequently asked were answered by the Secretary of State today, although some remain.
In his written statement, the Secretary of State said that the troops would be deployed "until
I was interested to hear that what happens in Kosovo will, again, be paid for entirely from the reserve, but that raises a basic issue that comes up again and again. Not only are we carrying the military burden through our troops, but our taxpayers are carrying the full burden, because there is no proper financial burden-sharing of what NATO does. As the Leader of the Opposition said recently, there needs to be far better financial burden-sharing in both NATO and the EU. Again, I hope that the Minister for the Armed Forces will answer some of those points.
I understand that in addition to sourcing the requirement for the operational reserve force that is now being deployed to Kosovo, the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles was also serving as our spearhead land element. Which unit will take over while that one is in Kosovo? Do we have the capability to react to the unexpected? Let me paint a picture of the wider political situation facing us in Kosovo. Serbia is trying to include northern parts of Kosovo in its general election later this month; there are unconfirmed reports that Serbia is massing troops and munitions along its border with Kosovo; and there are media accounts of tension along sections of the Macedonia-Kosovo border. Our troops are going to face many risks in a volatile environment and very challenging circumstances. There is no doubt that, as always, they will perform superbly. If we made a commitment to NATO to provide the operational reserve force for the Balkans, we have an obligation to the alliance that we must fulfil, but the problem with this mission goes beyond the obvious question of overstretch and touches on questions of Government planning.
As a country, we are more than fulfilling our obligations to the NATO alliance in Afghanistan, as one of my hon. Friends said in an intervention. Last year, once
Bearing in mind the Secretary of State's response to another question, we will keep a close eye on this issue and table parliamentary questions on any potential impact that operations in Kosovo will have on the airbridge to Afghanistan and Iraq. The concern is not without justification. New figures show how regularly our troops are delayed returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. Given that they have to report to the flight line many hours before a flight, it is a huge issue when 11 per cent. of all flights from Afghanistan are delayed by more than six hours, leaving our troops often on the floor or losing days of leave. That can have a significant impact on morale, as anyone who has spoken to our forces there will attest. It is simply not good enough.
I doubt whether many of those serving think that overstretch is a myth. The hon. Gentleman might want to think again about using those particular words. I have made it clear that where we have obligations we have to fulfil them, but I question whether it was sensible for the Government not to try to see whether others might have been able to carry a little more of the load.
We also need to look at the integration of the NATO and EU roles in Kosovo. Even though both aim to provide stability and security to Kosovo, NATO's KFOR military mission and the EU's rule of law civilian mission operate under two separate chains of command in Kosovo. As of last week, arrangements to facilitate co-ordination and mutual support between the two organisations were still under discussion. As we have learned from Afghanistan, where there are multiple military and civilian chains of command, it is vital that the security and reconstruction efforts are closely co-ordinated. In Kosovo, it will be no different. Perhaps the Minister of State will be able to update the House on the status of the agreement between KFOR and EULEX and what efforts the Government have made to ensure that operations will not be undermined by failure to integrate fully.
Future stability in the Balkans is in everyone's interest and we must do all that we can to ensure a favourable outcome. The one thing that the region clearly needs as it passes through this difficult stage is united international support and a strong international presence. The international community has invested enormous effort and good will to help the people of the region recover from the ravages of war, shake off the legacy of nationalism and join Euro-Atlantic structures. Thanks to that, Slovenia has become a fully fledged member of the EU and NATO and Croatia is on track to join the EU and was formally invited to join NATO at Bucharest, along with Albania—to name but a few of the achievements of recent years.
Those hard-won successes are an example for the whole region. We cannot let Kosovo slip away. We understand that, the Americans understand that, NATO and the EU understand that, and Russia needs to understand that. The Balkans is one area where we have seen tensions with Russia, but there are others. Last summer, Russia announced its intention to annex a 460,000 sq m portion of ice-covered Arctic. Scientists claim that that area, on which Russia has audaciously set its sights, may contain 10 billion tonnes of gas and oil deposits. While that ridiculous claim has no legitimate legal basis, the west must take such threats from Russia seriously. With ice melting in the Arctic, and shipping passages and possible mineral exploitation becoming an increasing possibility, we may be witnessing a scramble for the resource-rich Arctic.
It has been argued by some that as the EU and NATO push eastward towards the Caspian region, Russia is looking towards the north. A scramble for Arctic resources will bring a new dynamic to international security and how we address threats. In the UK, with our focus on Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, it would be easy to ignore. The complexity of the Arctic question makes it too easy to look the other way and hope that someone else deals with some of the problems. But are we as a nation, or NATO as our collective security alliance, ready to deal with any threat that may emerge over the Arctic?
On a recent trip to Ottawa, I found that the issue of Arctic security is taken very seriously. Prime Minister Harper has stated that:
"Canada's Government understands that the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is use it or lose it".
Canada will open a new army training centre for cold-weather fighting at Resolute bay, and a deepwater port on the northern tip of Baffin island. Canada is also beefing up its military presence in the far north by adding 900 Rangers to the 4,000 already there. Last July, Prime Minister Harper announced that six to eight new navy patrol ships would be built to guard the north-west passage sea route in the Arctic.
I am afraid that we have witnessed only the very beginning of the struggle for the Arctic, and it does not even appear to be on the radar here in the UK. Although there are several international institutions, such as the UN's Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, that are able to deal with these issues in a multilateral way, we need to be prepared for anything.
The only icebreaker we have available is HMS Endurance. The United States is little better off with two active icebreakers in its coastguard. At the same time, Russia has a fleet of eight nuclear-powered icebreakers and has plans to build the world's largest icebreaker. Because of ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, our helicopter pilots have had reduced training in Arctic conditions. In 2007, there were no Chinook or Apache helicopter training missions for Arctic conditions and only five Sea King, three Lynx, two Gazelle and three Puma helicopters received any sort of Arctic training at all.
We need to set all that against political developments in Russia. Yesterday, Mr. Medvedev officially became Russia's Head of State, taking over from Mr. Putin, but a change of direction is unlikely. As Mr. Medvedev is the former chair of Gazprom's board of directors, it can be assumed that Russia's energy policy under its new president will stay consistent with that of Mr. Putin.
If military might and nuclear weapons formed the core of Soviet cold war power, Russian elites view its energy resources as the basis of its power now. Russia is rivalling Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer and is estimated to have the world's largest natural gas supplies with 1,680 trillion cu ft—nearly twice the reserves of Iran, which has the next largest. Russia has demonstrated that it will use its energy resources to promote a broader foreign policy agenda. That was illustrated when Russia reduced gas supplies to Ukraine as part of a bilateral dispute and when it doubled the price of gas to Georgia in 2005.
Russia's petrodollars are financing a $189 billion overhaul of its armed forces between now and 2015. They will purchase more than 1,000 new aircraft and helicopters, 4,000 new tanks and armoured vehicles and a new submarine fleet. New missiles will carry nuclear warheads. The great irony is that western addiction to oil and gas is funding Russia's military build-up.
When I recently visited the Falklands, there was an active interest in that, although whether those in the Falklands regard it as our oil or their oil is an interesting question. Perhaps we could address it with the legislative council of the Falklands islands.
The EU has an important role to play in the energy picture, especially in countering some of the difficulties posed by Russia. An end needs to be brought to the divide and rule that the Kremlin operates through single-nation sweetheart deals. The European Commission must act to remove protectionism and national monopolies, creating a genuine free market in energy.
Better interconnections will reduce the risk of supplies being cut off for those who displease the Kremlin, but the EU will not be a sufficiently strong vehicle. NATO, as was decided at Riga, must play a key role in ensuring energy security for the west. Any decision on energy security that excludes Norway and Turkey, neither of which are in the EU, would be flawed. In order to face 21st-century threats, it has been argued that NATO's article 5 could be expanded to include energy security. We shall certainly have to consider that in the months and years ahead.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Falkland Islands, an overseas territory, does not possess its mineral rights—the UK still does. On the question of the Arctic, is it now Conservative policy that the Royal Navy should be equipped with a fleet of icebreakers? That seemed to be the line of the hon. Gentleman's argument. I can understand why that should be the case for Canada, which has thousands of miles of border with the Arctic, or for Russia, which has tens of thousands of miles of such a border, but is he suggesting that the UK armed forces should be somehow configured with a serious capability to fight Arctic warfare?
Of course we are not considering that that should be in any way a unique UK capability. My question is whether new types of threats are emerging, whether NATO is looking collectively at how to deal with the problem and whether we should raise the issues further up the agenda for public discussion. When one sits in the Canadian Parliament or talks to Canadian Ministers—or to the Danes or Norwegians—it is striking that they have a different view of how global warming might affect economic and strategic issues in the future.
NATO can play a key role in securing transport routes. Operation Active Endeavour, which has been patrolling the Mediterranean since 2001, is a good example of NATO co-operation on maritime security. Giving NATO a greater role in energy security would provide Turkey with added prestige and allow reformers a breathing space, given the short-sighted attitude taken to its EU membership by some of the EU's more prominent members.
May I clarify what my hon. Friend has just said, as it is absolutely crucial? I take it that he was referring to Greece. The mischief that Greece is carrying out in that part of south-east Europe is unsustainable. It is damaging relations between Turkey and the rest of Europe and between Turkey and NATO. It is damaging relations between Kosovo and Macedonia and Macedonia and Greece. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Greeks have to decide whether they are going to be serious players in NATO or whether they want to carry on their squabbling for their own interests rather than the wider interests of the organisation?
All members of NATO have to decide what to put first: their national interests and historical grievances or the collective alliance. I heard my hon. Friend's point, but I was in fact referring to Germany and France.
Let me turn finally to Afghanistan and NATO. The recent Bucharest summit was disappointing on many fronts. For example, nothing was done to source the operational reserve force for the international security assistance force in Afghanistan. That requirement of NATO's combined joint statement of requirements for Afghanistan has been unfilled since Romania last provided it in December 2006. It is inconceivable that 26 NATO members cannot find an extra battalion between them to provide an over-the-horizon reserve force for ISAF in Afghanistan. It illustrates a rather sad state of affairs.
It was reported in The New York Times last Saturday that the Pentagon is thinking about deploying 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan on top of the 3,200 Marines recently deployed to the south, because our NATO allies are not willing to provide the troops that the commanders on the ground need. That might or might not be correct—it was newspaper speculation—but the fact that it is being considered could lead to a dangerous shift in America's perception of NATO.
We have more troops in Afghanistan now than at any other time. We are the second largest contributor of troops to ISAF after the US and sadly 95 of our brave servicemen and women did not make it back home to their families. That is a testament to the dedication and commitment of the British armed forces to bring stability and prosperity to the people of Afghanistan. Of course, it is about much more than that. As important as reconstruction and democratic development are, our forces are in Afghanistan primarily for our national security and to deny the forces determined to destroy our way of life a base from which to operate. It is for our security that those people have made their sacrifices, and we should perhaps be more explicit in saying so.
Our troops fought bravely this winter, retaking Musa Qala and restoring order. We have about 6,000 troops based in Helmand province, which is geographically twice the size of Wales. Some 700 of those troops—a large portion—are tied up in Musa Qala, left behind to maintain the security. When the Minister winds up the debate, will he report on the progress of the reconstruction effort in Musa Qala? When does he expect that the Afghan security forces will be able to take over some or all of the security responsibilities there in order to free up British forces to pursue the Taliban further in other parts of Helmand province?
The difficulties and shortages in Afghanistan are not limited to boots on the ground. We are still facing a shortage of tactical airlift in the form of helicopters. The Prime Minister, during his time as Chancellor, cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004 when we were already involved in two conflicts. In December, as the Secretary of State reminded us, the Prime Minister announced that NATO will start contracting civilian helicopters to reduce the burden on the military aircraft operating in Afghanistan. Although that move has sometimes been presented to us as some sort of panacea for the tactical airlift shortage in Afghanistan, the civilian contracted helicopters do not solve the main problem of freeing up helicopters for coalition use for combat operations.
I appreciate and respect the civilians who are placing their lives at risk by supporting British and coalition troops on the front lines in Afghanistan, but as with all announcements from this Government we have to examine the small print. Under the terms of the contract, only 13,000 kg can be airlifted a day, in comparison with a CH-47 Chinook helicopter that can carry up to 23,000 kg on one trip. To put it simply, we are getting two thirds of one sortie from one Chinook helicopter a day with the NATO civilian contract. We now know that the contract is for an airlift service provided by a mix of helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, but fixed-wing aircraft have different capabilities. They require secure runways for take-off and landing and many of the forward operating bases in southern Afghanistan lack such facilities.
In addition, the terms of the contract do not allow troops to be carried in the civilian contracted aircraft. Helicopter airlift, in a country such as Afghanistan, is vital for conducting counter-insurgency operations. The problem is that if our troops need to be medivac'd or a quick reaction force needs to be sent behind enemy lines, not only are those civilian helicopters prohibited from conducting such missions, but they are failing to free up enough of our own helicopters to reduce the burden effectively.
We need to do more, but we should never have found ourselves in a situation where we need to ask our troops to operate without all the necessary equipment. If we have failed to provide our forces with everything that they need, we have not failed as a nation to fulfil our obligations as a NATO member, which is more than we can say for a number of our European NATO allies. Many of the additional European troops who were offered at Bucharest, as well as many of the European troops who are already operating in Afghanistan, are restricted by phone books-worth of caveats, and that comes at a time when defence is high on the EU agenda.
The EU has talked about a foreign and security policy, but it simply will not spend the money. Most countries in Europe spend well below the 2 per cent. of gross domestic product on defence that is supposedly the floor level. In Afghanistan, some of the major EU players are most clearly failing in their duties towards the NATO commitments. Understanding the potential of soft power is important, but soft power on its own is not enough. If we will the ends, we must will the means. Diplomacy without military support has little credibility. In a dangerous world, we cannot simply count on talking away any threat that we face.
We remain a global military power, and power brings responsibility. Frameworks, institutions and agreements are all very well, but security does not come for free. Many EU politicians like to say that the role of the EU is in peacekeeping and nation building, but we can keep the peace only if we have the peace. If we want freedom, we must be willing to defend it, to fight for it, if necessary to die for it and, definitely, to fund it. In Afghanistan, we need a commitment to fight to the last, but unfortunately, at present in the south of Afghanistan, that would be the last Briton, the last American and the last Canadian— [ Interruption ] —and a few notable others. That cannot be sustained in the long run. There must be better burden sharing in the south of Afghanistan, because the load in fighting cannot fall on as few nations as it does at present in an alliance that wants to have a sustainable long-term future.
When Secretary Gates talks about the emergence of a two-tier NATO, it is a warning about the survivability of the alliance. For EU politicians then to talk about a European pillar of NATO compounds the problem. With European security and defence policy, we see no extra funds on top of those set aside for NATO responsibilities; rather we see the double-hatting of forces that are clearly masquerading as new capacity. We see duplication and possibly competing military structures on top of an already underfunded commitment to the primary defence alliance. That is a potentially toxic mix for NATO in the long run.
Will the hon. Gentleman exonerate Denmark and the Netherlands from what he has just said about presence in the south of Afghanistan? Will he say which nations he is talking about? Is he talking about France and Germany, or Greece?
It is clear that the Netherlands and Denmark have been operating honourably in the south of the country, but they are primarily supporting the forces of the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. Most people would recognise that we provide the vast bulk of the fighting troops in the south of Afghanistan. The majority of people in this country well understand that, while we are giving a commitment, along with those major allies, to fighting in the south of the country, too many other NATO partners are unwilling to see their forces engaged in the south. That is not a good thing for the long-term health of the alliance. If we have collective security, we must collectively accept the areas of high risk. It is not acceptable for everyone on the street to have the same insurance policy, while only some of them pay the insurance premium.
All the areas that I have outlined come at a time of increased tension and danger. We face the threats of nuclear proliferation, with Iran testing the patience of the international community. We face a resurgent and self-confident Russia, and we face the deadly threat of Islamist extremism, with forces opposed to our system of government, our beliefs and our values. They oppose us not for what we do, but for who we are. We cannot avoid the confrontation, for they have chosen to confront us.
Today we are remembering the end of the second world war in Europe 63 years ago and the sacrifices made then for our security. We showed resolve not only then but again in the cold war against the communist threat. We need to face our present challenges with the same courage and determination that previous generations showed, and we as a nation cannot be found wanting.
It is important that we are talking about defence in the world, and I should like to start by paying a tribute to Royal Marine Jonathan Holland, who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan and who is buried in a Chorley churchyard. That brings home what our troops are doing out in Iraq and Afghanistan. One cannot forget all those people—generally they are young people—who have made the ultimate sacrifice and, of course, those who have been injured and severely injured. We talk about the commitment of our armed forces, and without doubt we are second to none in the world in the commitment that we ask of, and receive from, our armed forces. They never say no; they always say yes. We must respect that.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Territorial Army, and it plays a role in back-filling our forces. Whether in Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq, the TA footprint is there and we must not forget that in its centenary year. I say to the Government that the TA has played an excellent role in the past. It continues to play that role and it must be allowed to continue to play it in the future. We cannot manage and play our role in the defence of the world without the TA. It is only right that we look to increase its budget and not cut it. It does so much at so little cost that we should not ask it to take cuts at this time.
Lancashire is famous for recruitment and its regiments. The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment is a new regiment that is made of three great regiments: the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, the King's Own Royal Border Regiment and the King's Regiment. We should not forget the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, and one person in particular. Colonel Mendonca almost became a scapegoat for the higher ranks in the military and we should not forget what a brave man he was. I am sorry that the Army lost such a young leader. It was tragic that he was forced out, but we must not forget what he did for us and we must not forget his regiment, which is now part of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment. I pay tribute to Colonel Mendonca.
I have already referred to the role of the TA, and Chorley's own TA squadron has just been part of 52 Brigade under the command of 5 General Support Medical Regiment. Colonel Roger McBroom took 5GS to Afghanistan, and what a role it played in providing medical services and returning people to this country. It is only right that we also talk about the hospital at Selly Oak and the role that it plays.
Medical services have been based at Preston, and men returning from Afghanistan receive their medicals at Fulwood barracks, as will the men from the Chorley TA squadron. When the squadron went out to Afghanistan, it was commanded by Major Nick Medway, and we must pay tribute to him for becoming a lieutenant colonel. The TA and the regulars worked well together and it is important that we recognise their important role.
A reception was held on the Terrace only a week ago for 52 Brigade and others who had returned from Afghanistan, and I thank Mike Penning for organising it. It was good to see that our soldiers were being given recognition in the House.
Recognising the role of our soldiers means that they should be able to march through our towns. We want the people of this country to recognise what our soldiers have done, so it is important that they have the right to exercise the freedom of the town and can march with banners and standards flying and drums beating.
My hon. Friend raises the important point of recognising the role that our troops play. When they return home, they should be recognised, but there should be consistency. Everyone returning home, and not just the privileged few, should receive the recognition that their role deserves.
I agree. We need equality for members of our armed forces. They all risk their lives and should get equal recognition. It is important that we recognise what they are doing and that we take the public with us, because they have to recognise what our armed forces are doing on our behalf.
I am pleased that the Government have committed £24 million to Headley Court. It is important that there is not just talk, but actual commitment. We are now seeing that, and long may it continue, because we need the right facilities, not just for the people who come back, but for those who have been injured.
Our armed forces must wonder about compensation. We have done a lot and put compensation in place, but we must also look at what is awarded in the private sector. We should treat our troops in the same way as an insurance company that pays out for someone who is injured in a car crash or whatever. We should be aiming for that recognition and endeavour. That is the standard of compensation that we should be seeking for our brave troops.
What also goes with our troops is accommodation. I know that the Minister of State has said that he is not satisfied with their accommodation and that he is committed to changing that. When troops come back, they expect the best, and that is the only thing that is good enough for them. We should seek nothing less.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful argument. Let me put to him a circumstance that arose recently. A civilian Iraqi was horribly injured in the spine and got £1 million compensation. I am not denying that that individual deserved that amount, but many soldiers in the UK are looking over their shoulders and seeing that payout, when the maximum payout for any injured personnel in the British Army is around £200,000. That seems wrong.
I do not disagree; in fact, that is my point. It was this Government who introduced the compensation scheme. I am saying that we have to lift the bar. More money should be available. However, at least we took the decision to ensure that compensation is available. I do not want to take money away from someone, but we must try to lift the amount that is available.
My hon. Friend should not assist in perpetuating the myth that we are comparing like with like. We surely cannot treat our injured service personnel by giving them a one-off payment, no matter how large, and then say, "That's it." The payments have to be made for the rest of their lives. They are young and potentially vulnerable people. We cannot simply give them an up-front payment as is awarded by the courts. We give them an up-front payment at the moment, but we supplement it with an ongoing guaranteed payment for the rest of their lives.
I do not disagree; in fact, my right hon. Friend may well be aware that there has been a change in circumstance in the insurance company sector. Not all the money is paid up front; it is paid in stages and put into trust funds. The Government were right to introduce the compensation scheme, but it does not stop us ensuring that more money is available in the future.
Instead of saying to someone, "You're no longer fit for purpose", we now also rightly say, "If you want to stay in the service, we're going to help keep you in employment." That in itself is a major change. It is fantastic that someone who lost a limb has gone back to Afghanistan because he wanted to be out there with his troops. We are giving our service personnel that ability. The Government should be congratulated on that. I am not attacking them—far from it—but we should lift the bar to see what more we can do. We started something that needed to be put in place, but that does not stop us renewing the scheme and looking at it again as time goes by. The people who serve are important. We have been lucky that our troops want to be part of the fighting team. We cannot forget that they are a band of brothers.
My right hon. Friend the Minister is correct to ensure that we lift the standard of accommodation. We must invest heavily, and sooner rather than later. When the troops come home, good accommodation and a longer period of rest are important before they redeploy. Overstretch is an issue. My hon. Friend Jim Sheridan may not say that there is overstretch, but I would go as far as saying that there is because we have big commitments. We must ensure that there is a period of respite between redeployment and retraining. Our troops must be satisfied with that. Otherwise, they will walk away, and we cannot afford to let that happen. We have invested heavily in those troops, so we must look after them when they need it.
Of course, part of that back-up comes from others, such as the Gurkhas. It is only right that we ensure that the Gurkhas' standard of living is looked after. The same point applies to the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, who have played a key role in back-filling and have won some of the highest honours awarded in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a crying shame that they are not on the same wages as the British Army back in Gibraltar. The issue has been investigated and reports have come out, but the pay levels have not been matched. They are willing to risk their lives in winning those honours, so we should look again at this issue. It is important that we thank the Gibraltar Regiment and the Gurkhas for what they do.
We in this House rightly talk about equipment. On helicopters, we have done the best that we can, but they do not appear overnight; we must work harder and ensure that that air support is in place. It is absolutely critical that we have more helicopters.
Of course it would. What can we say about mothballed Chinooks that were meant for our special services, and which have never been used? That is totally unacceptable. That was a complete waste of money; I cannot get away from that, and nor can anybody—on either side of this House. It was a tragic mistake, but it has happened and we cannot turn the clock back.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have raised this issue with the Prime Minister. Would it not be a fitting tribute to our special forces if those helicopters, which were ordered by John Major and paid for by Tony Blair, were brought into service by the current Prime Minister—or at least if equivalent helicopters were provided?
My understanding is that we are investing a lot of money in trying to get those aircraft into service, and we can all agree that the sooner that happens, the better. That might remove some of the embarrassment from the Opposition.
We must also consider uniforms and their quality. This Government made a tragic mistake with the cut-and-sew contract, which was given to a company in Northern Ireland that was never going to produce the uniforms. The work was sent to China, done in a sweatshop and sent back for our troops. That is totally unacceptable. [ Interruption. ] One of my hon. Friends says from a sedentary position, "We have heard this before". He may have, but he may not be aware that the cut-and-sew contract is coming up for renewal. I hope that we are brave enough to allow an open tender, rather than making a cosy arrangement in an office somewhere in the Ministry of Defence that allows China to keep that contract. I hope that we will open up this process and allow British companies to tender for the contract, and put the jobs back in Lancashire. So there is a challenge for my friends here. I look forward to the Pincroft bleaching and dyeing company winning that contract once again.
It is a question of commitments. There is none better than the Type 45 destroyer. HMS Daring has been doing its tests; it is an absolute leader in its class and we can be proud of it. We are heavily investing in that class of destroyer, and long may it continue; we thank it for what it has done. We have the destroyers, and we must look forward to the two aircraft carriers, which are crucial in defence terms. We look forward to an announcement on them sooner, rather than later, and to a commitment regarding what will be operating off that platform. We talk all the time about and hear a lot about the joint strike fighter. I hope that that contract is there, that the intellectual transfer will take place and that we can get the benefit of those jobs in the north-west. I hope, too, that we will not just be providing parts but doing the final assembly, and that we can maintain those aircraft on those two valuable carriers.
My hon. Friend may be aware that there are already threats of job losses on the Clyde if those aircraft carrier orders are not placed. It would certainly be helpful if we could have a clear statement from the Minister today on the situation with those carriers.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's excellent speech, but a recent written answer gave some interesting information from the Minister for the Armed Forces. I had asked how long it would take to construct each of the carriers and was told five and a half years. If the first is to come into service in 2014—and given that one must allow a year for sea trials and then another year for acceptance and working up in the Royal Navy—it is getting perilously near the deadline; in fact, we might even expect the announcement today or next week if the deadline is to be met.
I cannot disagree and I hope that the winding-up speech will contain a good announcement for us—something positive for us to take back to our constituencies. We need that. I am not sure that we are ready for the building of ice-breakers yet. I am more bothered about the carriers, which will be more relevant to our defence needs.
The platforms are crucial and I look forward to the joint strike aircraft operating from these carriers. On heavy lift capability, the workhorse is coming to the end of its life. We have to replace the C130Js at some point, and they have done an excellent job. We look forward to the A400M, but it seems to have gone rather quiet. The aircraft will be capable of operating on short runways and rough airstrips and will have a heavier lift capability than anything we have, apart from the Galaxies. We know that that aircraft is needed quickly. Where are we up to with that, as it will play an important role?
That is a kind offer, but I am sure that we will all get an invitation. The A400M is an important aircraft and will be our aircraft for the future. We talk about the air tanker programme and we need a statement on that now. It is also important that procurement supports British jobs.
Our troops are the best in the world and we must look after them. In years gone by, Labour had a reputation for not having an interest in defence. As I look around the Chamber today, I can see that that has changed. Defence matters to the Government and to Labour Members. I am pleased to say that there are parties on both sides of the House that take an interest. I notice that there is a gap towards the back on the right of the Chamber—as I look across—which is a tragic shame. All parties should be here for this very important debate.
World defence is about world security and nothing is more important than homeland security. What role could our armed forces play in the establishment of a border security force? Such a force needs to be established and it should be a joint force between the police and our armed forces. We know the important role that our armed forces have played around the world . It does not seem so long ago that the far east land forces were operating on the Hong Kong-China border. We ought to use that knowledge in setting up a homeland security force to make this country safer and to protect the people we represent.
I thank the Government for what they have done so far.
I welcome this debate, and I shall start, as others have, by paying tribute to the work of our armed forces, to the servicemen and women and the civilians who are currently on operations around the world, to those who have been injured and to those who lost their lives serving their country. Many of us from all parts of the House attended the city salute last night. We saw many of those who have served coming home, including the injured and their families. It was both humbling and uplifting to witness that spectacle, and we thank everyone for the service that they have put in for their country in different parts of the world.
Since we last debated defence in the world, we have seen some progress, but we also continue to face many of the same old realities. Iraq remains at the centre of our attention, despite hopes that, by now, we might have been well on the way towards a process of withdrawal. Afghanistan still looks like an intractable conflict in which progress is understandably slow and the battle for hearts and minds is almost as tough as the fighting. We are also going to contribute forces to Kosovo, an area that richly deserves our support but which also risks stretching our forces even more.
It has never been the policy of our party that we should withdraw them overnight, but it remains our view that they should be withdrawn as fast as is safely possible, commensurate with our commitments to others. I will say more about that in a few minutes.
Over the past year, increasing concern has been voiced in various quarters about the state of our defence and about the capabilities available to our armed forces in our national defence. The concerns come not only from the Floor of the House, where they might be expected, but from senior defence officials, defence chiefs, coroners, analysts and service personnel. Neither British parliamentarians nor the British public can expect to have a huge say in what happens in some of these international arenas, most notably in Iraq, but we would expect the British Government to have a tight grip on what is happening. In that sense, it is notable that, during the course of the Conservative party conference last autumn, the Government told us that there would be a draw-down in troop numbers in the region, and that we would reach a basic state of overwatch. However, we have yet to see any significant progress towards such a phased withdrawal. We have to ask why the Prime Minister seemed to be in such a rush to announce those troop withdrawals last autumn if, as the Government now say, the situation in southern Iraq was always so unpredictable.
Further to the question that my hon. Friend Dr. Fox has just asked, would the hon. Gentleman, as things stand today, keep the troop numbers as they are, increase them or reduce them?
I have made it perfectly clear that, as things stand today, we would not start to withdraw the troops overnight. Since we first articulated the need for Britain to commence a process of withdrawal 18 months ago, we have said that the process would take about six months to perform safely and that, in any case, before we commenced such a process, we would go through negotiations with the Iraqi authorities and with our allies, principally the Americans. Nothing has really changed in the way we view that, and my colleagues and I still believe that it should be our objective to commence a process of withdrawal and to get the troops out of Iraq as fast as can safely be considered. I stress, however, that no one has ever suggested that that could take place overnight.
Last autumn, we were considering the spectre of the election that never was. Others might point the finger at us and say that we used the situation as a political football—I deny that—but the fact is that the Government were doing that. I cannot see that there is any certainty about even a clear end goal for our hard-pressed resources, let alone any exit strategy. The Government continue to listen very closely to our US allies, but I do not think that being there for our allies is, in the long term, a justification for continuing the critical overstretch suffered by our troops or for undermining the other operations in which we are engaged.
It was said that we had trained Iraqi forces successfully, but we have delayed our drawdown and continue to be on so-called overwatch duties. As we know, Sunni elements recently surged forward, but in the middle east debate of
"In Iraq, we have seen significant progress...New democratic political structures are beginning to bear fruit. Local communities have turned against al-Qaeda...The Iraqi Government have taken tough action against armed groups and militias, regardless of their sect, and Iraqi security forces are delivering on their responsibilities.
In Basra...since handing over security responsibility...in December...we have seen strong evidence of the increasing capabilities of the Iraqi armed forces".—[ Hansard, 1 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 458.]
We had more of that from the Secretary of State today and it was very welcome, but I and other hon. Members are concerned that there has been a significant change in British troops' overwatch activities. Before the end of last year, we were primarily responsible for security in Basra, whereas we are now there in a support role.
I was worried by a newspaper report that a British brigadier had been ejected from meetings between the Iraqi Prime Minister and the Americans, and it is a matter of concern—to this House and to the general public—that we are asking our armed forces to put their lives at risk yet have less and less influence or say over their commitments and activities. When an oral statement was made to the House, various hon. Members shared my disquiet that we were continuing to put our troops at great risk yet had less say over it.
We expected a drawdown of about 1,500 troops, but that has been delayed to help with the current situation. The definition of "overwatch" seems to have broadened considerably from what I at least expected at the outset. Given that what the Government told us last autumn clearly no longer obtains, I hope that Ministers will say what they think our future commitment will be. It is clear that all the hopes and expectations fuelled by the Prime Minister's announcements of last autumn are now a long way from the Government's thinking. The public, the armed forces and this House need a much clearer statement of what the Government think our involvement will comprise, both in the foreseeable future and—as it appears will be the case—for many years to come.
In Afghanistan, the battle seems to be going round in a circle. In saying that, I do not intend to criticise our armed forces or Government in any way, but the coalition as a whole seems to lack a clear and overarching strategy. As a matter of fact, from the British point of view there is every indication that the three Departments involved are working together rather better than they did in the past, but the coalition as a whole needs to face up to the lack of an overarching strategy.
I very much regret that Lord Ashdown was unable to take up the special envoy role, but let us hope that the gentleman who has stepped into the role is able to help the Afghan authorities and the coalition as a whole to develop a strategy. The danger is that we could be in a Catch-22 situation. People who have served in Afghanistan tell me that the conflict is in a vicious circle that will be very hard to break: our military objective is to stabilise the country so that reconstruction can take place, but the fact that it is not yet safe enough for that reconstruction is making it more difficult to stabilise the country. I accept that there are no easy solutions. We can win some hearts by erecting bridges and building schools, but minds can be hard to win in a part of the world that has had a very rough 30 years or so. Only if we can get on top of the situation militarily, and stay on top of it, will minds be won over in addition to hearts.
There is no doubt that this is going to be a very long haul. I am, understandably, being pressed by both other parties about the Liberal Democrats not supporting a long haul in Iraq, but let me make it perfectly clear that we absolutely support the long haul in Afghanistan. We have no choice in the matter, as other Members have said. We went in there for the right reason, which was to prevent the country from being a safe haven for international terrorism, and we have no choice but to see it through and ensure that it does not become so again. It will not be possible for our troops to leave Afghanistan until they can do so absolutely confident that the country has been reconstructed to such an extent that there is no danger of the Taliban re-emerging as the authority and allowing al-Qaeda back.
I echo the words of Dr. Fox and others—we will not win that battle unless other allies start pulling more weight and other NATO and European countries commit more troops with fewer caveats on their operations and send them into some of the toughest areas where we are most in need of additional feet on the ground. There is no doubt that the shortfalls in troop provision by NATO allies are making this considerably more difficult and much slower, and I fear that the visibly long-term nature of the conflict will begin to erode some of the public support for it in this country. I very much hope not. It is in the interests of everybody in this House to work together to ensure that that is not the case.
We have to start to ask fairly fundamental questions about how our armed forces are configured and about some of the procurement decisions that follow from that. It can still be said that too much of our capability is geared towards state-on-state conflict rather than the ground-level insurgency that is the generation of warfare that we are involved in for the future, although that is not to say that we should ignore or close our minds to the dangers of state-on-state conflict in the medium to long term. It was certainly a premise of the 1988 strategic defence review that we did not face an imminent threat in terms of state-on-state warfare, and that probably remains as true today as it was then. In a fast-changing world, we must take it seriously in the medium to long term, but our armed forces do not seem to be adequately configured for the warfare that we know we will be engaged in for the short to medium term.
Again, there are no easy solutions—no levers that one could quickly flick to change things. However, as I and others have said in the House before, there is now an overwhelming need for another strategic defence review, because the world has changed a great deal in the years since the previous one was carried out. Other countries, notably America, do this far more frequently than we do, and it is overdue. We cannot maintain operations at the current tempo without inflicting real and lasting damage on our capabilities. It cannot be emphasised enough that we need more helicopters. We also need more infantry on the ground and a greater ability to match the tactics of those who are not fighting us in planes or big tanks.
While we are on the subject of helicopters, does the hon. Gentleman agree with me, and with the general public's perception, rightly or wrongly, that helicopters should be used to their full capacity and should not be used by privileged service personnel to visit their girlfriends?
I think that there will have been raised eyebrows among the public with regard to certain uses of helicopters recently, but the overwhelming consideration that we all need to face is that more helicopter capacity is urgently needed on the front line, and the Government have to wrestle with some tough decisions to ensure that that need is met.
I was pleased to hear Mr. Hoyle acknowledging that there is overstretch rather than simply stretch. The fact that defence planning assumptions have been breached year after year is, in itself, evidence of overstretch. Since the 1998 strategic defence review, one has seen a growing gap between our commitments and our capabilities, both long and short term. The armed forces cannot keep doing more than they have the capability to do—that was the central recommendation of the strategic defence review, and increasingly, in practice, it is being ignored. We have been warned by General Dannatt that our forces are "running hot" and our reserves are not excluded from that strain. Personnel were meant to be at the very core of the 1998 strategic defence review, but a great deal of press attention and prominent military voices highlight the fact that we are still waiting for more improvement to housing, compensation, the way in which inquests are handled, the provision of care and the duty of care. We have even seen coroners weighing into the debate and talking about the failure to provide troops with the protection that they need. We recognise that the Government are taking steps to rectify that, but there is still some way to go to provide what is needed. We look forward to the Government's introduction of their Command Paper on troop welfare. It was due in the spring. May is still the spring, but June will be summer, so I hope that we will see the paper soon.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Ministry of Defence promised the Defence Committee in May last year that the defence planning assumptions would be reviewed by spring this year? We are still waiting to see that review, and it is important that we should see it.
It is important that we should see it, as should the Committee that the right hon. Gentleman chairs. I look forward to seeing it myself. "Spring" has always been quite an elastic term in governmental circles, but it is getting almost as stretched as the armed forces themselves. I hope that all the papers will be at the disposal of the Select Committee for its consideration.
Yes, it might indeed be climate change.
Both recruitment and retention remain essential to our efforts to sustain adequate numbers of boots on the ground, but intake has fallen and outflow has increased. Commonwealth nationals are increasingly being relied upon to fill the gap where British forces are leaving. It is clear that there must be further efforts and incentives to put that right. It is notable that many of our allies are succeeding in increasing their troop numbers while the British are struggling to stand their current ground. Iraq and Afghanistan have been costly ventures financially, and although about £10 billion has come out of the urgent operational requirements the Ministry clearly faces a budgetary crisis. It is fair to argue that the marginal costs of those operations are met by urgent operational requirements, but it is not true, as Government spokesmen try to imply, that the total costs are met through the UORs because they are not.
The strain, in human terms and in terms of the life expectancy of some of our equipment, is not to be underestimated. It cannot be denied that a financial situation that was already bad is being made considerably worse. The Government are keen to point out that we have one of the largest defence budgets, pro rata, in the world, but that it is not the whole picture. We know that defence inflation vastly outstrips general inflation and although the Government can quite fairly point to the fact that there are real-terms increases over the next three years, as measured according to the retail prices index, that does not necessarily translate into real terms in the defence sector. The Government face financial difficulty across the board, and no more money will be available during the period that we are considering. Again, that underlines the need to ask some fundamental questions about how to balance our commitments with the resources.
I will give way to the Minister. I predict that he will say, as he has previously, that neither we nor the Conservatives have said that we would commit more resources. I readily acknowledge that, but my point is that we know that the available resources are finite, and no party is advocating increasing them, so hard decisions must be made about prioritising and the best use of the resources.
The hon. Gentleman, unsurprisingly, predicts well. However, why does he raise the issue in that way? Does he suggest that there should be some other sort of inflator for the defence budget over and above the consistent increases in the past 10 years? Would his party or any other commit itself to some other inflator that would lift the defence budget at a faster and higher rate? We are entitled to ask that if he says that the resources are not enough and something must be done.
The Minister makes an interesting suggestion. I do not have such an inflator at my fingertips, but if he believes that such a thing could be considered, it would be good for the House to debate it.
The Ministry of Defence is in financial crisis—that is widely understood and commented on. It serves to underline the mismatch between what we are trying to achieve and the available resources. I have already come under fire for my party's belief that our operations in Iraq should be brought gradually to an end. That cannot be done overnight, but getting one of the major deployments in which we are involved off the balance sheet will help. We do not have the right balance between the configuration of our troops and the procurement decisions to back up those troops. I believe that the solution is another fundamental strategic defence review.
If the country, under any political scenario that we can envisage, will not have more resources to commit to defence than we currently have, we must make decisions that get us back into balance. It is not my imagination, that of the Tories or that of the media that the armed forces are overstretched or that the Ministry of Defence is in financial crisis. Anybody who is alert to what is going on can see that both assertions are true. There is therefore a need for a fundamental review and some tough decisions.
The Minister asked whether there was some other inflator. Defence expenditure was 2.4 per cent. of GDP in the last financial year. It has been on a steady downward trend from a high in 1984-85, when the figure was 5.2 per cent. Real-terms increases can be expressed in simple cash terms but, as a proportion of GDP, and in terms of the spending power of the money in the defence budget, expenditure has clearly decreased.
We are waiting for some big procurement decisions. Indeed, the hon. Member for Chorley had an incredible shopping list of items that he awaits with great optimism. If he had written such a list to Santa as a child, he would have been horribly disappointed. However, we are waiting for some crucial decisions. I do not envy Ministers the agonies that they have undergone in recent months when considering what to do, but we fear that more and more projects will be pushed to one side and that there will be salami chopping to make the finances balance. That is not a strategic or sensible way in which to run our nation's defence.
It is fair to say that icebreakers would not be at the top of our shopping list.
We are all keen that the big items should go ahead, but we await some of the decisions with concern. The Navy is understandably keen to receive the go-ahead for aircraft carriers, while the Army is concerned about FRES and will have drawn some encouragement from today's announcement. There have been press reports that the future Lynx project might be axed. I desperately hope that it will not be, because if by chance that happened, the defence industrial strategy would be more or less dead. Finmeccanica and others around the world would draw the lesson that the strategy was dead and that the MOD was not a partner that anybody would want to link up with.
The Government undoubtedly have some difficult decisions to make. We await the announcements with interest and concern. I hope that we can improve our procurement processes, which have not necessarily been admirable over the decades. For the procurements in question, fundamentally changing how things are done is not feasible at this stage.
In the longer term, however, we have to ask what we want our armed forces to be and how we want to equip them. Are we really trying to develop a miniature version of the American military? Is the UK really trying to retain, for an indefinite period, a comprehensive ability in our own name? Alternatively, how will we build our capabilities in conjunction with our allies? Increasing co-operation with NATO allies, the USA and other member states in Europe must be a serious consideration. The issue is not about handing control to our allies or relinquishing sovereignty, but about trying to maximise resources, especially when we undertake most of our operations as part of an international force.
We need to consider when and how we want to get involved around the world, in a more foreign policy-led approach that allows for rapid, easy and effective expeditionary capabilities, coupled with certain key components for hard power expressions. Our current capabilities are very much geared towards hard power. Our armed forces need to be prepared for the operations that we think they are most likely to face in the years to come.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. If he believes that our forces are too configured towards continental defence, is he suggesting that we retreat from that posture, increase our expeditionary forces and reconfigure for more such operations? If so, what criteria would he use for that increased deployment?
I have been suggesting that we undertake a strategic defence review, which I believe the hon. Gentleman also supports. It would seem pointless to call for a fundamental review, only to pre-empt the conclusions that it might reach. My feeling is that our ability to conduct state-on-state warfare is a combination of the cold war legacy and a preoccupation with the idea that that is the only sort of warfare in which we will be involved in future.
To pick up the hon. Gentleman's point about expeditionary warfare, I believe that we will need to increase our capabilities in expeditionary warfare even further than they have already been developed. A strategic defence review would have to sort through how best to combine our resources with those of our allies in such a way that we do not undermine our ability, in our strategic alliances, to fight the more conventional battles that we have fought in the past. We do not face those battles imminently, but I share his view that we cannot disregard them further into the future.
Given that we are engaged in not one but two major counter-insurgency campaigns, there is no danger of our doubting that we will have to be prepared for things other than state-on-state warfare. However, does the hon. Gentleman not accept that, because pretty much all the post-second world war examples of state-on-state warfare broke out entirely unpredictably, to talk about reconfiguring our forces to have a much reduced capacity to deal with such warfare is rather dangerous?
I have not called for those forces to be much reduced; I have called for more co-operation with the allies that we believe we will be engaged with. That needs to be a greater part of our thinking in respect of expeditionary warfare capabilities and, indeed, in terms of sustaining for the longer term the sort of defences that we would need if we found ourselves once again involved in state-on-state warfare.
Before I finish, I want to ask the Government what preparations they are undertaking in advance of the non-nuclear proliferation treaty review conference in 2010. Britain played a very constructive and laudable part in the success of the 2000 NPT review conference, and Robin Cook in particular deserved a great deal of credit for that. In my view and that of my colleagues, last year's decision to keep Britain in the nuclear club well beyond Hiroshima's centenary in 2045 was premature. Given that the Government have taken that decision, however, I would hope that they want to balance the message that that sent out with evidence of a clear commitment to non-proliferation. Indeed, I very much hope that at the 2010 conference the British Government will provide the leadership that they provided at the 2000 conference. I believe Britain has an opportunity to lead disarmament and reassert some authority that may have been lost through our involvement in Iraq. We need to try to gain some of that ground and push for obligations to be met, as well as meeting our own commitments to international disarmament.
In conclusion, we need defence for this generation. Our current capabilities still reflect past conflicts to some extent and we are not necessarily prepared to respond to future challenges. We need, as I have said, a new strategic defence review that really puts emphasis on foreign policy-led defence posture and that concentrates far more fully on how we can co-operate with our allies in NATO, in the United States and within Europe.
Traditional defence planning is now out of date. We need a force that is flexible and able to endure the various challenges that it might be faced with. That will involve difficult decisions. Whether we increase spending to match our operations in the short term or whether we reconfigure and realign the armed forces to meet the budget that is available, the decisions are tricky. It is no great surprise that the Government have taken some time to take some of the difficult procurement decisions, but there is, in my view, a fundamental mismatch between what we are trying to do and the resources that we are able to make available to it. If we cannot make more resources available, we will need to have a fundamental rethink about what we are trying to do.
I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for missing the first few minutes of his speech. Like you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I was attending the very beautiful funeral service for our recently deceased and already much missed Gwyneth Dunwoody.
I would like to concentrate my contribution on our intention to reduce troop levels in Germany and its effect on our relations with our European and NATO allies. British forces have been permanently stationed in Germany since 1945. Until the mid-1990s, the British Army of the Rhine and Royal Air Force Germany were the two main British commands in that country. Following the "Options for Change" defence review in 1991, the level of British forces in Germany was halved and the RAF was withdrawn in response to the changing dynamics of the post-cold war environment and the Government's attempts to make cost savings at that time. The strategic defence review of 1998 made further recommendations on the reduction of troops in Germany.
At present, there are approximately 20,900 British military and 2,200 British civilian personnel stationed in Germany. The two principal units in Germany are now 1st UK Armoured Division and UK Support Command Germany. In 2004, the Ministry of Defence published its plans for restructuring the British Army by 2009. As part of the overall rebalancing process, a review of British forces in Germany was subsequently undertaken.
Since January 2006, the Ministry of Defence has made several announcements regarding the conclusions of its review. In January 2006, it announced that 4th Armoured Brigade, which is currently re-roling into a mechanised brigade as a result of restructuring, would return to the UK in line with the continuing policy of concentrating mechanised capability domestically. Comprising approximately 4,400 military and civilian personnel located at Osnabruch and Munster garrisons, the brigade is expected to return to the UK towards the end of this year and be located at Catterick in North Yorkshire. In order to support the remaining two UK armoured brigades—7th and 20th Armoured Brigades—in Germany after the departure of 4th Armoured Brigade, it is expected that 2,200 troops will deploy to Germany within a similar time frame. The result will be a net reduction of 2,200 troops in Germany by early next year.
In July 2006, the Government also announced that as a result of the relocation of 4th Armoured Brigade, Osnabruch barracks and most of the British military family housing belonging to the Federal Government would subsequently be returned to the Federal authorities in early 2009. The remaining barracks in Munster will also be rationalised. This withdrawal is expected to lead to the loss of approximately 530 local jobs.
At the same time, the Ministry of Defence also announced that 12th Regiment Royal Artillery would relocate from Paderborn back to the UK as part of the reorganisation of the UK's air defence units. The regiment will be located at Thorney Island, along with 47th Regiment Royal Artillery.
As part of the wider restructuring of forces, the MOD also made it clear that it would take the opportunity to make further adjustments to the UK's force posture in Germany. In July 2006, the MOD looked at redeploying the headquarters of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps—HQ ARRC—1 Signal Brigade and 102 Logistics Brigade from their bases in Germany back to the UK between 2008 and 2012. Such a move will account in total for approximately 3,600 personnel. Codenamed Operation Borona, the review was intended to determine where those forces would be located and whether the move would be practicable and offer best value for money.
In September last year, the findings of that review were announced. Under current planning assumptions, HQ ARRC and its supporting elements will now relocate to RAF Innsworth in Gloucestershire, while 1 Signal Brigade and 102 Logistics Brigade will relocate to RAF Cosford in Shropshire in the west midlands. The move of the two brigades to Cosford is expected to involve approximately 2,600 personnel and their families. The relocation of these forces back to the UK is earmarked to take place between 2009 and 2014. A detailed timetable and an identification of additional infrastructure requirements will now be established by the Borona project team over the coming months.
The proposed move of HQ ARRC will be the priority, and consultations with interested parties, including local councils, health, education and welfare providers and the trade unions will form an important part of that assessment. Final details, including a specific timetable for the relocation of the forces, will form part of a set of recommendations to be presented for a final investment decision by the Investment Approvals Board and MOD Ministers in spring 2009.
Alongside these moves to bring forces home from Germany, there has to be an accommodation policy so that there are places for these armed forces personnel. In this regard, the idea of the super-garrison has been developed—massing groups of forces in one area, although not necessarily in one barracks. It would make sense for these so-called super-garrisons to be based in areas where our armed forces recruit most successfully.
I certainly endorse my hon. Friend's oft-made point that there is good recruitment in the north-west, and I wish him well in promoting a super-garrison there. If he does not mind, however, I would like to move on to the fruitful recruitment in the west midlands, and talk about the prospects for a super-garrison in that region. There is fruitful recruitment to all our armed forces in the west midlands, and we in Stafford are interested to know whether there will be a west midlands super-garrison—and if so, whether the military base at Stafford will have a role in accommodating further personnel.
The granting of the freedom of the borough to Tactical Supply Wing recognises the 37 years that it has been part of the community of Stafford, continuing a Royal Air Force presence in the town that started before the second world war. Tactical Supply Wing was formed in 1970 at Stafford as a result of changes in the United Kingdom's defence posture. The unit became fully operational in 1971, and almost immediately deployed on operations to Northern Ireland. There has not been a day since when members of Tactical Supply Wing have not been deployed on operations somewhere in the world; deployment has often been in support of two or three operations simultaneously, as is the case today.
The unit's role of providing aviation fuel support to the British military's helicopters is unique and requires its members to be trained to a high proficiency in order to carry out their roles anywhere in the world, in any climatic conditions, often at short notice. In its 37-year history, the unit has served in all the major conflicts in which the British military has deployed, including the Falklands war, both Gulf wars, Belize, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Sierra Leone and, latterly, Afghanistan. The unit has also supported humanitarian operations as far afield as Nepal and Mozambique.
Members of Tactical Supply Wing consider Stafford to be the spiritual home of their unit, and many serving and former members of the unit have made Stafford their home. At the freedom ceremony, the commanding officer, Wing Commander Nick Atkinson, said:
"Stafford has always provided the friendly homecoming for many Tactical Supply Wing personnel returning from operations overseas. With the base forming part of the town, this has enabled Tactical Supply Wing personnel and their families to integrate, and become part of the local community."
Lieutenant-Colonel Neil Fraser arrived at Stafford two years ago to head up a small team charged with reforming the 22nd Signal Regiment, which had disbanded in 1992 in Germany, just after the first Gulf war. The RAF ensign had just been lowered from the base, then called RAF Stafford, and the Army flag was raised on
From the moment the Army arrived, it was made to feel welcome by the whole town. As funding was found in late 2006 and early 2007, the bulk of building work was completed, and soldiers, families, vehicles and equipment moved into the renamed MOD Stafford; most came from Bulford, near Salisbury, and Colerne, near Bath, but people also came from across Germany and the rest of the UK, including Northern Ireland.
In July 2007, the new 22 Signal Regiment had its official formation day. The Commander-in-Chief, Land and the Master of Signals welcomed the regiment back into the Army's order of battle. Even as it was being formed, the regiment had soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers are now settling into the newly named Beacon barracks, deploying on exercises, and a squadron has even been in London on public duties.
Creating a new regiment is a huge task. Creating this regiment in Stafford, where the base is in close proximity to the town, has allowed soldiers and families to be part of the community, At the freedom ceremony, Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser said:
"Only six months after I arrived we had babies born in local hospitals, kids at schools and dependants finding employment—we were very much embraced from the start!! We have supported where we can Remembrance Day events, High Court Openings and the various formal and charitable occasions that make Stafford a vibrant civic community. People all over the Royal Signals seem to want to serve here—and I suspect a large part of it is the location that those of us here enjoy."
The sizeable Gurkha community, consisting of 160 soldiers and some 60 families, is well settled in Stafford too. Stafford college offers free English tuition to the soldiers and their families, which is yet another indication of the local community's support for the military. Several people from the regiment have already bought homes in the area, and the foundations are in place for stability.
It must be a remarkable achievement for the regiment, just over a year after its reformation on
Altogether, the relocation of 4 Armoured Brigade, HQ ARRC, 1 Signals Brigade and 102 Logistics Brigade will account for approximately 30 per cent. of British forces currently located in Germany. When the redeployment of troops back to the UK and the possible relocation of HQ ARRC were first announced in 2006, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Drayson, reiterated:
"We will continue to make further modest adjustments to our force levels in Germany, but our plan remains to base UK forces in the country, in the form of 1 Armoured Division and its supporting units, for many years to come. These moves and the work of the project team in no way signal a change in either our commitment to the NATO alliance or our overall defence policy, nor do they in any way devalue the continued close bilateral relationship between the UK and Germany."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 24 July 2006; Vol. 684, c. 130WS.]
Aside from the UK's commitment to the NATO alliance, and Germany in particular, the basing of British troops on German soil in the longer term also continues to be regarded as important from a training perspective. During questions in the other place on
"we have made a commitment to stay in Germany with sizeable numbers of troops for the foreseeable future. We see Germany as a terrific training asset. We always see our need for a capability for heavy armoured divisions, and the training for those takes place in Germany, eastern Europe and Canada."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 16 February 2006; Vol. 678, c. 1254-55.]
In January this year, Baroness Taylor reiterated that
"units continue to be based in Germany as the UK is committed to its contribution to NATO and co-operation with its allies in the alliance. The UK also benefits from the opportunity to train armoured units in Germany, and to make use of training areas in Eastern Europe, which are less accessible from the UK. With the approval of the German Government, we plan to continue to station two armoured brigades and their supporting units in Germany for the foreseeable future."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 14 January 2008; Vol. 697, c. 235WA.]
It is expected that the size of the British contingent in Germany in future years will total some 15,000 service personnel.
In conclusion, we have not exactly reached the end of an era, but in future we can anticipate fewer of our forces being based in Germany. Our presence there will continue, but the mass, shape and role of our forces in Germany will change. The training and the support will be more broadly based, both across the European continent and throughout the NATO alliance.
On the day of the freedom ceremony in Stafford in April, we were all reminded in church of the military covenant and the obligation on all of us in civilian life to value and support our armed forces because of the dangerous work that they do in our name, and the personal sacrifices, including the ultimate sacrifice, that they make for us. I know that the Government plan to publish a Command Paper shortly to bring together all the additional ways in which all of us, in Parliament and in our communities, can keep our side of that covenant. I look forward to that publication soon.
Our armed forces are committed across the world, and I intend to concentrate on Iraq, Afghanistan and NATO. While our armed forces are so heavily committed, I am sure that we would all wish to say thank you to our service personnel, wherever they serve, and to remember that in Iraq and Afghanistan many have died or been wounded in body or mind. We need to remember that they have not suffered in vain. What they have done in both those countries is something of which we can be exceptionally proud. We can be proud not only of what they have been doing, but of them. We can also be proud of their families, who have to stay at home worrying about their sons and daughters, which is often the most difficult thing of all. We should therefore also pay tribute to the families and say thank you to them.
Will the right hon. Gentleman also pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces, including the Dutch and Danish forces and others, who have fought alongside British troops in Afghanistan and have lost their lives? In some cases, because of the numbers of troops that they have deployed, they have lost proportionately more than countries such as ours.
That is true. I am thinking in particular of the Canadians, who have lost a large number of troops in Kandahar province. We need to remember that we are not alone in Afghanistan. Some other countries are doing extraordinary things with small resources, and we are extremely grateful to them for working alongside us.
Let me start with Iraq. We still have more than 4,000 UK personnel deployed in Iraq as part of Operation Telic. I personally think that that is the minimum number that we can have as a viable self-sustaining force in Iraq. We were told as much by a general in Iraq last year and by the Minister of State. I am delighted that the Minister is in his place now, because I want to tell him that he was right.
The role to be played in Iraq is one of overwatch, which is necessary in support of an Iraqi army that is doing well but still needs support. Intervention through ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—artillery, air power and other methods is right and proper, as are the need for training and mentoring and the need to do a small part of patrolling the border with Iran. The next change in the number of troops in Iraq—I hope that it will not be too far off—should take our presence down to a small number, with between 200 and 400, or perhaps 500, troops. They should do much more specialist things, relying on others for logistics and support.
I do not understand how the figure of 2,500 was ever on the table. How was that figure reached? It was always unrealistic and, I think, meaningless. The suspicion is that it was politically motivated—a figure plucked out of the air. That suspicion needs to be dispelled, if it can be. How on earth did the Secretary of State come to agree with it? I have to express my disappointment that it was ever put forward or supported by the Ministry of Defence. There is a risk that the MOD budget is predicated on the basis that we would be down to 2,500 troops in Iraq by now.
My right hon. Friend refers to the Secretary of State's agreeing with the reduction to 2,500. I remind him that there is widespread suspicion that the first the Secretary of State knew about the reduction was when he heard it announced in the international media.
We look forward to hearing the answers to these important questions, which relate to the relationship between Ministers and the armed forces whom they lead.
The Defence Committee visited Iraq last summer, and we hope to do so again this summer, subject to the points that have already been made about our medical fitness. Every time we go to Iraq we are immensely impressed by the men and women of our armed forces whom we meet. They are absolutely outstanding and so are their achievements.
Obviously, questions remain about the coalition mission in Iraq. The US surge seems to have been successful in many respects in controlling the levels of violence. The Iraqi security forces seem to be growing in capacity, although they still need support. In that context, I believe that the recent operation in Basra, led by the Iraqis with the support of the British and the Americans, was not a bad thing but a good thing. It was the Iraqis taking control of their own destiny. Let us never forget that that is what we want them to do. The more they can do that, the less necessary the presence of our troops will be.
Moving on to Afghanistan, as we reduce our troop levels in Iraq, however slowly we are able to do that, we have increased our commitment to Operation Herrick. We now have about 7,800 service personnel in Afghanistan—more than any other country apart from the United States. On the Defence Committee, Mr. Hamilton has drawn attention to the real risk that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are conflated in the public's mind. They are very different operations; they arise from different circumstances. We must make the case for each of them separately. An unpopular incursion into Iraq, although it has achieved some real successes, looks likely to drag down in the mind of the public the much more difficult incursion into Afghanistan.
The events of 9/11 are fading gradually into people's memories as history. The horrors and fears that 9/11 raised are diminishing with time, although in reality the dangers of al-Qaeda and international terrorism remain absolutely huge. Of course, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are reminded of the important point that when we invade a country, we need to be sure what we will do with it when we have been successful, and we need to provide the resources to secure the peace as well as the war. That is what we in the west have failed to do.
The Defence Committee visited Afghanistan in April last year. We hope to return to Afghanistan later this year. In the report that we published in the middle of last year, we concluded that reconstruction efforts required a strengthening of the comprehensive approach. There is no one answer to the issues; there is no silver bullet for Afghanistan. We said, among other things, that more work was needed to support the training of the police and the judiciary, and that much more work was needed on the winning of hearts and minds in Afghanistan and, indeed, at home. We were, of course, concerned that the burden of fighting and of the resources going into Afghanistan was falling disproportionately on a handful of NATO countries, but I have already paid tribute to the Netherlands and Canada for the outstanding nature of their contribution. Other countries are also contributing a great deal.
I have said that Afghanistan presents a much larger task than Iraq. NATO is trying to create a democratic Government in a country that has no real history of one, and which seems to exhibit little desire for one. The raw material of Afghanistan—resources, education and infrastructure—and the availability of weapons practically everywhere make the task hugely challenging. That challenge is not yet matched by the political will and the resources in the developed world to get the whole country on to a viable road; until it is, we will not succeed.
The future of NATO and ISAF are closely linked. Some NATO members are simply not pulling their weight in Afghanistan; others are bearing greater burdens than are reasonable. We welcome President Sarkozy's announcement of additional French troops to be sent to Afghanistan. I would welcome even more French troops being sent there. Problems remain—there are national caveats and problems of force generation—but that is symptomatic of the broader soul searching that is needed in NATO as a whole.
We as a Committee published a report on the future of NATO earlier this year. We thought that it was an important contribution to the debate, and some of our conclusions moved in these directions. We said that the strategic concept of NATO needed to be renewed. Next year is the 60th anniversary of NATO. It needs a new focus. It needs a new clarity of purpose. It needs new political will, above all. That was what we identified as the major shortcoming of NATO at the moment. The point is not just that many NATO countries have fallen considerably below the target of 2 per cent. of GDP, but that the populations of the NATO countries seem to have forgotten what NATO is for. They concentrate much more on the European Union than on NATO, while still being less and less prepared to pay for the defence in which they are clamouring to have a greater say. It is a very odd business.
The Committee placed great importance on the outcome of the Bucharest summit; it was a vital summit for the future of the defence of the western world. I was extremely disappointed that we did not have an oral statement on the outcome of the summit even from the Secretary of State for Defence, let alone the Prime Minister. That meant that we did not have the opportunity to question the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister on NATO at a crucial stage. For example, what is the response to Russia when it begins serious talks with separatists in Georgia? What is the response to the shooting down of an unmanned aerial vehicle owned and flown by Georgia? Those two things were a direct response to what came out of NATO. We needed an oral statement.
NATO is the linchpin of our security. We must make sure that it adapts to the challenges of today. If we do not, the United States will lose interest in NATO, and if the US loses interest in NATO, NATO will be dead. The future of the mission in Afghanistan is very important to the future of NATO and to its whole credibility, the upholding of which forms part of the most important duty of Government—the defence of our country.
I must not take up too much time, so I conclude by saying that we must not let our natural focus on Iraq and Afghanistan obscure the many other commitments of our armed forces. We still have substantial forces in Cyprus, although they are often part of the reserve that rapidly goes backwards and forwards to Iraq or Afghanistan, and we have just deployed 600 additional troops to Kosovo. It is essential for the UK to train for, and to be prepared for, the events that we are not facing now but may face in future. However, we are not doing that, because there is nothing left in the locker. We have been told that by the Chief of the General Staff.
We must lift our eyes, we must lift our ambitions, we must lift our pride and we must lift the priority that we place on the defence of our country and on the wonderful men and women who undertake that task on our behalf. That requires leadership and commitment from the very top.
In the brief time for which I will speak, I want to take up four points that were raised by the Secretary of State, a couple of points that were raised by the Opposition and perhaps make one point of my own.
First and most important, on the issue that we are most concerned about, the Secretary of State was reasonably encouraging—responsibly and moderately so—on the two great deployments that we have in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was absolutely right in the phrase that he used. They are the front line of our security. I have not the slightest doubt—I have said it in the House before—that had the terrorists who attacked London and Glasgow last summer had the benefit of a six-month training course in bomb-making and detonation techniques in a safe haven for terrorists in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, they would have succeeded in killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of our people. That is the fundamental reason for our deployment there and for the brave British servicemen and women fighting there doing such a vital job. The risks to their health and lives—and it is tragic if those risks result in death or serious injury—are risks that have to be borne. We must be deeply grateful to those who are prepared to take on that enormous responsibility on behalf of the rest of our country.
It is clear from the history of any counter-insurgency operation that 70 to 80 per cent. of the outcome is down to psychology. That is why it would be fatal to go down the road set out by Nick Harvey. I know from personal experience that he has considerable knowledge of and interest in these matters and takes a responsible line on defence issues, but he is trapped in a party that has a terrible record of mixing short-term party politics with the defence of the nation. The greatest possible threat to our making a permanent positive contribution to providing stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, to defending ourselves from terrorism, and to ensuring that we have the best possible chance of leaving those countries with reasonably stable and democratic Governments for the long term—the best way of undermining any such chance of that scenario—would be to do what the Liberal Democrats urge on the Government, which is to make public statements on exit strategies or set public deadlines for pulling out of either of those operations.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but did he regard the Prime Minister's statement last year that we would reduce the number of troops to 2,500 from the spring as that of a statesman or of someone who was seeking short-term party political advantage?
It was clear at the time that the Prime Minister believed that the situation in Iraq was such that it enabled us, and made it sensible for us, to reduce the number of troops from between 4,000 and 5,000 to 2,500. One can readily understand how in certain circumstances that would be a reasonable thing to do. Obviously, it would be desirable if it were possible to do that without jeopardising the success of the operation. Matters have become more complicated since then, however. It has become important to support the Americans during their surge and the al-Maliki Administration in Baghdad in trying to gain control of the country. It is very much a matter of psychology. The events in Baghdad and Basra over the past few months have shown how difficult things are. The Iraqi forces initially ran into quite a lot of trouble and bother. It was sensible to decide that this was not the moment to reduce further our forces in Iraq.
I listen with great interest to Mr. Arbuthnot, the Chairman of the Defence Committee, and often learn a lot from him, but I did not follow what he said today, which was to the effect that we could either have a viable critical mass in Iraq of 4,000 to 5,000 troops or have 500 or fewer. Things do not work like that. It may be possible to go down to a lower level of troops provided that there is a commensurate reduction in the threat. Clearly, if there is no threat, we do not need any force protection. Presumably, those are the circumstances in which he envisaged having a small training programme, or something, involving a few hundred of our troops. I would have thought that if there were a threat to them, they would need their own force protection, which would require a number of troops being available substantially in advance of that. It may well be that the Prime Minister felt last autumn that we were moving towards that situation. Clearly, we are not, but that does not mean to say that over the long term we will not succeed in making a considerable success of the operation. Perhaps in five or 10 years' time, if we can withdraw from an Iraq that is reasonably stable—if it is, for the first time in its history, a democratic country—we will be able to look back with pride on having kept our nerve despite the obvious and understandable public pressures to throw in the sponge and pull out prematurely.
The second thing on which I want to congratulate the Government is quite remarkable: the number of initiatives that they have taken in the past year or two to provide material support for our troops. There has been an announcement in short order of two armed forces pay reviews, which have been accepted by the Government. I think that the results of those public sector pay reviews are the only ones to have been accepted. The one last year increased the pay of people in the lower ranks by 9 per cent. That is real money, frankly.
At the same time, we have had the introduction of the tax-free deployment allowance and concessions on council tax, and rightly so, but they are without precedent. Commitments have been given to spend more money on improving housing, and it is very important that that be done. I will not make a party political point by saying who is actually to blame for the present administration and ownership of military housing in this country. Instructions have been given to health authorities to do what they really should have been doing automatically since 1948 and the introduction of the health service—to give priority to patients presenting with symptoms as a result of service in our armed forces.
I have left out several things, such as the significant increase in the compensation limit. There has been an enormous number of initiatives in this field. It is a remarkable record of achievement, and as far as I can see the Government have got absolutely no credit for it whatever. I suppose that it is not surprising that they were given no credit from the Opposition Benches—party politics comes into issues even as important as this—but the media have not picked up at all on these points. However, there is no doubt that the armed forces are aware of the continuing effort.
Thirdly, the Government have also made tremendous progress in addressing the issue of the equipment of our forces deployed on these difficult operations. There is no doubt that, as often happens when one suddenly has to send an expeditionary force to an entirely new combat zone thousands of miles away, there are bound to be deficiencies. I suppose that there has never been a case in history of a country deploying such an expeditionary force far from home and at short notice, and there not being severe deficiencies in the personal and other forms of fighting equipment, and people not having what they ideally would have liked in those difficult circumstances. However, that issue has now been addressed, and very creditably so. The urgent operational requirements system is really working, and we are getting equipment out to Afghanistan and Iraq within a few months of the requirement being identified by the military on the spot.
In the past few months, I have had the opportunity to speak to more than 300 serving men and women in this country, many of whom had just recently returned from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The universal view of everyone whom I asked about personal equipment—I ask that question on every occasion, as you can imagine, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because this is a live issue often debated in the House—was that the equipment now available to them in Iraq and Afghanistan is absolutely second to none, including to that of their American counterparts. They were very conscious of that point. That is another considerable achievement on the part of the Government.
Unfortunately, because of the delays in coroners' inquests, coroners' judgments are still being made about the unfortunate deaths of our servicemen and women from three years ago. The Government have taken steps to spread out the inquests across the country, so those delays will now decline. References to the inadequacies of personal equipment are at least three years out of date. The tabloids pick up on that and present it as a current story—as a reflection of current reality—when in fact, that position ceased to exist some years ago. That is completely unjust and unfair, and needs to be corrected.
The fourth and final issue that I want to address and that was raised by the Secretary of State is the quite different one of anti-ballistic missile defence. I totally agreed with what he said: the Government are absolutely right to renew and update our co-operation with the Americans on this subject, giving them the benefit of the output at Menwith Hill and Fylingdales. The Government are also right to keep the matter under review. I do not want to draw any conclusions as to what we should be doing over the next few years in this area, but it is a very serious problem.
The fact is that the Iranians are investing in ballistic technology to an extraordinary degree. They have developed the Shahab 2 missile and are now developing the Shahab 3, with which they can potentially already achieve a range of more than 1,000 km. One has to ask why they are doing that. If we believe last December's American defence community report—it said that the Iranians abandoned their nuclear weapons programme in 2003, which would be very good news indeed—we have to ask what other kind of payload the Shahab 3s are designed to carry. Presumably, it is biological or chemical weapons—weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Ahmadinejad may be a lunatic but even he cannot be quite so mad as to spend this vast amount of money in developing ballistic missiles simply in order to carry high explosive. The cost-impact ratio would be utterly ridiculous by any standards. There is a real threat and problem there.
The Secretary of State is right that, for the foreseeable future, we need not think about locating terrestrial land-based anti-ballistic missile systems in this country. But I am reassured that the Americans are in agreement with the Polish and Czech Governments on locating systems there. We should keep the matter under constant review and come back to it from time to time in the House. I appreciate that the Secretary of State took the initiative in raising the subject this afternoon. No one asked him to do so or raised it with him and I hope that the Government will continue to keep us informed. There will be consensus among reasonable people in this House on taking whatever responsible measures may be required in the light of the threat over the next few years. I put it no more strongly than that.
The official Opposition—the Conservative Opposition, whom I used to support officially, but not always with great conviction in recent years—made me feel this afternoon that I was glad that I was not on those Benches. I thought how embarrassed I would have felt if I had been. Dr. Fox implied strongly that he thought that it was a priority for us to get into the business of building icebreakers.
I listened very carefully to what he said and I cannot imagine what other purpose there was of saying that Arctic warfare was so important and that we had only one icebreaker, HMS Enterprise, unless it was to make it clear that he thought we should start building icebreakers. Of all the ridiculous priorities in the world! [ Interruption. ] Robert Key protests loyally in trying to defend his defence spokesman, but I cannot imagine what other interpretation could be placed on the hon. Gentleman's remarks. He spoke for several minutes about Arctic warfare and HMS Enterprise. What other signal was he trying to send to the House?
It is so simple but clearly beyond the hon. Gentleman's understanding. For those who did not hear my hon. Friend Dr. Fox the first time, he said that NATO did not have adequate capability if we were looking at new scenarios in the north. It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to deride my hon. Friend, but he did not deride him or my party when he served with me as a defence spokesman for our party.
When the hon. Gentleman and I served as defence spokesmen in the Conservative party we certainly did not get on to icebreakers or Arctic warfare as a serious challenge. That was in the last decade and I am not sure that the geopolitical situation has changed that much. I interpreted the comments quite differently. In referring to NATO not investing in icebreakers, it sounded to me as though the hon. Member for Woodspring felt that we, as a part of NATO, should be helping to make up that deficit. He said that the Canadians were investing; the implication was that we should be as well.
I am glad that we have had this matter exposed and I hope that the Conservative party now realises how utterly ridiculous, risible and foolish it would appear if it suggested that scarce military resources be spent on building icebreakers. The very best interpretation that can be put on the hon. Gentleman's remarks is that they were totally irrelevant and that he was wasting the House's time by raising an issue that even he did not think was relevant to the defence needs of the nation.
May I inform my hon. Friend that this is not the first time that Dr. Fox has raised the issue? He raised it on
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point.
The judgment of the hon. Member for Woodspring needs to be reflected on, most urgently by the hon. Gentleman himself but also by his colleagues on the Conservative Benches— [ Interruption. ] No, I have not quite finished on this subject. The Secretary of State revealed something else that I found absolutely extraordinary. I listened to it with amazement, but I know that I heard the words quite clearly, and I think that I understand the English language. It appears that the hon. Member for Woodspring has put on his website a proposal that NATO should buy up the poppy crop in Afghanistan. I cannot think of anything quite so ludicrously misconceived. To do that would enormously increase the demand for the poppies and create an enormous increase in production. It would also greatly increase the dependence of farmers and peasants in Afghanistan on poppy production and divert them from diversification into the other crops that we are trying to encourage them to grow.
That is an extraordinarily ill thought-through set of policies. I raise this matter not because I wish to justify my leaving the Conservative party—I do not need to do that; I am very happy with my decision—but because I believe that the public need to be warned. The opinion polls show that the Tories are in the lead. That means that, if there were a general election tomorrow—I do not suppose there will be—and if the polls were reasonably accurate, we would have a Conservative Government and a Secretary of State for Defence with an obsession with icebreakers who wanted to buy up the poppy crop in Afghanistan. The public really need to reflect on these matters, and I do not apologise for raising them. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not here now, but it is not my fault if he chooses not to sit through the debate, or if he chooses to make his speech and then simply walk out.
There is one final matter that I want to raise. As the House probably knows, the Prime Minister asked me just before Christmas to lead a study into national recognition of the armed forces, which meant examining the extent to which the public understand, appreciate, identify with and support the armed forces. That study has now been completed and submitted to the Prime Minister, and I hope that it will be published very soon. Obviously I do not wish to anticipate the recommendations that it will make, but I want to make one point in that regard.
Our conclusions were twofold. First, it will not surprise the House to learn that there is enormous public support and gratitude for the armed forces in our country, and that it is deeply and widely felt. That comes out quite clearly in the homecoming parades and in the success of the charity appeals that have been held over the past few months. There has also been evidence of that support in our debate this afternoon. For example, my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney talked about the relationship between the general community in Stafford and the military personnel based in the barracks there. That is an interesting example of a medium-sized town in which a very good relationship of that kind can exist.
There is a widespread sense that members of the armed forces are very special. Most human beings would not be capable of spending six months of their lives in a desert without even the occasional drink, with none of the pleasures of family or social life, under constant threat of being seriously wounded or killed, sometimes living on ration packs—not, as is sometimes stupidly said in the tabloids, for months on end; that certainly does not happen, but it happens during the course of individual operations—and leading an austere and dangerous existence. The people who are prepared to do all that are extraordinary human beings. As I have said, they play an indispensable role, and civilisation would not last very long if there were no men and women prepared to do it. There have been one or two nasty incidents that appear to illustrate a certain hostility towards the armed forces, but they are the work of a very small twisted minority of people.
Our other conclusion was that, over the years, there has been an increasing separation between the armed forces and the rest of society, although not because anyone wanted that to happen. That separation is a reflection of two things. First, as each year goes by there are fewer people with experience of serving in uniform, or who have a close family member who has served in the armed forces. A generation or so ago, the second world war generation was still largely alive and every male—at least in principle—had done national service. Conscription ended in the early 1960s, but until then almost every family had a member with experience of the military. People understood the constraints, disciplines and dangers—as well as the camaraderie, pressure and tension—that accompany military operations. Such things were better understood in society as a whole then.
Secondly, a cultural change has taken place. I do not want to go outside the ambit of the debate, but it is generally agreed that, over the past 20 years, society has become increasingly hedonistic, short-termist and individualistic. Some might say that it has become more atomised, but I want my remarks to be a statement of fact rather than a long social critique. The fact is that the military must be based—they cannot be otherwise—on a more traditional ethos involving concepts such as public service, team effort, self-sacrifice, devotion to duty and discipline. The social and psychological divergence that has taken place is not healthy for the country as a whole or for the armed forces, because it means that people increasingly lack the familiarity, contact and knowledge on which positive feelings of gratitude and support for the military can be based. Therefore, our recommendations will be directed above all to finding ways to narrow the gap that I have identified.
Other countries have achieved that. The evidence from America is clear: 30 years ago, after the Vietnam war, the relations between the general public and the military were very bad. To anyone who knows America now, that is extraordinary, given the American public's support for, and identification with, the military. The relationship can only be described as symbiotic. It is immensely impressive and very moving, and of course we cannot move that far in one leap. Our traditions and psychology are very different—no doubt people will say that Americans are more effusive by nature than we British are—but nevertheless there are some interesting lessons to be drawn from other countries. For example, Canada and France are other democracies that regularly deploy troops in combat situations.
If our military are to do their job, it is very important that people support, understand and have contact with them. They need to feel that the pressures and sacrifices that they face are fully appreciated by the general public.
I listened to the speech of Mr. Davies more in sorrow than in anger; it will be one of his last defence speeches, and I suspect that we will miss his amusing ramblings after the next general election. Despite that, I wish him well with the recovery of his left hand. He seems not to have finally developed his left hook yet, but I wish him very well in his retirement. I now wish to return to reality.
"For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot".
A few weeks ago, the Tisbury branch of the Royal British Legion invited me to address it at a public meeting to talk about the military covenant, and this I was privileged to do. At a full church of St. John the Baptist in Tisbury, I addressed this theme: "Tommy Atkins: do we care?" Of course, in my constituency, Her Majesty's forces are part of the fabric of our community, as are the families who follow the flag and the industrial, scientific and administrative civil servants on whom the fighting units depend. For us, it is all part of the community in which we live, and we do not consider the military to be in any degree separate from the rest of our community. We know that that is not the same all over the country, as in places where there is not the same density of military activity and personnel. There are also in south Wiltshire a large number of retired service personnel who mind very much about the reaction of the younger generation to Her Majesty's forces—the way we think about them, the way we treat them on the street and, above all, the way that we, as politicians, ask them to do the impossible and do not provide adequate resources for them to carry out their role, which we admire so much.
That occasion gave me an opportunity to remind the Tisbury branch of the Royal British Legion that defence has changed enormously since the operational requirements to defend our country in the second world war or to fight for other people elsewhere in the world. That is one arm of our capability in defence, as is the defence of our homeland territory, but we no longer face hordes of Russian tanks approaching across the north European plain. We face a completely new sort of threat, and we have had to respond to that. Much of it, around the world, is to do with ideas, and much of it is to do with resources. Population is one of the greatest drivers of instability in the world. That is recognised in the development, concepts and doctrine centre—an excellent directorate-general in the Ministry of Defence that is often neglected but absolutely crucial to our understanding of what is going on. It points out that sustained population growth, aggressive economic competition around the world, and increasing consumption, particularly in the far east and in Asia, together with rapid modernisation and urbanisation, will result in intensive exploitation of and pressure on resources of all kinds. Those tendencies will be aggravated by the consequences of climate change, environmental changes and an increased human footprint on the globe. Consequently, the availability and flow of energy, food and water will be critical in future, with potential fluctuations and imbalances in production and distribution at global, regional and local levels. When resource challenges are identified, population expansion has the greatest single impact relative to local resources and economic growth.
All that, together with the expansion of global media and information and communications technologies, will heighten people's sense of grievance and marginalisation and differences between the haves and have-nots nationally and internationally, leading to increased tensions and instability around the world. We can add to that the spread of communicable diseases. Those are already a feature of human life, but enhanced international travel makes it easier than ever before for them to move around the world. Familiar diseases may be eradicated but others will take their place.
We face a completely different sort of defence threat, and we need to adopt a different defence posture. Nevertheless, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Arbuthnot, the Chairman of our excellent Defence Committee, pointed out, we must keep our eye on the ball as regards evolving relationships between nations within NATO and our neighbours. I mentioned Greece a little earlier. It is important that we understand that much of the future of NATO depends on countries such as Greece managing to come to an accommodation with neighbours such as Turkey, particularly over Cyprus. That is crucial to the forward development of NATO relationships, not to mention the future of the European Union. I make no apology for mentioning the critical role that Greece has to play, and I hope that it realises the responsibility it carries in that respect.
I would like to add to what my right hon. Friend said about what is happening in Iraq. Very rarely is the Royal Navy mentioned in connection with Iraq, but its role there is crucial both in protecting the oil terminals on which the future prosperity of Iraq depends, and in training the Iraqi navy. The role of the Royal Navy should never be underestimated or forgotten. We wish to pass over what happened last year, and I think that we will. We have managed to expunge much of it and learn from the experience of it.
We should also pay tribute to the other partners in the naval operation there, notably the Australians. The Australians operate with coalition taskforce 158, which operates in the north Arabian gulf; they are part of the protection force for Iraqi oil platforms and they are very welcome. They are doing a first-class job, and they are making a substantial contribution, along with their frigate, in the north Arabian gulf. That particular maritime component, in the shape of the frigate HMAS Arunta, is the 17th rotation of an Australian ship since 2001. The Australians call that Operation Catalyst, incidentally.
The Australians have an interesting concept of partnership with NATO. They have a rather more developed and sensitive view of the relationships between strategic defence organisations around the world. They do not want to join NATO, but recognise that partnership with NATO is crucial for global well-being and defence. The new Australian Government are developing plans in their defence White Paper for the size, capacity and shape of Australia's defence for the next 20 years. I hope that in this country we will take seriously the need to develop relationships with Australia. They do not wish to be part of NATO, but they have relationships of their own in the Pacific with New Zealand and the United States. In the Pacific, other relationships exist between, for example, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia, which are very much in our interest.
People in this country have never had cause to contemplate the fact that there is a direct relationship between our standard of living and quality of life in this country—our ability to import white goods from China and electronics, television sets and motor cars from all over the world—and the security of our trade routes. Today, 90 per cent. and more of our imports are still coming by sea, and Australia is part of a global defence, particularly as far as south-east Asia and the far east is concerned. When thinking of defence in the United Kingdom, we need to think about our relationships with friends—kith and kin, if I may say so—on the other side of the world. That is important.
I will not mention icebreakers, but I would point out that Australia has territorial claims over 40 per cent. of Antarctica. Australia's new arrangements, agreed by the United Nations, for the potential exploitation of mineral reserves in Antarctic waters not immediately abutting Antarctica are important for the future energy supplies of the free world. I hope, therefore, that we see that as part of the equation, and as another reason why we should be serious about our intentions towards our partnership with Australia.
My hon. Friend Dr. Fox was absolutely right to talk about the importance of the Arctic. Denmark happens to have the presidency of the Arctic Council—not many people have heard of that—from 2009-11. Denmark's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called a high-level meeting later this month on the Arctic region, to be hosted jointly by Denmark and Greenland, and Denmark's Defence Committee met our Defence Committee only last month, when that business was mentioned.
Canada, the United States, Russia and Norway, as well as Greenland and Denmark, will discuss the importance of gas and mineral exploitation and redrawing global trade routes round the north-west passage. All that is important to us, too. I would be grateful if the Minister could find out between now and winding up whether we will attend that conference as observers. The relevant United Nations treaty provides that observers may attend such meetings. Will the British Government attend?
I want to consider the defence budget. Member after Member has said that we provide around 2 per cent. of our gross national product to the budget but that many other NATO and European countries do not, and that there is a lack of political will. That was one of the big messages that the Defence Committee sent to the Bucharest conference in our report on the future of NATO. Our citizens do not genuinely understand what our forces are for. They understood that in the second world war, and in the days of empire, they understood why we had armies and went out and conquered other countries, but they do not understand now—and we do not make it plain—why it is in their interest not only to defend our ideas of freedom and uphold the United Nations charter, but to have a significant defence interest, thus ensuring that our quality of life and standard of living are maintained.
There is no doubt that the United Kingdom is a force for good in the world. Above all, we defend British interests around the world. To do that, we need global reach. We simply must ensure that we can reach anywhere on the globe—in partnership, not necessarily alone. To do that, we must be realistic about defence and have the political will to pay for defence. The United Kingdom must tackle that, as must our European and NATO partners.
I regret to say that Government Front Benchers, Opposition Front Benchers, the Treasury and our shadow Treasury team all need to be convinced by people such as me that our constituents care, too. That message was emphasised at the meeting of the Royal British Legion in Tisbury last month. My constituents, whether retired service personnel of all ranks, families following the flag, scientists or simply those who admire and recognise the need for strong forces, understand that we must pay. They have the political will.
One or two senior figures in the shadow Cabinet groan when they see me coming, because they know that I am going to say, "Double the defence budget." I am on record as saying that, and I repeat it: we should seriously consider doubling the defence budget. That would have an electrifying effect on this country's economy and much else for which the nation stands. We need to rebuild confidence in our nationhood and a good way of achieving that is through a substantial increase in the defence budget so that we do not simply moan and whinge about the lack of resources for the military but tackle the problem. Politicians in the House of Commons must convince our electors that we need to pay for defence. I hope that that message will come from my constituents loud and clear. I believe that I represent them properly when I say that no one has yet disagreed with my proposition that we need a substantial increase in defence expenditure.
Order. A number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but we are running out of time. If contributions can be kept reasonably brief, I shall do my very best to call all of them.
May I, first, apologise to you and the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for not being present for the beginning of the Secretary of State's speech? I was with other hon. Members at the funeral of Gwyneth Dunwoody.
It is a pleasure to follow Robert Key, who is a fellow member of the Defence Committee. One thing that we can say about his contribution is that it was certainly not lightweight. It was good old-fashioned Toryism, which we all recognise. Indeed, the public would perhaps understand such forthright talk more than the spin that we get from those on his Front Bench.
Today's debate has been about equipment and big geopolitical issues, but I want to talk about the important element of defence—the people involved in it. My hon. Friend Mr. Davies has already mentioned the fact that the general public's understanding of the armed forces is not as strong as it was, say, 50 years ago, because our armed forces have a smaller footprint and because there is less daily or weekly contact in public life in certain parts of the country. I look forward to reading my hon. Friend's paper, which will reinforce some of those points.
What catches the public's attention is the fact that our armed forces are deployed in two areas of conflict and that people are coming back maimed or are making the ultimate sacrifice. That makes it more important to try to ensure that the general public not only support our armed forces but understand the debt of gratitude that we owe them.
I have been a member of the Defence Committee for the past seven years. I have had the privilege of visiting Iraq on five occasions and Afghanistan on three. I hope to return to both countries later this year, if I can pass the strict fitness test that the MOD has implemented. However, looking at the girth of both the Secretary of State and the Minister, I think that I may be in with a chance. On a serious note, let me stress to the Minister that we should not implement rules that prevent parliamentarians from visiting our armed forces in those two theatres. My visits proved invaluable. Many members of the Defence Committee and others who visited returned with not only knowledge but pride at seeing our young men and women doing the job that they are doing.
Does my hon. Friend agree that military personnel serving in those difficult situations do not want to feel that they are a forgotten Army? They appreciate visits by Members of Parliament and journalists, including embedded journalists, who can report in detail on their daily activities.
I am not sure that our armed forces abroad welcome visits by all journalists, but every time I have visited them, I have always felt welcome. People sometimes ask, "Are they forthright in their views?" and I have to say that they are.
I pay tribute to the work that Mike Penning has done on increasing public recognition for those serving in Afghanistan and, along with the all-party Army group, on organising the reception on the Terrace for 52 Brigade a few weeks ago. It was a tremendous event and everyone involved should be proud. We should continue such work—indeed, I know that he plans to. I met two inspiring individuals at the reception: Marine McBean lost an arm and a leg in a landmine explosion in Afghanistan and Marine Mark Ormrod lost both legs and an arm. However, speaking to them and sensing their courage—they were not going to let their terrible injuries hold them back—was very humbling. I also want to pay tribute to the City of London for last night's celebrations, as it is important that we salute heroes.
What I am going to say might bring groans from the Opposition, but I want to pay tribute to Prince Harry and Prince William. The two wounded soldiers to whom I spoke were tremendously grateful that the princes had taken the trouble to go to Headley Court to speak to them. Last night, many of the soldiers' families clearly welcomed the princes' involvement. This issue has turned into a political football, but we should try not to make it so. From speaking to these young men who went through traumatic, life-changing experiences by losing their limbs, it is clear that they are dedicated to getting back into service. They want to put something back; they are neither negative nor in any way seeking to apportion blame.
I want to pay tribute to Headley Court's nursing staff, who are to some extent unsung heroes. I met a number of them at a reception recently and it was clear that they were dedicated and hard-working men and women. They are doing a tremendous job.
Let me mention another young man from Newcastle, who shows the determination of some of the individuals involved. Following treatment at Headley Court, 21-year-old Lance Bombardier Anthony Makin, who lost part of his lower leg in a landmine explosion in Afghanistan, is going back there later this year. He is determined to make a continuing contribution to the defence of this nation. People such as him should be accorded huge recognition and respect.
Great advances have been made in medical services. I want to refer to a forgotten report of a few weeks ago, which did not get a great deal of coverage: the seventh Defence Committee report, "Medical Care for the Armed Forces". I believe that it was not widely reported because it highlighted a good news story. The opening summary states:
"The clinical care for Servicemen and women seriously injured on operations is second to none."
All members of the Committee of all political parties were tremendously impressed by what goes on at Selly Oak and other defence medical establishments around the country. Our Chairman, Mr. Arbuthnot, said that when we were in Afghanistan, we saw the great work done in theatre, with doctors embedded at the front line and people receiving medical services and treatment of the highest quality. There is no way that many of those people would have survived without it.
Without detracting from the fantastic work done at Selly Oak and Headley Court, which I recently visited, does the hon. Gentleman agree that more should be done in respect of the mental health of soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq? I was astonished to learn from a parliamentary answer that 15 members of the armed forces had committed suicide while still in uniform after returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. I do not know the figure relating to those who hung up their uniforms after returning, but I suspect that it is at least double. I believe that we should do far more to look after the mental, as well as the physical, welfare of our soldiers.
The report deals with that issue. We recognised what the Government had done to support Combat Stress, and I pushed hard to ensure that we could monitor people throughout their lives. It is no good letting people leave the armed forces and be forgotten by the system. One recommendation—there seems to be some reluctance to take it up—was to have a patient passport. That would allow people to be monitored throughout their lives—not just their physical health, but, more importantly, their mental health. I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman about that.
I am a member of the Defence Committee, which produced the report, and I found many instances of first-class care. However, one of the evidence sessions in Scotland was cringeworthy. The quality of the advice and support from the officials and the Executive was disgraceful. Last week, the Scottish Executive announced a fund of £127,000 over three years for veterans in Scotland, which is a miserly and pathetic response to the report.
As the hon. Gentleman says, when we took evidence in the Scottish Parliament we were shocked by the arrogance and how ill-informed the contributions were. I hoped that our report, which is quite critical of that, would go some way to put it right. If it has not, I am concerned, and the Committee might want to return to the matter.
Anyone who goes to Selly Oak must be impressed not only by the level of care but by the commitment and dedication of staff. However, we were critical of the media's reporting of Selly Oak—I was not surprised that that did not receive much media coverage. I raised with the director and the armed forces personnel there every single story in the press I could find about lurid topics such as soldiers being abused by Asian patients, and not one of them could be substantiated. In our report, we said:
"It seems clear that there has been much inaccurate and irresponsible reporting surrounding care for injured Service personnel at Birmingham, and that some stories were printed without being verified or, in some cases, after the Trust had said that they were untrue."
The Committee roundly condemned that, and we said that editors should be responsible about what is reported. Anyone who is looking at Selly Oak should go there and talk to the people and listen to some of the stories, because world-class medical care is being provided. I urge Members of all parties not to repeat some of these stories, because they are completely untrue and do a lot to undermine the credibility of the great work that is being done.
I was also impressed with the medical services that are now embedded in the NHS. I know that the decision to close stand-alone military hospitals has been controversial. The decision was taken by the previous Conservative Government, and it was right, because a high level of clinical expertise is now embedded in some units and the clinicians acquire experience that they could not get in stand-alone military hospitals. We therefore think that that was the right decision, and we also support the continued closure of Haslar—although I know that Peter Viggers is not very happy about that.
Overall, what we found was a good news story, although the Committee must keep things under review. I must also echo a comment: were things all right three or four years ago? I am not sure that they were; I think we have improved, and that the pressure that has been applied has helped.
Another issue being kicked around like a political football is one on which we must try to get some perspective: compensation for armed forces personnel injured or killed abroad. If we had a bottomless pit of money, we would open it up for these people, but there is not a bottomless pit of money in politics—that also applies for future Governments of any political persuasion. However, this Government have made some major moves forward, and they have been unfairly criticised for what they have tried to do. I served on the Bill Committee that dealt with the armed forces compensation scheme, which for the first time ever brought in lump sum payments for people who are injured—sometimes horrifically, as we have seen in some examples in Afghanistan and Iraq. That was a major move forward. Before that, there were no lump sum payments. From the media frenzy around this, it might be thought that this Government have done nothing at all, but we have: we have given the lump sum payments plus the lifetime pension. People can score political points if they want, but the previous Conservative Government did nothing on this, and we should be proud of what we have done. It is, however, right to keep the issue under review, and the example of Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson showed that the scheme needs tweaking. The Government are looking at that.
I urge people not to jump on bandwagons. I have great respect for the Royal British Legion, but having sat on the relevant Committee I am aware of the implication that other Members argued for more lump sum payments. Nothing was said at the time, and people should give the Government credit when they do the right thing.
Those points were raised, but there was no criticism of the actual changes. The hon. Gentleman sat on the Committee with me, and I tabled an amendment to extend pension benefits to unmarried partners, who did not have any automatic entitlement. He should remember that he opposed that amendment, so I do not want any lessons from him about support for the armed forces. Many hundreds of unmarried partners would have had no access to benefits if we had followed his line.
I hope that the Government introduce a coroners Bill in this year's Queen's Speech. It is unacceptable that families should suffer the delays that they are suffering. I mean no criticism of individual coroners: the problem is the archaic system that they face. Such a Bill should recognise the unique nature of military deaths. I urge the British Legion not to jump on the bandwagon that favours legal assistance for military families to attend inquests. That will just feed lawyers. I want to see good support and information given to families who attend inquests and it may be that we need more money for family liaison officers, but we should not feed lawyers and barristers. People will know of my prejudice against the profession if they followed my contributions to the passage of the Legal Services Act 2007.
I hope that the long-awaited Command Paper will challenge us on some issues. We need a detailed discussion on the role of the MOD in relation to service charities. I passionately believe that service charities do a fantastic job and possibly deliver some services to service families better than the state could ever do, but we need to know where the dividing lines are. At the moment, the Government are being criticised and people ask why they are not doing certain things, but service charities can do them better.
We owe a debt of gratitude to those brave men and women who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. If people want to see British youth at its best, they should visit our armed forces on operations. Courageous decisions are taken and huge responsibility is placed on very young shoulders.
I am mindful of the needs of others, and of your request for shorter speeches, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall jettison half my speech. Unfortunately, not every hon. Member plays the team game.
The subject matter of the debate is defence in the world, and I shall concentrate all my remarks on that issue, rather than on some of the subjects about which we have heard in the past few hours. Some 3,500 soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade, based in Colchester garrison, are in Helmand province, Afghanistan. I know that the whole House will wish them well, and a safe return. I visited Afghanistan earlier this year, and I passed the medical test. I suspect that if I can pass it, many others can too.
The serious point is that we owe a great debt of gratitude to our brave men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to those who have served in other theatres in the past, for what they have done. I want to return to a point that I have put to both the present Prime Minister and the previous Prime Minister, and that has also been made today, about the lack of support from other NATO countries for our troops in Afghanistan. We should thank those on the roll of honour—Holland, Denmark, Latvia and Estonia, alongside the US and Canada—for their contribution. The question is: where are the troops, air frames and logistical support from Spain, Poland and Italy, and Germany and France in particular?
To my mind, our army is under-strength and over-stretched. If it was not for the fact that 10 per cent. of the British Army is drawn from overseas, that situation would be even more dire. Clearly, something has to be done to improve recruitment and, more particularly, retention.
Let me briefly bring together the aspects of retention that the Government need to address. The new single-person accommodation provided at Merville barracks at the Colchester garrison is first-class. We should seek to repeat that success wherever we can. The married quarters, however, are not as good as they could be. I find it unacceptable that in the past 10 years or so the MOD has paid more in rent to Annington Homes than the Government received in 1995-96 when the MOD housing stock was privatised. If that same amount of money had been invested in modernising and improving our housing stock, every married quarters in this country would be the best they could be. I put it to the Minister that the Government should consider ways of converting rental payments as a hire-purchase means of regaining a capital asset that was sold in a ridiculous privatisation—a rip off, giving Annington Homes a licence to print money. For example, more than 200 MOD houses are standing empty in my constituency, for which Addington Homes receive about £750,000 a year for doing nothing. The public purse will pump billions of pounds over the next few years into upgrading and modernising housing stock that the public will not own.
I pay tribute to the garrison welfare services and the community in Colchester for all the support that they give families in Colchester. I pay particular tribute to the Colchester Gazette, which produces a "Support our troops" news item almost daily. That is the sort of thing that the Prime Minister and the Chief of the Defence Staff are urging communities to do.
So that our soldiers in Afghanistan can be relieved of their worries at home, I ask defence Ministers to discuss the proposals to shut the secondary school in Colchester with their colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, in the spirit of joined-up government. Approximately a quarter of the schoolchildren at the Alderman Blaxill school have a father—sometimes, a mother, but usually a father—serving in the Army, and most of those dads are in Afghanistan, knowing that the school that their children attend is under threat of closure. I believe that that threat could and should be lifted, and I urge the Ministry of Defence to discuss that with their colleagues, in a spirit of joined-up government, to get that closure stopped.
It is a pleasure to participate in the debate. My first question is whether "Defence in the World" is an appropriate title for such debates. As we have heard in all the contributions today, we must consider not simply what the military are doing in the corners of the globe, but exactly how their operations fit into the peacekeeping, nation building and growth of the communities involved. That is well beyond the remit of any military, and I therefore suggest that these debates be widened to include the work of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so that we fully understand how the MOD operates in connection with those other organisations. For example, in Iraq, security remains bad, but is it the military's fault that not enough schools are built, that there are not enough hospitals and that we have not established the local and regional government structures that should have been put in place in the very early months when there was an element of peace?
Today, five years after the invasion, Basra teeters on the brink of civil war and Anbar province—the biggest province—has been ethnically cleansed. In the social context, unemployment is rife, electricity is intermittent and petrol for transport remains sparse. Some 25 per cent. of Iraqis totally depend on food rations, according to the UN, and only 3,000 of the 15,000 schools destroyed or damaged have been repaired. According to UNICEF, up to 75 per cent. of children are not attending schools. Iraq's Ministry of Water says that only 32 per cent. of the population have access to drinking water and only 19 per cent. have access to good sewerage systems.
Hon. Members might ask what that has to do with defence in the world. The point is that we are still in Iraq, and because these issues have not been solved, we continue to stay in Iraq. My argument is that other aspects of Cabinet Departments are not doing enough to support our military to ensure that once the umbrella of security is created, our military can leave, leaving behind a strong sense of governance and the building blocks for a nation to continue on its own.
In my view, we cannot call what we see in Iraq a success story. It has been a costly failure in peacekeeping—a textbook example of how not to nation-build—resulting in a prolonged, testing and ultimately unwinnable task for our armed forces, which, after providing a small window of peace, are now hopelessly and totally abandoned by the FCO, and, indeed, by DFID. There was no plan, no strategy and no idea how to harness the euphoria of the fall of Saddam Hussein and to sow the seeds of governance.
I do not wish to take away from the individual work and strengths of DFID and Foreign Office representatives, but those two Departments have totally failed the MOD and the military who are still stuck on Operation Telic many years after those other organisations have disappeared. DFID is no longer to be seen in any sense or form in Basra on the scale that should have been there when we first went in. We have moved from being liberators to being occupiers. I am afraid that our military have borne the brunt of that, and they get very little thanks for what they have managed to achieve.
It could be argued that perhaps if Saddam Hussein had invaded somewhere, or done something proactive, we would have had to expedite a force to go out and rush in there. However, as memoirs are written and the information comes out of the system, we see that General Franks, who led the initial invasion, was approached, as the commander of US Central Command, back in November 2001 to start to create the plans of attack to invade Iraq. There was plenty of time to formulate a plan for what we would do after the invasion was complete. In May 2003, President Bush stood on top of the Abraham Lincoln, saying, "Mission accomplished." We have failed in Iraq because we did not use that important window of opportunity. Rather than our being able to take advantage of the confusion, the power vacuum has been filled not by us, and not by good Iraqi governance, but by al-Qaeda, which was not there in the first place. That is what has led to our being seen not as liberators but as occupiers. We have lost the hearts and minds of the good people—the Iraqis—who wanted us to move forward.
To confuse matters, we now talk about the militants in Basra. The situation is more complicated than that. The Fadhila party and the Mahdi army are two different operations. The Fadhila party has responsibility and the mayorship of Basra, but the Mahdi army wants that power. The conflict between the two militias is causing the friction, and the only thing that united all the militias in Basra was a hatred of the British. That forced us to move from Basra palace to the airport itself. I am saddened by how we were forced to withdraw. My battalion—the 4th Battalion, The Rifles—was part of that, and it did a fantastic job in trying to patrol in very difficult circumstances. However, we must ask whether it is correct for 750 soldiers to patrol a city of 1.5 million people if those soldiers do not have the support of DFID and the FCO.
The problems manifested themselves in the uprising on
The scenario for the Sunnis in central Iraq is a different one. As I said, ethnic cleansing has taken place in Anbar province, and although there is relative peace there, that is because of the awakening project in which the Americans paid militias and gave them uniforms so that they could patrol their areas. That might have purchased a temporary peace, but what will happen when the Americans depart and that money dries up? When I was on a recent visit to Iraq, the Iraqi Government made it clear that they would not continue to pay the militias for what they were doing. The militias are outside the structure of governance and there is a worry that they will turn their sights on the south and the Shi'ites. We will then have full-scale war. I hope that that will not happen, but it is certainly on the cards. The prospect of things heading that way is very worrying.
I am saddened that we seem to be running away from Iraq with our tail between our legs after we had such an opportunity in the relative peace to do something positive. Unfortunately, we face a similar situation in Afghanistan. Again, a lack of co-ordination within the international community means that money and effort are not getting to the front line. The centralised model of governance means that we do not recognise or celebrate the mixture of tribes, alliances and allegiances that actually make up Afghanistan. The Americanised constitution that was imposed on Afghanistan ignores the Loya Jirgas that set up their own democratic structures, and we rushed into creating an elected system of governance that is limited to Kabul only. We need to look at recognising better the Pashtuns, the Tajiks, the Hazaras and the Uzbeks, and the differences that exist across the nation, and to take a much more federalist approach than the centralist model, which is clearly not working.
Time is against me, and I must conclude. Kinetic activity is not the only thing that the Ministry of Defence needs to be concerned about. It is part of the fight to contain insurgency, but a wave of support must come in behind it. There must be reconstruction and redevelopment. If there is not, all we do is end up killing the bad guys; the good guys wait around for something to happen, and when it does not, they ask, "What have we actually witnessed?" That is the big difference between following through our commitment and leaving it to the military to create a peace of which no one ever takes advantage.
It is clear that the Kabul Government are weak and that we are not harnessing the exports because there is not the infrastructure to do so. The international community needs to do more to get the road and railway systems working so that things can be exported. Afghanistan was one of the world leaders in exporting fruit, which was its main export before the Soviet invasion. Not only is the country now unable to grow fruit in any great measure because the irrigation system was not repaired properly after its destruction by the Soviets, but there is no method of getting it out of the country and linking up with world export markets. We have been there for a number of years, and even today no one is working on those things under the limited and fragile umbrella of security put together by the military.
Fighting asymmetric battles is not just about shooting the bad guys, but about helping, and being seen to help, the good guys. ISAF, in its limited role, needs to expand what it does. I heard General Richards speak at an event last night. He was shocked to hear how much Royal Engineers were doing to repair our own barracks again and again, in and around the various Afghan towns and cities, rather than their being sent to do work outside where the civilian contractors refuse to go.
We have the ability in NATO to do more for the reconstruction effort. There is a question mark over NATO's future. More can be done to expand the peacekeeping mission to include not just fighting, but a proactive approach to peacekeeping itself. Iraq and Afghanistan are our generation's war. My worry is that the lack of a plan in both cases means that we will be fighting it for much longer.
I commend my hon. Friend Mr. Ellwood on his remarks about the lack of co-ordination between DFID and the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is one of the abiding problems that NATO as a whole and even our own Government have failed adequately to address.
In a wider context, it has become something of a cliché to say that following the tearing down of the Berlin wall, we now live in an age of uncertainty. Increasingly, however, the Government are becoming lost in a fog of their own making about how to engage in the new world disorder. The central policy of this tired Government has become to abdicate their responsibilities, seeking to subcontract their foreign and defence policy to international institutions. While they waste their political capital on such an unrealistic policy, there is almost complete paralysis in the Ministry of Defence. It is so stretched by the demands that are placed on it by the Government's foreign commitments that it is now living virtually from month to month. The three-year spending round is clearly insufficient to pay for current procurement programmes or to match the stated manning requirement, but the Government seem determined to avoid the consequences of that. There was a meeting in the Ministry of Defence last week to try to resolve the spending difficulties, but substantial decisions still come there none. The Government will do all they can to avoid facing up to the key point that they have not adequately funded the armed forces. While Ministers keep their heads in the sand, the serious point is that the UK is in danger of relegating itself to a third division status among the world powers.
The current Government's attitude to foreign affairs appears to involve a further retreat into a reliance on international institutions, such as the UN, the EU, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Here, so the Prime Minister told us recently, can our influence be most effective, reforming those institutions to make them more powerful and more effective for the 21st century. The Prime Minister's foreign policy speech in Boston identified many of the further challenges, but the world's problems will not be solved by committee meetings in New York or Brussels; they will be solved only on the streets of Baghdad, Kabul and other cities in Asia, Africa and the middle east.
The Prime Minister says that
"global problems require global solutions; the greatest of global challenges demands of us the boldest of global reforms".
However, such truisms do not seem to grasp the fact that the only real actors in global events are not the international institutions but the nations they represent. Hence, China will not compromise on industrialisation in the face of western fears about climate change; Iran will not give up her desire to obtain nuclear weapons, or stop interfering in the security of her neighbour, Iraq; and Russia will not stop pursuing the aggressive, bullying nationalism that has characterised the Putin presidency, such as the threatening of energy supplies to its neighbours. Those very same countries render impotent the international institutions in which the Prime Minister keeps vesting so much of his political capital.
The west is not immune, either. The Government should reflect on the fact that the United States will not recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court because, somewhat justifiably, it wishes to protect its soldiers against malicious legal actions. France will be France; Germany will be Germany. The idea that major international actors such as the US, China and Russia are altruistically going to give up national interest to pursue a so-called global agenda is little more than a cod-Marxist fantasy. If the Prime Minister is to make a real impact on the world stage, he must deal with the world as it now is and not how he wishes it to be, and be prepared to assert our own role on the world stage.
What the hon. Gentleman is saying is interesting, but does he not recognise that sometimes there are common interests between countries, and that we should therefore work together where we have those common interests?
Of course we have common interests on which we should work together, but we cannot allow other nations effectively to veto our own foreign policy by exercising their veto in the international institutions. As the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, proved time and again, in the end it may only be the bilateral and multilateral ad hoc options that are available to us. Insisting that the only way to validate one's foreign policy is to have it stamped by the EU or the United Nations is to tie one's hands to national agendas that are different from ours—to the agendas of countries that have no intention of allowing us to veto those agendas.
So we see the UK disappearing into the background on the world stage. The Prime Minister's absence from the Lisbon treaty signing was met with anger on the part of foreign politicians, diplomats and journalists. How can the Prime Minister expect to have any influence if he absents himself? One official said that
"he has no position in Europe, he occupies no ground".
At last month's NATO summit, the Prime Minister was similarly invisible. Where was Britain's voice when the issue of Georgian and Ukrainian membership was being discussed? We heard strong arguments on both sides from America, France and Germany, but virtually nothing from the United Kingdom. By the time the vital meeting with the Russians took place—on the final day of the summit—the Prime Minister had fled the scene. The last to arrive at Lisbon, the first to leave Bucharest: is that the way to promote the UK on the world stage?
To compound that, the Prime Minister failed to come to the House to give an oral statement on the outcome of the NATO summit—a quite extraordinary precedent given the importance of the summit for Afghanistan, for the enlargement of NATO, for missile defence, for relations with Russia and for the unresolved issue of EU-NATO relations. The Defence Secretary told the House last week that everything was going well in Afghanistan, but a report drawn up by the Foreign Office at the Prime Minister's request and distributed to our NATO allies warns that
"Critical military gaps remain to be filled."
That is not the story we are told on the Floor of the House; it is the sort of candour we could do with.
The Prime Minister's effort to dissociate himself from Mr. Blair means that he has adopted a one foot in, one foot out approach to our deployment in Iraq. Again, this is the worst of all possible worlds. While the Americans surged into Iraq last year—despite all the obstacles and difficulties, they have made a lot of progress—the British Government were looking to get out of Iraq. Even that has failed. In the wake of his pre-election stunt to try to overshadow the Conservative conference, the Prime Minister told the House in October that he was planning to reduce the size of Operation Telic from 5,500 last September to just 2,500 by now. That simply defied the military logic, as explained by the Minister for the Armed Forces to the Select Committee in July. He said that
"in an actual overwatch situation we cannot go much below 5,000 because we have to sustain the force and self-protect the force itself."
So it has proved. Operation Telic is now stuck at around 4,000 for the foreseeable future. The Prime Minister has made himself look foolish and devious in the eyes of our servicemen, the British public and our allies. He raised the hopes of our servicemen—who thought they were going to be home soon—and their families, and then dashed them.
Southern Iraq is supposed to be a British responsibility and yet it is the Americans who have had to divert troops from central Iraq to fight in the south. I wonder what it feels like to be stationed at Basra airport watching the Americans do our fighting for us because the British Government have lost the political will and run out of the military capacity. A Labour Member said earlier that overstretch was just a myth promulgated by the Conservatives; he should listen to some of his hon. Friends, who will tell him the truth about how little military capacity we now have. The fact that we are now deploying to the Balkans the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles so soon after their return from Iraq underlines how overstretched we are.
The Government's bungling in Iraq has seriously undermined our credibility with the Americans as well. The Government's failure to commit the necessary resources or show the stomach for the fight has caused a sense of private and sometimes public betrayal among the American military and politicians. Of course General Petraeus is going to say something diplomatic when he appears before the press in London, but the disillusion goes up to the most senior levels. Senator McCain has said of the British withdrawal from southern Iraq that he
"did not think it was a good idea."
That is about as blunt as the special relationship gets in public from a US presidential candidate—the one I hope will win. While we are still talking about scaling back our forces in Basra, the US army has sent a brigade to the city. Is that what we mean by standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies—indeed, our most important ally?
The underlying problem is that the Government have failed to underline the reality of their foreign policy with their defence policy. Since 1999, the Government have pursued an interventionist foreign policy without providing the armed forces with the necessary resources. We do not need to rehearse all the figures again. The strategic defence review promised, but did not deliver.
The Government point out that they are increasing defence spending, but after the additional spending they have pledged specifically for accommodation, salary increases, council tax rebate, the carriers and Trident's successor, the increase over the course of the comprehensive spending review is just 0.6 per cent., not 1.5 per cent. per year as published by the Government. The picture is worse when one factors in defence costs inflation, which was raised earlier in the debate. The spending increases are tiny in comparison with those that the Government have found so easily for other public services such as health, education and overseas aid.
The numbers in the armed forces are falling: there are 1,000 fewer soldiers this year than last. Major projects have been delayed and there are endless stories of budgetary chaos at the MOD. The Government have become ashamed to come to the House of Commons to discuss military matters, hence the written rather than oral statements on NATO and our deployment to Kosovo.
The MOD has found itself a prisoner of the Prime Minister's indecision. It cannot cut one of the big programmes because of the cost in headlines and job losses, but it is not being given the money to pay the bills either. General Sir Kevin O'Donoghue told the Select Committee that he suspected that cuts would have to be made
"but which they are and what they will be I do not know. We are in the middle of a planning round."
That was months ago, yet there is no sign of any decisions having been made. When asked how the scale of difficulty in this planning round compared with others, he said:
"I think it is a greater challenge this year than it was in 2007".
When asked whether he remembered the situation ever being as much of a challenge as it is today, he replied:
"Yes. When I was an MA back in the late 1970s we had some pretty challenging times".
Of course, a Labour Government were in charge in the late 1970s.
Mr. David Gould, the chief operating officer, said:
"The Chairman specifically asked whether this was as serious as we had ever known it at least in recent years. To that I would say yes, although my memory goes back to the 1970s as well and I can think of times when maybe it was worse. That is not an atmosphere in which it is easy to take big decisions on commitments."
It was because of that atmosphere that the Committee felt it necessary to conclude in its report that the Ministry of Defence
"needs to take the difficult decisions which will lead to a realistic and affordable equipment programme".
We see no sign at the moment of those decisions being made.
The national security strategy says that
"we are entering a phase of overall reduced commitments, recuperation of our people, and regrowth and reinvestment in capabilities and training as much as equipment."
I put it to the House that that is clearly fantasy. Since that statement was published, our numbers in Afghanistan have risen and are likely to remain high for the foreseeable future, the draw-down from Iraq has been cancelled, and we have now made the deployment of 2nd Battalion, The Rifles to Kosovo. This is not a phase of reduced commitments, and nor is it likely to become one. The Government are totally detached from reality if they think that we are about to enter such a phase in the short, medium or long term.
The MOD's development, concept and doctrine centre at Shrivenham has made it clear that global instability is likely to get worse, not better, over the next generation. It forecasts a relative decline in US power, continued weapons proliferation, pressures caused by big demographic changes and population growth, more famine, the effects of climate change, and increasing competition for limited resources such as fresh water, food and energy. Much of that will be concentrated in the most unstable parts of the world. Who is going to deal with these problems if we are stepping back from our role on the world stage?
Future Governments will have to decide what they want the armed forces to be capable of. Will a reformed United Nations step in to fulfil the role? Dream on! And there is certainly no sign of other European nations doing so. Only on Monday, the former German ambassador to the United Kingdom told the Financial Times:
"Most EU governments will not be capable or willing to raise their defence budgets substantially".
If not Europe, then who? India, perhaps? Or do we want to see China or Russia doing more? I do not think so. The fact is that there are only three major democracies in this world that are prepared to project military power on the world stage. We are one of them, and if we abdicate our role, we will become yet more dependent on the United States, while having less influence over what it does.
The debates that we have in this House on Britain's defence in the world are likely to become less and less relevant to what is happening in the world, unless we in the House are prepared to commit the resources that our armed forces need to do the job that they do so heroically on our behalf.
I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have six minutes in which to complete my remarks. I am pleased to have this opportunity to contribute to the debate. Defence in the world is one of those topics that could cover anything, and I regard it as including Rosyth, which is in my constituency and which I hope will be the base for the final construction of the aircraft carriers. However, the title of the debate clearly does not include the Scottish National party as, yet again, none of its members are present this afternoon. I do not make that point purely for party political reasons, but one of the important responsibilities that that party now has is for veterans in Scotland, and it has been found sadly lacking in that regard.
I want to speak first about Iraq. The situation there has become, if not humiliating, then certainly embarrassing. The various U-turns over recent months have included the Prime Minister's change of mind about reducing troop numbers there to 2,500. In addition, 26 Mahdi army prisoners were released, only for them to take part in the uprising that took place a few months later. Finally, the Defence Secretary boasted about the training of Iraqi forces, but then had to rely on the Americans to prop us up over the course of that uprising. The Government's policy is in tatters, and our troops in Iraq deserve better.
I hope that the Minister winding up the debate will tell us what is going to happen next. Will there be another great prediction of when our troops will be withdrawn? My hon. Friend Nick Harvey said that they should be withdrawn over a phased period, and I support that, but I want to hear what the Government have to say.
I turn now to Afghanistan, where the poppy crop is an indicator of our success or failure. In itself, it is not the problem but a symptom: it flourishes when there is a lack of security. I am reminded of the film "Groundhog Day", as we have gone over the same arguments again and again about creating alternative livelihoods and putting in place the necessary security. I hope that the Minister will tell us what barriers prevent that from happening. I was a member of the Defence Committee, but it was never spelled out to me exactly what needs to be done to break the vicious cycle that has led to an increase in the size of the Helmand poppy crop.
We have not heard much about Pakistan today, although that country has been a great concern over the past few months. What has the Minister to say about the relationship with Pakistan? Is it now playing an even more important role in making sure that extremists do not cross the border with Afghanistan as freely as they have in the past? Has the change of leadership in Pakistan led to greater co-operation with Afghanistan?
Two important developments in disarmament are coming up. First, there are due to be talks on nuclear proliferation in 2010, and I hope that the Prime Minister will make them a top priority. He included them in the security statement that he made only a couple of months ago, but almost as an afterthought. I hope that the talks rise higher in the Government's list of priorities and that, instead of playing about with numbers, they make it clear that their aim is to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether. That would be a bold ambition, but it is one that needs to be delivered. The Prime Minister should take the lead in the talks, so that other countries realise that Britain regards getting rid of nuclear weapons as a top priority.
The second development in disarmament is that a special conference on cluster munitions will be held at the end of this month, when many countries will come together to talk about possibly ending their use. I do not know whether the Government still hold on to the false differentiation between smart and dumb cluster bombs. I hope that we can get rid of all such differentiations, and realise that cluster bombs of all type should be banned.
Finally, it would be remiss of me if I did not mention aircraft carriers, as people in Rosyth are very concerned that no decision has yet been taken about the main contracts. The Defence Secretary announced the final go-ahead before last summer's recess but I am not sure what the point was as, although some minor contracts have been awarded, there has been little progress since.
It is often alleged that this Government have no strategy and are hopeless, adrift and directionless, but there was a time when they did have a strategy, so that criticism is a little unfair. The strategy was very clear—order the carriers, leave Iraq, call a general election—but unfortunately it was sunk without trace by a well-aimed torpedo from my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is partly why the Government find themselves in the difficulties that they face.
As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, today is the 63rd anniversary of Victory in Europe day. At that time, back in 1945, there were some similarities with and many considerable differences from the situation that we face today. Among the similarities was the fact that the country was pretty exhausted and pretty well drained of the resources that were needed to sustain strong military forces. However, one reason why the country was able to take comfort was the fact that it still just about had the remains of an imperial network of bases, so if its interests around the world were threatened it would be able to deploy forces from those bases. As it turned out, with decolonisation that situation did not last very long, but as it also turned out, the main threat that the United Kingdom faced for many years after the victory in 1945 was close at hand—the threat on the continent of Europe. From 1949 onwards, the focus was therefore very much on forces based nearby in friendly countries on the continent of Europe as part of the NATO alliance.
What has happened since the end of the cold war was well encapsulated in the 1998 strategic defence review. Although there is a great deal of consensus that we need once again to review the balance between the commitments and the resources that our armed forces must respectively fulfil and have available, the situation that we faced at the time of the strategic defence review has not changed in one important respect—that if we are to apply military power around the world, and as we no longer have the network of imperial bases that we still had back in 1945, we must be able to project power on to the land from the sea. That was the basis of the concept of the strategic defence review being centred on the provision of two aircraft carriers. There need to be at least two because no ship, however powerful and well designed, can remain continuously at sea.
I want, if I may, to press the Minister to give an answer as a follow-on to the admirably clear answer that he gave me on the question of when the orders might reasonably be expected to be placed. He said:
"Construction of each ship will take an estimated five and a half years."—[ Hansard, 1 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 593W.]
If that is so, and if the new in-service dates for the carriers—the date for the first one was originally supposed to be 2012; now it is 2014—are to be adhered to, and if we have to allow time for the sea trials, which will take at least a year and possibly longer, as in the case of the Type 45 destroyers, as well as time for working up before the ship really joins the fleet, then we are perilously near to the very last opportunity for ordering the carriers if those dates are not to slide off again.
While we are on the subject of the Royal Navy, may I give the Minister an opportunity to put my mind at rest about something disturbing that I read in The Sunday Times? It may be that the MOD has issued a response to it, but if so, I have not seen it. The article was written by Marie Woolf and headed "Pirates can claim UK asylum". It said:
"The Royal Navy, once the scourge of brigands on the high seas, has been told by the Foreign Office not to detain pirates because doing so may breach their human rights. Warships patrolling pirate-infested waters, such as those off Somalia, have been warned that there is also a risk that captured pirates could claim asylum in Britain. The Foreign Office has advised that pirates sent back to Somalia could have their human rights breached because, under Islamic law, they face beheading for murder or having a hand chopped off for theft."
I tabled questions on that subject to the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office, and in neither case has the reply explicitly made it clear whether that is the position or not. I would like reassurance that if the Royal Navy encounters any murderous brigands on the high seas, it will take the sort of action that the people of this country and seafarers worldwide are entitled to expect.
Let me move on to some of the contributions made in the debate. The Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State focused on Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo, as we might expect, and on future threats. The Secretary of State was mainly concerned about ballistic missile defence and my hon. Friend Dr. Fox was concerned about the possibility of a re-emergence of Russian offensive activities. We have to be somewhat chagrined to see the handover that took place in Russia recently; it is not quite what we had in mind when we thought that Russia was going down the democratic path.
We need to be well aware of what threats might be, as well as present threats. That leads me to the remarks of the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Nick Harvey, some of which I strongly agreed with. In particular, I thought that it was good of him to place it clearly on the record that, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, the Liberal Democrats—I use his words—"absolutely support" the long haul in that country. I was a little uncertain where he stood on the question of withdrawal from Iraq, because he seemed to be saying that we should do it as fast as can be considered safe. I am not sure whether he is referring to safety for the troops in the process of withdrawal, in which case we could get down to the task immediately, or safety for those who would be left behind, in which case there is little difference between him and the other parties in the House. We would all like to see the troops withdrawn, in the knowledge that the time has come when the people left behind—the Iraqis—will be safe.
The hon. Gentleman also said that we do not face an imminent threat of state-on-state warfare. He referred to what he called the warfare of this generation, meaning the counter-insurgency campaigns in which we are currently engaged. I have only two minutes left, and I would like to say a little about that thesis, because it is not the first time that I have heard it. I have heard it increasingly from senior people in the Army, and they take the view that because the Army is fighting two significant counter-insurgency campaigns with inadequate resources, we will have to denude the armed forces of their long-term ability to fight in state-versus-state conflicts in order to win the wars in which we are currently engaged.
My hon. Friend Robert Key put his finger on it when he said that it is a matter of the defence budget. He then said—he is able to say this with the freedom of the Back Benches—that he would like to see the defence budget doubled. I am sure that I would like to see it doubled, too, and I am sure of one other thing: if my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor intends to announce an increase in the defence budget that would be brought in by a Conservative Government, he will do it at an equally lethal moment to that of his last announcement about inheritance tax, and that will not be two years out from a general election.
Our being two years away from power is no excuse for the Government, who are currently in power. There is one thing that they are not doing—adequately resourcing the commitments in which they are engaged. We have heard that time after time, from speaker after speaker, at least on the Opposition Benches. When we get into government, the Conservative party will either put full resources into commitments or not undertake them. It cannot be done both ways. The way the Government are doing it is by fighting current wars on a peacetime defence budget, and that is imperilling the long-term future of our armed forces.
I do not have much time to reply to the debate, and I am sure that I will not be able to answer all the questions that have been asked.
Our armed forces are valued and respected throughout the world. They are widely recognised as being among the most capable, the best trained and, despite what is often alleged, the best equipped in the world. As today's debate showed, many hon. Members have a deep understanding and appreciation of our military. During the time that I have had the privilege of holding my position, there has been a growing understanding and appreciation among the wider public of the demanding and dangerous operations that the military carry out on behalf of the nation.
In Basra, significant developments have taken place. The Iraqi operation in the city has made progress in dealing with the militias and improving security and the rule of law. At the centre of those operations is the Iraqi army 14th Division—the force with which we have been so involved recently. We can take pride in the fact that our assistance, support and training have helped to bring them to the level of capability that they have reached. We must concentrate on completing our training of the 14th Division and provide effective security for the economic regeneration of the port of Umm Qasr and Basra airport, both of which have huge potential.
In Afghanistan, I was fortunate enough to make an overnight visit to our troops in Musa Qaleh in February, only seven weeks after the town had been taken from the Taliban. Two things were striking. First, it is not only generals and brigadiers who talk about the comprehensive approach; it is understood and practised down through the ranks. The evening operational briefing was not dominated by plans for military effect; it was a case of military people talking in detail about stability, security and development, which they delivered on a daily basis. That is why progress has occurred in places such as Sangin and Musa Qaleh. Secondly, those on the front line, living in the most austere conditions, displayed the highest morale. They are using their skills, training and equipment for hard soldiering and they take a genuine pride in what they do.
We are involved in many other areas, including Sierra Leone, Kosovo, the Falkland Islands, Colombia and the Caribbean. We are a force for good wherever we are helping, whether with post-conflict stabilisation, conflict prevention, human rights training or drug interdiction. As the Secretary of State said in opening the debate, all that activity is aimed at shaping the international environment to protect our country, defend our interests and promote our values.
Dr. Fox asked me several questions specifically about Kosovo. He asked about the length of the liability. The request is for a month, as reported to the House. Nobody has tried to hide the fact that the time can be extended, and we have the responsibility until the end of July and the start of August to continue that provision. We are not volunteering for it, and we have shared it with other nations. The Germans recently fulfilled a commitment there and the Italians have done so in the past. It is a relatively short-term commitment—I hope only a month, but it can be extended till the start of August.
However, I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman said—and I quote him—that if we have this commitment to NATO, we must honour it, but then said, effectively, that when we knew that the commitment was going to be called upon, we should surely have found ways and means of getting out of it. I am awfully glad that he is not an ally of mine and that I do not have to be in a trench alongside him, if that is how he honours commitments of the sort he referred to, at least when he started his sentence.
Equally astonishing was the hon. Gentleman's comment about southern Afghanistan. He said that if we had to fight to the last man, it would be to the last Briton, American and Canadian. The Danes, from a small country with a small commitment, have lost 14 people in Afghanistan and the Dutch are the lead nation in Oruzgan, along with the Canadians. The hon. Gentleman is the most extraordinary coalition-builder, going round making such comments. It is a good job that he does not work for the diplomatic service. However, we are making progress in both our main theatres of operation.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hoyle mentioned the Territorial Army. He spends an awful lot of time with the TA and I know that he is intimately involved with it. We have started the reserve review. It is not a finance-led review, but it will be difficult to square the need to provide deployable skills and get the most out of our reserves with the need to make an attractive offer to people who, at the end of the day, are volunteers. I know that my hon. Friend will understand fully the tensions involved in trying to strike that balance.
My hon. Friend welcomed the £24 million that we recently invested in Headley Court. It is a world-class treatment centre already, but the infrastructure needs further development, so the investment is needed. He also asked about accommodation. The Department has invested significantly in accommodation in recent years. We plan to spend more than £8 billion in the next decade, of which more than £3 billion will go on improving and upgrading accommodation. Nearly 13,000 service family accommodation properties have been upgraded to the top standard of condition since 2001, with 600 more properties to be upgraded this financial year and 800 each year thereafter.
Willie Rennie raised, among other issues, both the fact that the Scottish Parliament has just assumed responsibility for veterans and the recent contribution that it has made. He should not be so churlish about that; indeed, we should welcome the contribution. There is a well known phrase, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned to me when he heard about the contribution, that is appropriate in this context: every little helps. We ought to welcome that contribution in that spirit.
My hon. Friend Mr. Kidney continued to raise his concerns about the establishment of the super-garrison, the future of Beacon barracks and the other armed forces commitments in the Stafford area. We are committed to the establishment of super- garrisons and convinced that the west midlands is a good location for one. If we can get there as soon as we can, we will do precisely that. I am certain that Stafford will play an important part in the development of any super-garrison. I will remain closely involved with the Borona project and will try to keep my hon. Friend as engaged as I can.
My hon. Friend Mr. Jones asked people not to play politics with the compensation scheme. The situation is not as simple as is deliberately and repeatedly made out. We make a commitment to our injured service personnel for life. The up-front payment is but a small part of that. My hon. Friend is right to say that it is wrong to portray the scheme in the way that the media often portray it.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will try to respond to any points that I have been unable to deal with in the short time available. On the carrier, which is important, if I have the time—
It being Six o'clock, the motion lapsed without Question put.