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1.49 pm

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): I join the Secretary of State in paying fulsome tribute to the members of our armed forces--regulars, territorials and the reserves--who play such a significant part in the capability, and the delivery of that capability, of which we are all justly proud. I also agree with what

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the Secretary of State said about the unarmed service man who has been taken hostage in Sierra Leone. That is a timely reminder--as if we needed it--that members of our armed services are serving all over the world, and, in many areas, are serving in dangerous environments. I pay tribute to them. I hope that the service man will be released very soon and that his family will accept our hopes on their behalf.

As we take part in this critical debate, and with the debate raging about Zimbabwe, I am reminded of my time in our armed forces in Zimbabwe a number of years ago, when we took what was then Rhodesia through to independence as Zimbabwe. I watched then the way in which members of our armed forces behaved. It was an eye-opener, even though I was serving at the time.

For example, I watched, right out in the bush, penny packets of six or seven men, ordinary privates, with corporals or perhaps even sergeants, bringing in thousands of war-tested guerrillas, who had hated and were killing whites--regardless of their political opinions at that stage--with tensions running high. Individual members took decisions to lay down their rifles--their only protection, or so it may have appeared--to go out and to shake the hands of those people as they came in, which restored their confidence in our forces and in the forces generally. They were not following an edict or command from generals, colonels or commanding officers. Those ordinary soldiers took that initiative. I know of no other armed force in the world that can rely to such a degree on the initiative and capability of its members. I pay fulsome tribute as a result.

That brings one matter into sharp relief, and I must touch on it, although I do not intend to spend a lot of time on it. Why are we having the debate today? It is such an important debate. The Secretary of State is right to say that we owe so much to our armed forces; we do. Why, then, are we having the debate on a day when the country is clearly and rightly obsessed with what is happening in local areas and when hon. Members have priorities elsewhere? Many have said to me that they are upset about not being able to attend the debate. The Select Committee on Defence has, I understand, even supported an early-day motion to that effect.

I make simply the following point--I do not intend to debate the matter: will the Secretary of State please bring that to the attention of his colleagues in the usual channels and say to them, "Next time, defence deserves a better slot"? We do not get too many opportunities. For his sake, as much as for ours, the House deserves to have such a debate at a proper time.

The Secretary of State was right to talk about defence in the world in the light of the strategic defence review, because so much of what we do or do not do stems from what happened in that review. The Government were keen to stress that the review would be foreign policy-led. I was sorry to see the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), leave just now. I wanted to raise some questions with him, but no doubt we will be able to pursue those matters at a later date. It appears that during the review--I accept that the Secretary of State was not in his current post at the time--there was an absence of any foreign policy discussion and analysis; at least none was published or made available.

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In its report on the SDR, the Defence Committee complained:

The Committee's criticism was well founded because that foreign policy analysis is critical for us to understand not what we will always be doing in future, but what it is likely that we will be called upon to do.

For example, less than a year after the end of the review, the crises in Kosovo, in East Timor and in other areas, but particularly in those two, had erupted. They were not necessarily predicted. It is important to know what foreign policy input there was during the review on such dangers and difficulties. It is the commitments that flowed from the review which have created so many overstretch problems for our armed forces. The Secretary of State spoke about that. The failure to conduct such a wide-ranging foreign policy review has caused a huge problem for the armed forces.

Nevertheless, parts of the strategic defence review are welcome. Since becoming Opposition defence spokesman, I have made it clear that in the previous Parliament I was one of those who thought that, rather than simply considering our defence objectives in a piecemeal manner, we should have a foreign policy-led review. I make no bones about my position on the issue of such a review, on which there was disagreement on both sides of the House. It was right to have a review, and some of its aspects are welcome.

I particularly welcome the review's treatment of matters such as a joint command. It was absolutely right to deal with such matters, many of which were based on plans developed by the previous Government. It is right that such plans have been brought to fruition. It was also right to develop the concept of power projection, which entails having the capability to go to the parts of the world that pose threats to our interests or to those of our allies. The Opposition welcome without reservation such a capability.

Nevertheless, the SDR also contained some fundamental flaws. In the past two years, it is the review's flaws that have become most apparent. The review, despite its seemingly good intentions, was Treasury driven and, therefore, became a cost-cutting exercise. The Ministry of Defence had to dress it up as a strategic exercise, rather than admitting that it was a process of saving yet more money.

As I said, the result has been to create a problem of overstretch and a crisis of retention. In recent debates, the Opposition have outlined the very damaging consequences to our armed forces caused by the savage cuts made to the defence Budget since 1997.

I should like to focus on two elements of the strategic defence review: omissions and mistakes in strategic planning, and the issue of whether our equipment and personnel capabilities are sufficient to fulfil our real overall requirements.

Mr. Davidson: In his exposition, will the hon. Gentleman make it clear whether he is committing the

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Opposition to spending more on defence or--to reduce overstretch--to reducing commitments? Will he give us a clear and unequivocal reply on both those points?

Mr. Duncan Smith: I have always been absolutely clear on those points. Our position is that unless it is possible to reduce our commitments to a sustainable level, we shall of course have to increase capability.

If the hon. Gentleman wants me to go even further than that, I would simply remind him that the Government have been in power for three years, and tell him--unless he is about to tell me that there will be a general election in the next few months--that I cannot judge yet whether the Government have succeeded or failed in achieving their objective of reducing commitments. I also cannot determine yet how their failure to achieve that objective might impinge on costs. He should, however, mark my words: in the next few months, and before the next general election, the Opposition will produce a series of proposals dealing in detail with the points that he has raised.

The key issue is whether the Government have given up on the idea of reducing commitments to a level commensurate with capability, or believe that they can maintain both current commitments and current capability. I shall demonstrate that they cannot do the latter.

Ms Squire: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way--[Interruption.] I apologise; I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I always manage to get that wrong.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, from the mid-1980s onwards, the previous Government cut defence expenditure by one third? Does he also agree that there was a one-third cut in Army personnel, and that that was one of the major factors in the armed forces personnel shortage that the present Government inherited and have committed themselves to tackling?

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Government have been intent on saying that Conservative Members have lurched to the right. However, as the hon. Lady has called me her hon. Friend, I am worried that we may have lurched so far to the left that our position will be untenable. Labour Members cannot have it both ways on that score.

Seriously, however, the hon. Lady maintains that defence budget reductions have created the problem. If that were so, why would she agree with the Government that a further £800 million annual cut will solve the very problem to which she referred? What effect does she think that will have on the families in her constituency who have members serving in the armed forces? It is no good the Government turning round after three years and saying, "We are in a mess, but it is still not our fault, and we are making it worse by making a bigger cut in the defence forces." It makes no logical sense. I wish that they would pack it up and get on with debating what their policy is really about.

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