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6.21 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): This has been a remarkable two-day debate. I suspect that, at the end of the debate this time last week, we had no idea--certainly none of us on the Conservative Benches had any idea--that we were facing another two days of debate. When we all heard that we were having another two, there was not only a mixture of elation and delight that at last we were going to have our head, but a few inner groans about how we were going to fill the time and what the quality of the debate was going to be. All I can say is that, after more than 17 years in the House, my view that this has undoubtedly been one of the best two-day debates that we have had. The quality of individual contributions on both sides of the House has been very high.

I recall my visit to the Italian parliamentary defence committee. I think that I am right in saying that there are some 60 members of it, 14 of whom have ever been known to turn up to a meeting, and the meetings are usually extremely brief. That is about it in the Parliament of one of our major allies. Therefore, we should take seriously the Defence Committee's role in meeting parliamentarians from other defence committees.

Having said that, I must start on a light note and I will end on a serious one. The light note is to record that the MOD websites have still not been updated. I shall check regularly to see if the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), is still a recently arrived addition to the team.

Also on a light note, having listened for two days to some of the delusions of Labour Members about what the Conservative party does and does not believe, and why

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the Prime Minister has completely changed his mind on our relationship with the European Union, I am drawn to Lord Robertson's 12 rules of opposition. I found one that I thought explained what might be in the minds of some Members. Item 3 says:

He then says something revealing:

Before I turn to the debate itself, may I say how much I shall miss the cheery countenance opposite of the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal)? I congratulate her on her appointment as First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. She has taken a serious part in our defence debates for some years. Although we shall miss her contributions, we shall look forward very much to seeing her in the Chair.

The only point that I should like to pick up in what the Minister for the Armed Forces said is his remark about cadets. I welcome almost everything else; I am very pleased that some of the ideas that I raised two years ago and more have been taken on board. Yesterday, we heard a remarkable and informed speech by the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins). I have not informed him of my intention to refer to him because I am going to compliment him. I spoke to him today, and he told me how worried he was about the cadets. He said that there are still schools in his constituency that will not allow the cadets--let alone Army recruiting teams--anywhere near them. I know not whether that is the case; I simply report it. If it is true that some education authorities or schools will still not let either Army recruiting teams or cadet forces near them, I hope that Ministers will take the matter very seriously.

Mr. Spellar: I have done more than that: I have asked the Department to notify me of any such case so that I can take it up with the relevant Member of Parliament or education authority. I am more than delighted to take this opportunity of extending that invitation to hon. Members. I am more than happy to take up such cases.

Mr. Key: I thank the Minister very much indeed for that generous offer, which I hope will be taken up.

The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) made a remarkable and well-informed speech, as one would expect. However, it should be read alongside the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), whose remarks would act as a foil to some of the hon. Gentleman's more extraordinary views.

As usual, the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) made an informed, helpful and constructive speech. I wholly concur with many of his ideas.

I can only thank the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) for his good humour under fire from the Opposition, which is typical of him. [Interruption.] Here

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he comes, just in time to hear the tribute that I am paying him for his good humour and serious contribution to defence matters in the House.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe made a remarkable speech, which stands alone; it does not need my endorsement or praise. His was a landmark speech, which I hope will be widely quoted in the weeks, months and years to come.

The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) made a passionate speech. She always makes passionate speeches, which is a very good thing indeed. However, I draw her attention to two issues that arise from what she said. She cited with approbation what has happened in the United States of America, but she is mistaken. She will find that the US military is suffering terrible crises of ethos precisely because of the policies that she recommends us to adopt here. She mentioned Israel, which is often cited as a state where women fight in the front line and as the state of equality for women in the services. I fear that nothing could be further from the truth. Israel tried that policy, but it did not work for many reasons which are well documented--and easy to pull off the web. It simply has not worked there and, in 1995, Israeli supreme court judgments changed the situation somewhat. Moreover, there is another factor--public opinion--with which I shall deal later. Nevertheless, the hon. Lady made a courageous speech.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), who is a supreme Atlanticist, made a very fine speech indeed. I hope that it will be widely read for its sheer common sense and the long view that he takes, based on many years of experience.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) made a very serious contribution, as usual, to the debate--in this case, on ballistic missile defence. He is right that we need to hear more about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) was so right to speak of the certainty of the next crisis, and about what our reaction to it should be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) quite rightly stressed the parliamentary dimension to whatever replaces the current system. His decision to stress that dimension is born of long experience in the House and, indeed, in Europe. I congratulate him on that decision.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) made a speech which I am quite sure will be remembered for its courtesy and the very great personal conviction with which he expressed his views.

This debate really needs to be about reassuring members of the armed forces and their families that we understand what their life is all about. We have heard many speeches in which we--Ministers, Labour Members and Opposition Members--have lectured the armed forces on defence, but it is time that we did a lot more listening. I suspect that the Government and the Opposition are at one on the need to do precisely that.

The challenge that we face is one of internal communication within the forces--the military machine--the Ministry of Defence, and the House of Commons itself. Internal communication must be led by organisations such as--to give but two examples--the Army Families Federation, and its equivalents in the RAF and the Navy, and HIVES--Help, Information and

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Volunteer Exchanges. Tri-service wide, there are more than 80 such remarkable organisations, providing an enormously and increasingly important resource for Army, Navy and RAF families.

The importance of those organisations is recognised in, for example, "Armed Forces Overarching Personnel Strategy"--which is a hugely important document, with an incredibly boring title that is enough to put anyone off. However, the document recognises the new world into which the armed forces have moved, having experienced not only a contraction in numbers but a completely new world of relationships that are perhaps best characterised as inclusive.

It is also hugely encouraging, I am convinced, that the Adjutant-General clearly understands what is going on and what needs to be done to achieve the internal communication objectives. However, I am not so sure that the Treasury understands what needs to be done. The question that the Opposition must ask is, what is the Government's real commitment to people in our military community? Given that the Government--and certainly Defence Ministers--understand what is needed, will we see a financial commitment to that internal communication, which will be the mortar that binds together the military's family and personnel strategies?

It is, as ever, all about priorities. The first priority has to be operations. Operations are what the British military is very good at, and operations are what the British military enjoys doing. However, perhaps operations have had too much of a priority over personnel. Now, people must come a very close second to operations in the priorities of the Ministry of Defence, and politicians must start listening and learning very much more carefully than they have in the past.

There is just one document that people should be encouraged to read--the "Future Army Concept Paper", which says it all and is a mine of information for questing politicians. Instead of indulging our own fantasies, perhaps we should spend a little more time understanding the military point of view--which is all in this document. The "Future Army Concept Paper" is updated every few years, and a very great deal stems from it.

The first thing to recognise in the document is its identification and flagging up of the first-order issues, the first of which is the nature of conflict. The paper states:

The paper goes on, very helpfully, to talk about asymmetry--which is the increasing probability of conflict that is not quite the conflict that we are used to. What we need to understand as politicians is that the military have to get inside the minds of their enemies. Perhaps Governments and Oppositions do that, too, but it is a bit different when it is a matter of life and death.

The asymmetric process explained in the document embraces the

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We need to understand that more clearly, then we would begin to understand why there is resistance in the forces to having women in the front line. The question of the future soldier is also of a high order of priority. The military paper says:

I should say so! That is absolutely crucial to the whole future of our armed forces personnel strategy.

The Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000 has been extremely controversial. We were originally told by the Lord Chancellor that it would not impact on the military, but that was gradually eroded in Committee and the Government rowed back and said that, yes, we would have to change the system and add appeal courts, and we ended up with something that will be extremely difficult for the military to operate; but the military will recognise that and do what they are told to do by the Government of the day. That is clear, and it can be very dangerous.

On enabling capabilities, the document calls for a more flexible approach to the use of the reserves. That is absolutely right. It calls for

We know all about that.

The paper also includes a section on nuclear, biological and chemical warfare and speaks of the need for an integrated approach, with a

I have always thought that the strategic defence review neglected that. It assumed that there was no point in a home guard. Defence of the homeland did not appear once in the review document, as far as I recall. The Army recognises the need for ballistic missile defence. The paper says:

The annexe to the paper sets out the Chief of the General Staff's vision for the Army in the 21st century. It was published only last month. Its final bullet point says:

The Government must set the political constraints. They are responsible for the personnel policy of the armed forces and for finding the money to pay them and buy the equipment. The Government are responsible for our role in the international world of defence. In the end, everything is down to the military--to the men and women of Her Majesty's forces--as well as to their families, to the scientific, industrial and administrative civil servants, to the private sector contractors who support them and to the vast work force in the defence industries of this country.

The greatest challenges facing the military are the human challenges imposed on them by the Government of the day, such as women in the front line and other

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human relations issues. Our firm conviction is that those decisions must be taken by the chiefs of staff and the military themselves. What matters is military capability, not what we think is politically correct. That is the message that the Conservative party must send out tonight.

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