Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.9 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): It is a great honour to have been given the job that I have, and I appear here tonight as a happy and proud person. I wish to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) on a formidable, excellent and witty maiden speech, in which she paid handsome tribute to her predecessor, as did my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition yesterday. The House was impressed by

27 Nov 2003 : Column 215

her contribution and I am sure that we will hear much more from her in the future, to our great advantage. She deserves to be thoroughly congratulated on a competent and confident performance.

I do not wish to strike a sour note, but it is astonishing that, on the second day of debate on the Queen's Speech, there were long periods for which not a single Labour Back Bencher was present in the Chamber. That shows an extraordinary sense of priorities on something so deeply important to our country. Nevertheless, this has been a good debate with many good speeches, especially from the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). I thank him for his most generous words and, as usual, a formidable speech. The House clearly agreed with his views on Zimbabwe, as it did with those of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife was also interesting on the subject of Iraq, and many of us agreed with his comments.

The right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who is unfortunately not in his place, made an important speech, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley). The House appreciated what he had to say. I was struck by the fact that he said that he voted for the Government in good faith and would be much relieved if weapons of mass destruction were found. Many of us are in the same boat.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) gave his usual rant on Iraq, the United States and Israel. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), in an effective and interesting speech, covered a broad range of issues of interest to himself and his constituents, especially in respect of the care of children in the Birmingham area and quality of life issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), who is a distinguished member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke knowledgeably about the middle east and made some important remarks about the peace process there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), with that capacity unique to him, spoke with great authority and courage about a matter of profound and primary importance to our foreign policy. Many will have agreed with what he said. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who spoke to great effect about the Hutton inquiry and the arguments for going to war, made some telling points about the development of international law after 11 September 2001. As usual, he made a well-informed and interesting speech.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) spoke powerfully about the harsh realities of terrorism since the end of the cold war and highlighted the importance of multilateral institutions, especially NATO and the United Nations. He also raised, as many of us will wish to do in coming months, the issue of overstretch in the armed forces. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who speaks so effectively on social matters, also made an important speech.

27 Nov 2003 : Column 216

I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the staff of the Foreign Office, and I join my right hon. and hon. Friends in extending our sympathy to the families of those killed or injured in the terrible atrocity in Istanbul.

We welcome the content of the Gracious Speech and we look forward with interest to the forthcoming defence White Paper. We will wish to examine with the greatest care the armed forces pension and compensation Bill, to ensure that our servicemen and women are properly and honourably dealt with. I thank the Secretary of State for Defence and his colleagues for their kind, courteous and helpful response to my appointment, for which I am extremely grateful.

Mr. Keetch: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment. Concerning the defence White Paper, he will have heard the Secretary of State talk in the past about network-centric warfare. Smart weapons undoubtedly win wars, but does he agree that given that peacekeeping and peace enforcement are being carried out now by soldiers and armour on the ground, the rumours about cuts in infantry are particularly worrying? We need a balanced White Paper, not one that puts too much emphasis on smart gear instead of troops.

Mr. Soames: I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and of course it would be wrong if the White Paper were to assume that it is not boots on the ground and the armour issued that offer the means to hold, consolidate and control security. If that arrangement went out of kilter it would have serious implications. I echo the hope expressed by other hon. Members that, given its nature, the White Paper will contain real detail of what is to come.

I pay the fullest tribute to the British armed forces, who have again covered themselves in glory in Iraq. They have again done wonders for the name and fame of Britain. By their gallantry and determination, and above all humanity, and by the patience and fortitude of service families and the very impressive efforts of MOD civilian staffs, they have proved yet again that there is no other place in our British national life in which there is so much human achievement in such small institutions as there is in the armed forces of the Crown.

The security challenges that the United Kingdom faces today have significantly changed since the cold war and will continue to do so. We live in an unpredictable world, where the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism and regional instabilities combined with civil strife represent our new security threat. It is important that we ask what alliance, institutional or framework changes, if any, should be implemented to ensure that the UK's security interests are addressed and that we are properly prepared for the challenges of the 21st century. Furthermore we must ask, is European and American security indivisible and does the development of an autonomous EU force defence capability—the ability to plan and conduct military operations without NATO—contribute to or undermine our own security?

27 Nov 2003 : Column 217

We agree with the Government that European nations should increase their military capabilities. Europe should be able to do more and I welcome the EU's efforts, under NATO's auspices and help, in Macedonia. But the truth remains that many continental forces have only the most basic logistic communications facilities and can hardly operate at any distance from their home bases. Few can sustain operations with any credibility, and in almost every respect those forces have to rely almost entirely on the United States for intelligence, strategic support and military muscle. The Government must do more with our European partners to see to it that they address the need for operational capability and effectiveness within their force structures. This is important for all of us in NATO and the wider Europe.

So far, however, the European defence project has failed to deliver on capabilities. Defence budgets are decreasing rather than increasing, while defence programmes are being slashed. Meanwhile at home, so great is the monetary pressure that the axe is poised over the Type 45 and over the Astute submarine programme, while possibly dozens of Challenger tanks are due to be mothballed and the number of the joint strike fighters is to be cut. Such cuts are particularly serious, given that we are clearly engaged in a process of fundamental and essential change, which will lead to the introduction of new technologies. That process will have to be properly funded, and we all look forward to the defence White Paper offering us some real substance and detail about that, not just a long blue-skies essay.

The sole contribution of the European defence project thus far is the creation of proposed duplicate and competing structures that will dilute NATO and could eventually lead to the decoupling of the United States from the defence of western Europe.

The problem for us is that perfectly good arrangements already exist to deal with understandable European defence aspirations. Those arrangements were agreed in Berlin in 1996 and later reaffirmed at the Washington summit in 1999. Paragraph 10 of the Washington summit communiqué calls for assured EU access to NATO planning capabilities to contribute to military planning for EU-led operations and the presumption of availability to the EU of pre-identified NATO capabilities and common assets for use in EU-led operations.

It is difficult to know what more they could want, but there is now truly widespread confusion about the Government's apparent inability to ensure that European defence remains anchored in NATO and, indeed, what truly are the Government's intentions, for we really do not know which Prime Minister we should believe. Is it the Prime Minister who assures the President of the United States that European defence would in no way undermine NATO, that there would be a joint command and that planning would take place in NATO? Or is it the Prime Minister who goes to Europe and agrees with the German Chancellor and the French President that

The danger of weakening NATO when readily available, well-trained and interoperable forces are needed in Afghanistan and Iraq is what we ought to

27 Nov 2003 : Column 218

concentrate on. NATO has indeed a vital ongoing role to play, and the Opposition assert that NATO is absolutely crucial to a stable world at a time of considerable uncertainty. It is the only organisation that binds the United States to Europe and Europe to the United States.

Afghanistan is only the beginning: discussions about more NATO involvement in Iraq are already taking place. Some at NATO are openly calling for a NATO peacekeeping force for the middle east. It would be a monumental folly to undermine that capability at a time of genuine uncertainty and very considerable danger—facts that have been brought to our attention today by many colleagues on both sides of the House.

On overstretch, particularly in the Army, the underlying picture is that it is often clear that the Government's ambitions on defence do not match reality or just simply ignore it. The overstretch of the armed forces is a case in point, particularly in the Army. In June, 55 per cent. of the Army was either deployed on or recovering from operations. The Navy regularly reports that its ships routinely go to sea with gaps in their full complement. There are reports that RAF training flying hours have been cut. Since 1997, our forces have been heavily deployed, yet we have almost 12,000 fewer trained regulars than six years ago and the Army is still nearly 4,000 men understrength, even on the reduced manning requirement figures.

The Opposition most earnestly warn the Secretary of State that, in the present circumstances, we believe that it would be an act of cardinal folly to use the Army's strength as a peace dividend if normalisation were to occur in Northern Ireland. If any troops were to be released from that task, they would be urgently required elsewhere in the Army to reduce overstretch and increase the opportunities for a more normal military life. The Secretary of State for Defence is seized of that, but the fact remains that he is under gross pressure on manpower, and it would be a great mistake if he were to allow the forces of darkness to prevail upon him in respect of numbers. It is well known that the Treasury does not work for us; it works for the enemy.

Last weekend, it was reported that some of the Army's most famous regiments are to be disbanded, when those in the infantry—the workhorse of the British Army—are already operating at an intolerable level of activity. Surely that would be an act of cardinal military folly. The Royal Scots, the Black Watch, the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Prince of Wales's Own Regiment of Yorkshire are reportedly to be disbanded. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could give us some idea of his intentions on those matters tonight. What impact does he believe that proposed cuts of that size and scale will have on the morale of the forces?

Next Section

IndexHome Page