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Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman deals with the issue in a statesmanlike way, but does he not think that it was opportunistic of the shadow Foreign Secretary to criticise the Prime Minister for meeting Colonel Gaddafi in an attempt to reduce the threat to which refers? That is particularly true given that my right hon. Friend's intention in that regard was announced last December and welcomed by the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Secretary of State for Defence. Was not that condemnation ridiculous political opportunism by the shadow Foreign Secretary?

Mr. Soames: From one statesman to another, I must say that, unusually, I am in deep but respectful disagreement with the right hon. Gentleman. All of us welcome the developments taking place in Libya, but the meeting may turn out to be premature. We welcome those developments and it is right that recognition should be given to Libya for the steps that have been taken. However, as so often, some of the language is overdone and the visit may be premature. That was the point that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) was trying to make.

While that uniquely threatening form of terrorism must be effectively engaged, we must also address the deeper and abiding reasons for its very existence. That will be a major duty for the Government in years to come. In the new strategic environment, as the Secretary of State said, homeland defence is of the first importance. Traditionally, our armed forces focused on deterrence, stability, and war-fighting missions in overseas theatres. The home front was regarded as a rear area, not a front line, and the job of securing it was primarily a task for civilian agencies, with the exception of Northern Ireland. However, the new strategic environment reaffirms the role of the Government as protector of the country against foreign aggression, and so defence of our homeland represents one of the primary tasks of the MOD and must receive the level of attention and co-ordination that it deserves. Indeed, as the White Paper states, our forces are expected to

It is clear that a fundamental shift in the mindset of the MOD decision makers will be required—a shift of which, incidentally, there was precious little evidence in the White Paper.

An evolving national strategy for homeland security requires that the MOD may have to consider the employment of military forces in ways previously considered outside the scope of operations. What specific training are the armed forces undergoing in order to be able to respond to what the Metropolitan

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Police Commissioner suggested would be an "inevitable" attack on London? Furthermore, can the Minister comment on the level of co-ordination established since 2001 between the MOD, the Home Office and other Departments?

Mr. Kevan Jones: I agree with the emphasis that the hon. Gentleman places on the threat to the homeland and the need for extra vigilance and expenditure on that. Can he explain how a future Conservative Government would meet that threat when bound by the straitjacket imposed by the shadow Chancellor?

Mr. Soames: I shall continue my speech, if I may.

The tasks imposed on our armed forces will continue to be more and more onerous. It is clear from the Prime Minister's speech in Sedgefield that they could become even more so, but I have read the evidence that the Chief of the Defence Staff gave to the Defence Committee yesterday and it is difficult to see how the armed forces could cope.

The Government's definition of Britain's interests has continued to widen over the past seven years. The Government have deployed our forces on major operations four times in the past five years, and we continue to have major obligations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as maintaining a considerable presence in the Balkans, which was recently reinforced by the Spearhead battalion as a theatre reserve force. As the Chief of the Defence Staff made plain yesterday, those operations are making near impossible demands on our troops.

The White Paper states that

Given the extraordinary demands being made on the services, the Government have a first duty to our servicemen and women to realise that it is they who will have to deliver success and that they will need to be reassured as to the direction of the Government's policies. I find that there exists at present a great sense of uncertainty and unease among our armed forces, who I am afraid feel very much taken for granted and increasingly believe that they are not properly supported, resourced or looked after. That is a serious message for the Government.

Mike Gapes: Given the great pressures to which the hon. Gentleman has referred and in the context of a possible standstill budget, in which of the areas in the world where we are currently deploying forces to assist international peace and security would he make cuts?

Mr. Soames: If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself, I shall come to that point later in my speech.

In discussing the White Paper and the application of the new doctrines, especially the network-enabled capability, it is essential that we do not forget the need for balance between old and new concepts, a point that was powerfully made in a distinguished and important speech, which I commend to the Secretary of State, by General Lord Guthrie in the House of Lords yesterday.

The lessons, from the Balkans to Basra, must be remembered. Infantry and armour on the ground can be augmented by technological wizardry but they cannot

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be replaced by it. The peace in Basra and in the Balkans is being kept by thousands of soldiers on the ground, so can the Secretary of State confirm that, given the exceptional tempo of operations at present, he has no intention of cutting back the number of infantry regiments? In our judgment, those regiments are sorely needed.

We welcome acknowledgement of the need to continue robust and collective military training at all levels. That is one of the lessons about which the Select Committee has raised concern. Its report states:

Reductions in training have a progressively damaging effect on fighting power, particularly at the highest level—joint combined arms collective training at formation level and above. It may indeed take years to recover fully standards and capabilities that have been lost.

The problem is truly serious and the Government must rectify it. If they do not do so, sooner or later it will lead to disaster and to the creation of lesser, more ordinary, armed forces. It is becoming clear that many who went to fight in Iraq did not have adequate training; for example, during pre-conflict training there was a restriction on track mileage for armoured vehicles. That seems an unacceptable state of affairs.

The Secretary of State must acknowledge that training saves lives. Many deployments involve considerable danger and it is unacceptable that our people do not have enough time to prepare for them properly and thoroughly. Such risks are unacceptable, but they are becoming frequent. I look to the Secretary of State to put that right.

Mr. John Smith: I am not sure that the emphasis of the hon. Gentleman's point is clear. Is he saying that there is no need for additional investment in C4ISTAR—command, control, communications, computers and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—without which we cannot operate as a modern force?

Mr. Soames: I think a lot of things are unclear to the hon. Gentleman, but that was not the point I was making. I was saying that there is an absolute requirement for thorough and professional training before troops are committed.

The services cannot buy in experience. Under the current pressures, individuals at more junior levels are unable to achieve the career progression to which they aspire. The result is that, over a period of time, technical standards slip. Can the Secretary of State comment on reports that about 50 per cent. of combat arms training has been cut back owing to funding problems? Can he assess the impact of that on the armed forces' capabilities?

Overstretch has been a recurring theme for the armed forces in recent years. When I was Minister of State for the Armed Forces, the then Labour Opposition chided me in relation to overstretch but at that time the Army was only about a quarter as committed as it is nowadays. With overseas deployments coming thick and fast and the overall size of the armed forces in

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decline, overstretch is a recurring and fundamentally important problem. Indeed, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that most of the UK Army is either on deployment, returning from deployment or getting ready to go.

Last year, the MOD announced that 40,842 personnel were expected to be stationed abroad during 2004, representing about 40 per cent. of trained strength. That is, of course, leading to increasing problems with tour lengths. In February, the Secretary of State admitted that the Government had wholly failed to meet that target. What has been done to address that issue?

The armed forces have recently become grossly overstretched by the number and scale of their deployments. That simply cannot go on, as the Chief of the Defence Staff implied when he appeared before the Select Committee yesterday. As the Defence Committee report rightly states:

What is the Secretary of State's response to the evidence of the Chief of the Defence Staff to the Committee last night? He warned that a large operation of the size of Telic would not be practical until we approach the end of this decade. The Opposition believe that to be a sign of Labour's fundamental lack of effective stewardship of the armed forces.

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