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Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD):
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech early in this Parliament, particularly in a debate where there have been many valuable contributions. I should like to single out the maiden speech by the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), who mentioned De Montfort university. I worked for that university for four years and I was happy to have spent time in his constituency. It is a vibrant and interesting place to live
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in, and I am sure that he will enjoy representing it. In his maiden speech, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) spoke in no uncertain terms about the problems facing rural areas. As someone who represents a rural constituency, I look forward to many debates on those issues and hopefully the chance to address some of the problems.
My constituency of North Cornwall is the largest in Cornwall, and stretches from the border with England along the spectacular Atlantic coast to mid-Cornwall. Inland, it covers a varied landscape, from the china clay-mining belt across the wilderness of Bodmin moor to the Tamar. It includes the popular coastal resorts of Newquay, Padstow and Bude, the historic towns of Bodmin, Wadebridge, Camelford, Launceston, Stratton and St. Columb, and a vibrant network of village communities. Its people are independent-minded, with a strong sense of identity. Its economy is based primarily on smaller businesses and enterprise. Much employment in my constituency is concerned either directly or indirectly with the tourism industry, and Cornwall is rightly renowned as a wonderful place to visit and explore. It is also a wonderful place to live, and I had the privilege of growing up in my constituency. Agriculture and fishing remain important. Farmers are struggling against low prices for their produce, which are pushing many families out of farming. People involved in fishing face the difficulty of earning a living while fish stocks are protected.
I am pleased that there has been a growth in businesses that process food locally and manufacture high-quality goods that are sold across the country and abroad. Given my less than svelte figure, Members will not be surprised to learn that I am a devotee of that local delicacy, the Cornish pasty, and thus a supporter of the bid for protected geographical indicationPGIstatus for the Cornish pasty, to ensure that only pasties produced in Cornwall to an authentic recipe can be called Cornish pasties. That would guarantee quality and secure many pasty-making jobs in my constituency.
As the new Member for North Cornwall, I am honoured to have taken over from such a respected parliamentarian as Paul Tyler. He is soon to be ennobled in another place, and I cannot think of anyone more deserving of such an honour. My first involvement in politics was at the age of 16, as a foot solider in Paul's campaign to win the North Cornwall seat in 1992. It is therefore particularly rewarding to become his successor. He was a fine constituency Member of Parliament, a tireless campaigner on many issues and, hon. Members have assured me, a popular Member in the House. I was delighted recently to make the acquaintance of Mr. John Pardoe, my predecessor in the constituency from 1966 to 1979. He, too, was a well loved representative of North Cornwall, and he still has many friends in the constituency who speak warmly of his dedication to duty.
As in all parts of Cornwall, many of my constituents, whether or not they were born locally, support the preservation of Cornish identity and culture. I was delighted to be able to take the Oath in Cornish. I have been denied the chance to be the first Member in modern times to use the language in the House, as that distinction is held by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). In preparation for this speech, I read his maiden speech, in which he referred to Michael
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Joseph An Gof, the leader of the 1497 Cornish rebellion who was born in his constituency. The other leader of that march on London was Mr. Flamank, a prominent figure from my home town of Bodmin. The desire for recognition of the Cornish identity is as strong now as it ever has been, and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and other hon. Friends to promote that cause. I listened with interest when the hon. Member for Monmouth spoke about his experience in the Welsh Assembly. I hope that, after the Queen's Speech, Parliament will have the opportunity to review the successes of the Welsh Assembly, and I look forward to a time when Cornwall has an assembly of its own.
In 2005, North Cornwall faces many challengessome of them are perennial while others have come to the fore more recentlywhich I hope the Government will tackle soon. North Cornwall has more second homes than council houses, which distorts the housing market and devastates local communities, as shops, schools and other important amenities cannot survive in areas that are ghost villages for the greater part of the year. That exacerbates the effects of inward migration. Last year, the south-west had the biggest net inward migration into rural districts in the country. I note that the Government intend to reform support for housing costs, and I await their proposals with interest. Water charges are a huge burden on people in my constituency and, indeed, in the wider south-west. I hope to work with Members on both sides of the House to address that issue.
I am also concerned about the hard-won progress of the Cornish economy. The fact that new enterprises have been established and existing businesses have grown is due in no small part to the objective 1 programme. I hope that future opportunities to extend such investment will not be lost. We have heard contributions about the future of our relationship with the European Union, and I believe that the objective 1 programme has been a great success, particularly in Cornwall.
As we are discussing foreign affairs and defence, I should like to raise the future of the St. Mawgan airbase in my constituency. It is a major employer in the Newquay area. It is faced with an uncertain future and is to beI believe the term ismothballed, which unfortunately means that those employed at the base are concerned about its future, but it also means that we are not yet able to talk about what other uses there may be for the facility if it were to close at some point in the future. The base's future is also closely tied to the future of civilian Newquay airport. I hope to see greater security for both St. Mawgan and Newquay airport, and I have written to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence and hope to have an early meeting with him on that subject.
Those then are the issues of great concern to my constituents and I look forward to seeing the detail of the Government Bills in this Parliament, in the hope that they may provide the opportunity to address at least some of them.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con):
We have heard so far today three extremely capable and erudite maiden speeches. I can only look back to four years ago when I
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made mine and wish that I had had the same confidence, ability and general articulacy as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) has. I am extremely impressed by his maiden speech and I have absolutely no doubt that he will bring to the House exactly the same capabilities and erudition as the man whom he has replaced. I would like to say welcome to him. His part of the country is absolutely beautiful. It is a long way from Newark, where I come from, but none the less we are extremely pleased to have this gentleman in the House.
I come now to the subject of the debate today, which is foreign affairs and defence. We have heard a couple of extremely trenchant views, particularly on affairs in Iraq, and I want to take issue with some of the points made by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Kenneth Clarke), another Nottinghamshire Member of Parliament, referred to there having been a number of false dawns in Iraq, a phrase he used extremely well.
It is worth remembering that after the successful completion of the election there, the level of violence fell quite considerably. It is also worth remembering that as soon as the new Government were appointed, the level of violence rose most horribly. Despite the fact that Iraq now no longer dominates the front pages of our newspapers, or is the subject of the leading items of our evening television news programmes, the fact remains that literally hundreds of people a week are dying inside Iraq, and that the insurgency has a new urgency, a new violence and a new direction. It is much more focused. Instead of United States soldiers dying in their dozens and United Kingdom soldiers dying in ones and twos, we are now seeing particular elements of both Sunni and Shi'a populations dying in swathes. For instance, in Tikrit over the past month, 30 barbers have been targeted and killed. They have committed the primary sin of shaving the beards of those who no longer wish to be fundamentalists, and they have paid the price.
I could go on, but there is little doubt that Iraq continues to be a running sore. Because our boys are not coming home in body bags in any large numbers, because peace does not seem to be quite so urgent an issue now as it was before the election, that does not mean that swathes of people are not dying, for a cause about which I have many, many doubts. Having said that, I make no doubt at all about the fact that I voted for the war. I voted for it with reservations; none the less I voted for it. Therefore I and every other Member of the House who voted for the war have a responsibility to see that the situation in which we now find ourselves is carried through with dignity and courage to a proper conclusion. That is why I worry very much not only about the comments made by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife, but about Government defence policy. Sadly, there are no Defence Ministers on the Treasury Front Bench. I hope that those Ministers who are present will be kind enough to pass on my views.
It concerns me that we are talking about a timed withdrawal from Iraq. It concerns me that we are talking about following in the wake of the United States; that whatever policies they have and whatever political agenda they set, American timelines will dominate and ensure that British troops move according to their diktat, not to ours.
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It concerns me that we do not seem to have grasped the essential element of what is going on in Iraq. Large areas of the country are now peaceful. Any Members who have visited the country will know that. One can drive for many hundreds of miles without being conscious of any violence whatever, apart perhaps from the wreckage left behind after the Iran-Iraq war some decades ago. But some provinces are every bit as bad as they were when the invasion first occurred, and in some areas they are worse.
In my experience, one reason why people continue to revolt and to give succour, aid and military assistance to Islamist Jihadists who are coming into the country is the fact that reconstruction, rebuilding and aid are not progressing fast enough. There is no indigenous security force to speak of, and the police force and the army have not been rebuilt successfully because so many of them are killed before they can be recruited or trained, and many of them are so terrified of the prospect of serving their country that the numbers of policemen and soldiers are simply inadequate.
It is clear to me that if we wish rebuilding in all its aspects to continue, from equality for women, through education, through to the security sector at the other end of the spectrum, we in the west must continue to ensure that there is some form of security present. Money that is being dedicated cannot be spent if the non-governmental organisations and other bodies on the ground who will carry out the reconstruction are simply too scared or incapable of doing so because of the danger. Sadly, that means that troops must be present. Sadly too, that means that Iraqi indigenous forces must be trained in such a way that they are numerous enough to look after themselves when they have to take the field.
Yes, of course Britain must be looking for a time when her troops, treasure and money can be drawn down; when our boys can be brought home. But I urge the Government to understand and to honour the words of the Ministerthat we must wait until the job is done. That is why I am so puzzled about one particular element of our defence policy, which is now widely known, and that is that the majority of our forces in Iraq will shortly be withdrawn to bolster the garrison in Afghanistan. I draw particular attention to the speech made by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), which was not only excellent, but touched closely and clearly on the problems in Afghanistan. The fact remains that we simply do not have enough troops to garrison Afghanistan and to continue garrisoning Iraq. Harsh decisions must be made by Ministers. This year we will see the withdrawal of the Polish forces, our close allies, in multinational division central. They will withdraw and that will leave a gap for us to cover. Our American allies expect us to cover that gap, but will we do so? Do we have enough troops to take on that commitment and to allow the Americans to start their drawdown in the north? Do we have the political bottle to operate outside the Basra area? Do we have the courage to make the right commitment to the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army to make sure that that nation can stand on its own two feet? I wonder.
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I am particularly puzzled by the decision, which appears already to have been made, to move large numbers of our troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. If we had more troops, it might make sense; if we do not have the troops, it cannot be done. I am extremely interested to hear how the Minister intends magically to create extra resources in order to conduct both of those tasks simultaneously.
While we plan to deploy the headquarters of the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps to Afghanistan and to maintain large numbers of troops in Iraq, we must examine the conditions of service for men serving in both of those theatres extremely carefully. To reduce the discussion from the strategic level to the tactical level, the Minister should be clear about the effect that the Trooper Williams case has had on every man who carries a rifle with live ammunition. In the Trooper Williams case, the judgment of a commanding officerin that case, of the Royal Tank Regimentunder the Army Act 1992 was overturned in court, which means that no soldier can depend on the judgment and protection of officers who have seen soldiers in action and who understand the circumstances in which such difficulties have occurred. To overturn the judgment of a commanding officer is, at a stroke, to destroy Tommy Atkins' confidence in the officers who lead him.
How can the Government send troops on operations and make some of them redundant when those troops are facing this country's enemies? The Army is currently gapping 190 majors' posts, so why have the Government decided to make 180 such officers redundant? Why have some of those officers received that news when they are facing this nation's enemies? I could go on.
After regiments return from Iraq, they start operational training to deploy to either Afghanistan or Northern Ireland within four months. Many career courses inside the Army are now under-subscribed because non-commissioned officers and junior officers are seeking to spend more time with their families rather than qualifying themselves for further promotion. That situation is unprecedented in the Army, and the Ministers must examine it urgently.
When soldiers go to places such as Afghanistan and Iraq in order to re-establish democracy, they should not find that their own Government have disfranchised them from this country's general election. A considerable number of servicemen failed to vote in the past general election, and I have no doubt that the Minister will try to address that problem, because it is deeply demoralising for soldiers to find that they cannot influence their own Government.
If one has served in the countries that I have described, it is difficult to face the disbandment of one's own regiment on one's return to this country. There has been a lot of talk that the regimental system is unimportantthe previous Secretary of State for Defence said that his local county regiment was "looking forward" to being scrappedbut it is utter nonsense. The regimental system has served us well, and it continues to serve us well. It would be an error to tinker with it, and it would not make sense to turn it on its head.
A reduction in current numbers of infantryman while, yet again, the Army faces a recruitment crisis, does not make sense. If, at the behest of Ministers, the Ministry
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of Defence intends to move large numbers of combat soldiers from Iraq to Afghanistan, there will be no room to remove four combat battalions.
The next few months will be extremely challenging as the problem in Iraq unfolds and evolves. If the Government are serious about pursuing a noble cause in Iraq and supporting the Iraqi people in their move towards freedom and independence, our troops and armed forces must be properly supported, manned and resourced. The Government cannot give a bad deal to the men and women whom they choose to put their lives on the line. The situation must not be allowed to continue, and I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response.
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