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Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab): I am proud to have been elected to serve as the Member for Halifax, which is my home town where I was born and educated. I am proud also to be part of an historic third term of a Labour Government.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, Alice Mahon, who served Halifax as its MP for 18 years. That is an excellent example. I am sure that the House will agree that it is a tough act to follow. Alice was respected and highly regarded not just in Halifax but throughout the country and abroad. She was an extremely hard-working MP, and her life revolved around her commitment to our town. She played a major role in debates on Iraq.

During my campaign it was heartening to undertake an audit of the many achievements of Alice and the Labour Government since 1997. Our streets are safer and crime is down. There are now 66 more police officers fighting crime in Halifax and 237 more officers across
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west Yorkshire than in 1997. Unemployment is down by 53 per cent., and nearly 3,000 people have gained jobs, thanks to the new deal. In my constituency, the winter fuel allowance has warmed the homes of nearly 18,000 pensioners since February 2004. We are helping all pensioners to enjoy a decent and secure retirement. More than 5,000 pensioner households in Halifax now benefit from the pension credit, with a local award of nearly £39 a week.

In 1997, there was no guaranteed child care for parents. Now, 4,500 three and four-year-olds have received free part-time nursery education places from Calderdale local education authority. We have a new hospital that benefits Calderdale residents. As a non-executive director of the hospital trust for more than five years, I have had the pleasure of working with the talented staff of that hospital. There has been massive investment in new schools and others have been refurbished. There are more teachers, nurses and doctors, so we have a record to be proud of. As a councillor of many years' standing, I know that political initiatives aimed at alleviating poverty have transformed the lives of many of my constituents, both young and old. Such programmes include the Sure Start initiatives in north and west central Halifax.

Hard-working families have been helped enormously by tax credits. The Government's recognition that our streets need to be safer led to investment in street wardens and community support officers. Working closely with the police, they have helped to achieve safer, stronger communities. The press is often maligned with some justification, but I pay tribute to my local paper, the Halifax Evening Courier, which campaigned against binge drinking and yob culture long before it was fashionable to do so. During the campaign, I showed visiting Ministers, including Estelle Morris and my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), some of Halifax's hidden treasures. We visited the historic Shibden hall, which has been restored to its former glory with a Government grant. I put the Government on notice that I will lobby hard for a similar investment for the Piece Hall, a unique building in Halifax that truly deserves investment. That heritage attracts many tourists to Halifax and, apart from Liverpool, we have more listed buildings than any other area outside London. Clearly, one small local authority cannot find the resources to restore all those buildings to their former glory. We need help, and as the MP for Halifax, I will be pushing to receive it. We have a unique and wonderful department store in Halifax, which is the product of the vision of Roger and Sue Harvey, residents of the town.

In the campaign, transport, especially buses, was raised regularly with me on the doorstep. Since the deregulation of the buses, hilltops and isolated communities have often found themselves without any public transport. In the Gracious Speech there was a commitment to give more power to local government, and I hope that that includes public transport. As a committed trade unionist and Co-operative party member, I am pleased that my Government agreed not to implement the review of public sector pensions. Public sector workers often work for less money than people in the private sector simply because they believe that their pensions will be secure. To remove that incentive would further undermine the morale of part of the work force that has come in for unacceptable assault from those on the Opposition Front Benches.
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I would also like to pay tribute to Kris Hopkins, the Conservative candidate for Halifax, who fought a good campaign on issues, not on personalities.

In conclusion, Madam Deputy Speaker, and with your permission, I cannot let this maiden speech pass without referring to the growing threat of the extreme right to our way of life. In my constituency, the British National party polled around 2,000 votes—5 per cent. of the total. In towns and cities across the north of England the menace is real and it is growing.

The Minister for Work, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), wrote a most illuminating article for The Observer on 8 May, and I agree entirely with what she had to say. If Labour does not listen to its heartland voters it will lose them. If people feel neglected or ignored, or that the pace of change is too slow for them, they will turn elsewhere, attracted to the simplistic so-called policies of the hard right. Or they will simply go nowhere and drop out of the democratic process altogether.

On the steps of Downing street the day after the election, the Prime Minister said that he had listened. I do hope so, because we have also talked a lot about connecting with people and now we must act. As my right hon. Friend said in her article, strong, bold leadership is required and multiracial communities are here to stay, and thank goodness for that. People turn to extremists, not just out of racism, but also out of fear and frustration: frustration with us, the politicians. That is a challenge, if I may say so, for all who serve in this House. It is a challenge that I accept with honour and not a little humility.

4.46 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) in what was an excellent maiden speech. She has certainly shown that she knows her constituency very well. I thank her for her generous remarks about Kris Hopkins, her Conservative opponent, whom I visited during the course of the campaign, when he showed me some splendid parts of her constituency. I also thought that it was politically astute of her in her maiden speech to praise her local newspaper. I am sure that that is a lesson that we can all learn from.

We have had a splendid crop of maiden speeches today. They have been some of the best that I have heard for a long time. The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) was fluent and showed that he is a good salesman for his constituency, and I am sure that we will hear much more from him on that. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) told us about the importance of ensuring that Cornish pasties are Cornish. I once visited a Cornish pasty factory in a neighbouring constituency, although I rather gave up when I was asked to taste an Indian curry Cornish pasty, an extension of pasties that I had not come across before. I just say gently to the hon. Gentleman—the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) might like to pass this on to him—that although he mentioned his desire to see a Cornish assembly I think his party's policy was one of regionalisation, and the region in which Cornwall would have been was the same region as my constituency at the other end would have been in, namely the south-west. So unless he departs from party policy, I fear that his aspiration is unlikely to be met.
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I listened with some nostalgia to the maiden speech of the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). His robust attitude brought back some happy memories of my four years in the Northern Ireland Office. He was sitting next to his leader, the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), who used to abjure me, saying "Minister, you are digging yourself a Sadducee's grave." When I asked him what a Sadducee's grave was, he said "'Tis a grave from which there is no resurrection." So I know that the hon. Member for South Antrim had to be careful in what he said today.

I should like to pay special tribute to the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies). It was an excellent speech: one of the best that I have heard. It had everything in it. He paid tribute, as I think both the Secretary of State and I would like to do, to the work done by the Territorial Army. Given its problems, it has served the country remarkably well in what it has been asked to do. He also showed a degree of passion which will serve him well in the future, and I look forward to many more contributions from him.

The debate has been wide-ranging. I did not expect to have this much time in which to speak. I do not know about the Secretary of State, but I do not intend to divide the time between now and 7 o'clock—I shall leave him the majority, if he wants it.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Kenneth Clarke) gave us his traditional tour d'horizon of the political scene. When, in his excellent critique of the Government's present standing, he called the Prime Minister "irretrievably damaged" and said that the Government are "weakened", Government Members did not respond with a single sign or sound of dissention. Perhaps his analysis is absolutely right.

I listened to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) with great attention. I am sorry that he is no longer a Front Bencher, because he did a great job at the Foreign Office. I know that he is disappointed, and I share his disappointment. He said that he is back in his natural habitat, but I think that his natural habitat is dealing with Africa, and I am sorry that I will not hear him discuss Africa from the Front Bench again. He said that in the hour in which he was the only elected Member of Parliament in this country—the count is conducted very quickly in Sunderland, South—he decided to form his own Government. He said that he had picked his Cabinet, but he refused to tell us their names—at some point, I hope that he succumbs to temptation and lets us know who was in his Cabinet.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) made a remarkable speech. He discussed India, and hon. Members should pay tribute to his work not only creating closer relations with our friends in India, but pointing out that we do not make enough of our opportunities in India. I share his desire to see that situation being remedied.

Once again, my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) gave us a clear analysis of the situation in Iraq, and I always listen to his remarks with a great deal of care and attention. He has a deep insight into the situation in Iraq, and his analysis was spot on.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) represents some wonderful parts of the Scottish borders. I say that not only because I have a
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house in the area, but because 31 years ago I represented Berwickshire in this House for six short months, and I am sure that he will enjoy representing the constituency as much as I did. He is the new Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, and he said that their exit strategy from Iraq is one of planned withdrawal, beginning at Christmas. However, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), said that their policy is one of phased withdrawal, ending at Christmas. One of those phased withdrawals would end at Christmas this year; the other would start at Christmas this year. Once again, the Liberal Democrats have two policies in response to one problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) reminded us that being Eurosceptic is not the same as being anti-European and pointed out that other parts of Europe contain many Eurosceptics who are not anti-European. One of the false arguments in this country over the past few years has been that if one questions anything to do with the European project, one is anti-European. My hon. Friend is against the constitution and wants to return to the Laeken principles, and he indicated that the debate is too important for Government Front Benchers to continue to treat it peremptorily.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) reminded us of the problems in the Balkans. I do not know whether the Secretary of State will tell us what he thinks is happening in Kosovo, but yesterday's American newspapers contained some interesting suggestions on that point, and later in my speech I shall ask him about the possible implications for defence. However, we are all interested to know whether changes will be made in relation to Kosovo.

I should like to start my remarks about defence by paying heartfelt tribute to the commitment and dedication of our armed forces wherever they are deployed. They carry out on our behalf their difficult and often dangerous tasks with enormous courage and professionalism, and we thank them for what they do in our name. The death of Guardsman Wakefield reminded us very graphically of the sacrifices that we ask of our armed forces. I am sure that our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who were his loved ones, and I hope that those thoughts and prayers will be passed on to them.

We hear more about some of our armed personnel than others. On my last visit to Afghanistan, I was told by a soldier that with the spotlight on Iraq they felt themselves to be the forgotten army. I am sure that the House will agree that they are not forgotten, and we must ensure that they never are.

I take this opportunity to welcome the Secretary of State for Defence to what I can only call his latest post on his ministerial merry-go-round; he seems to move Ministries as often as other people take holidays. I do not know how long we will have him in this post, but I wish him well and look forward to facing him across the Dispatch Box for many more weeks to come. More seriously, he was the principal architect of the 1998 strategic defence review and now has the
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unenviable task of reconciling today's reduced and overstretched force levels with the bold assumptions that were made in his SDR. I shall return to that later.

We are lucky to have the right hon. Gentleman with us today, as he has only just returned from a visit to Iraq. Rather more than that, in the past two months the sighting of a Defence Secretary has become almost as rare as seeing the abominable snowman. During the recent general election, not only was defence not mentioned by the Government, but we experienced what I can only call the syndrome of the invisible Hoon. I think that he was spotted for a moment in Rutland, although that has not yet been corroborated; certainly, he was not a leading player in the election. There was a rare moment of light when a leak suggested that the Government were planning the next generation of nuclear deterrent, but a left-wing squawk of protest soon put paid to that and we heard no more about it. The truth is that the greatest losers in the general election were our armed forces, who in many cases, outrageously, were not even able to cast a vote because the Government failed to make sure that they were registered in time to do so.

I fear that the Government's savage list of cuts, which we have pledged to reverse, will now be implemented. No service will be spared—the Royal Navy, the Army and the RAF will all feel the impact of the Government's axe. This is not happening in a static situation. Today, our soldiers are on operations around the world—notably, of course, in Iraq, where they are expected to remain for some considerable time. It is a matter of anger to me that having been assured time and again by the Government that there was a comprehensive post-war plan for Iraq, we now know that there was not. I condemned at the time the decision in which the Government were complicit to dismantle Iraq's own internal security apparatus—its army and police. That decision left a security vacuum that was readily filled by insurgency and by violence, and we are now paying a heavy price for that failure to plan in advance. Ironically, and far too late, we are now retraining and redeploying the same people whom we so casually dismissed when we dismantled those internal services.

We will also need to increase our commitment to Afghanistan to meet our forthcoming lead NATO role in ISAF—the international security assistance force. That confirms our commitment to Afghanistan's future; indeed, it also confirms our commitment to NATO as the pre-eminent military alliance and the cornerstone of our own security and defence.

Today's new strategic environment requires those deployments. We live in an increasingly unstable and uncertain world. Developed nations such as ourselves find that we are facing a new generation of threats. It has never been so important that we ensure that our armed forces—the main pillar of our nation's security and defence—are properly equipped, properly trained and thoroughly sustained in every way, yet this Government have failed our armed services in almost every significant respect. While committing our armed forces to five wars in eight years, they failed both in the strategic defence review of 1998 and the subsequent White Papers to close the ever-widening gap between military means and strategic ends. That capability gap is widening. With the last of the Sea Harriers taken out of service soon, the Royal Navy will have no close air
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defence until 2015. The much vaunted and essential aircraft carriers look unlikely to enter service before today's carriers are withdrawn. The early withdrawal of the RAF Jaguars by 2007 will leave a similar capability gap before the ground attack version of the Typhoon enters full operational service at the end of the decade.

Now, at a time of increased threat, the Government plan to cut further our already overstretched and undermanned armed forces. The plan to take four front-line infantry battalions out of the line at a time when they have never been busier is utter folly. Surely the lessons from the operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and especially Iraq are that numbers—boots on the ground—matter, particularly infantry numbers. At a time of considerable terrorism at home and abroad and major military deployments overseas, what possible military logic or sense can there be in cutting infantry numbers?

I referred earlier to the Secretary of State's involvement in the strategic defence review. He must explain what has happened since 1998 to convince the Government not only to reverse the planned SDR increases but to introduce further cuts. The threat has not decreased—indeed, the opposite is true.

Those are not my words, but those of the Secretary of State's predecessor in the supporting essay that accompanied the December 2003 White Paper. He saw the commitments increasing, yet the capability is reducing. The Secretary of State must explain why that dangerous gap is being allowed to grow.

Why are there cuts? Is it because the security situation warrants a reduction in our military capability? That is clearly not the case, as the White Paper confirms. There can be and is only one explanation. The cuts are driven by a Chancellor who demands them—what the Chancellor demands, he gets, whatever the impact on our national security and armed forces. That is the test for the Secretary of State: is he brave enough to stand up to the Chancellor? Will he take urgent steps to fix that which his predecessor allowed so supinely to be broken?

The Government are taking six warships from the Royal Navy. That is a massive cut beyond what the SDR set out. Even in 1998, the Secretary of State considered that to be the absolute minimum required. At the bicentenary celebrations of Nelson's supreme victory at Trafalgar in July, we face the ignominy of the Royal Navy's presence being dwarfed by that of the French navy. That says something about the Government's defence policy.

The procurement programme is in crisis, too. The Government's record on defence procurement is lamentable. The sums wasted on cost overruns are staggering. Despite the launch of the smart procurement initiative in January 1998 under the mantra of "faster, cheaper, better", there has been little evidence of success. What is the Government's answer? Their answer is the appointment as Minister responsible for procurement of a man more versed in offshore tax havens and in receiving Government contracts than in placing them.
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In the past eight years, the Government have overcommitted our forces while presiding over cuts, shrinkage and downsizing. Intervals between operational tours are well below the guideline figure of 24 months, with some people having as little as six months' respite between operations. The impact of that overstretch on individuals and their families, especially those in areas that are experiencing significant manning shortfalls, is an issue of extreme concern. I represent the military town of Tidworth and I have first-hand experience of the pressures that the Government's conduct of their defence policy creates.

The Government have the unqualified obligation to support our armed forces in the tasks that they ask them to perform. Yet the current gap between strategic ends and military means cannot be exaggerated. There are few indications that the objectives facing our armed forces are getting any easier.

I hope that the Secretary of State will now give us his latest assessment of the progress being made in the following theatres, all of which have been discussed in this debate. He has just returned from Iraq. We need a clear assessment of any progress that is being made in the genuine domestic stabilisation of that country which might allow us to consider drawing down our forces there. I also hope that he will tell us when that might start happening, if such stabilisation is occurring.

What is the current assessment of the security situation in the Balkans? What impact will the United States' plan to start negotiations with Serbia on the final status of Kosovo have on the future deployment of our troops there? Presumably there has been some contingency planning against that possibility, and I hope that the Secretary of State will give us some information on that today. Will he also give us the latest assessment of military and strategic progress in Afghanistan? Is there any truth in the speculation that the situation there is currently considered a strategic failure?

The British armed forces have a reputation for excellence and skill that is unrivalled throughout the world. They are the benchmark by which many other armed forces are judged. They have proved, time and again, to be the most adaptable and successful of flexible international forces. They have never let us down, but they currently feel totally let down and betrayed by this Government, who talk big yet deliver nothing but cuts in numbers, inadequate equipment, a lack of training and a callous insensitivity to the genuine concerns of those who serve us so well.

The Government face a number of major challenges over the lifetime of this Parliament. First, however uncomfortable it might be, they are going to have to address the future of the nuclear deterrent. I agree with the hon. Member for Sunderland, South when he said that he hoped that the discussions on that issue would take place in this House and not behind closed doors. I hope that the Secretary of State—who is listening to someone else at the moment—will take account of that. The point was raised by his hon. Friend, and I hope that he will give us an undertaking that there will be a full and open debate on the matter in the House of Commons. Will he also tell us whether a decision in principle was taken on the issue some time ago without being debated in the House? If so, I hope that he will arrange for a debate on that matter as soon as possible.
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We shall also demand that the equipment programme match the needs of the armed forces, and we shall continue to scrutinise the operation of the Defence Procurement Agency. Britain's defence industry requires the implementation of the international traffic in arms regulations waiver—the ITAR waiver—which the Secretary of State's predecessor signally failed to secure from the American Congress. What plans does the Secretary of State have to persuade Congress that the waiver should be allowed to be implemented?

The continuing erosion of military ethos, arising from a misplaced obsession with human rights, must stop. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newark rightly said, the case of Trooper Williams is widely regarded as a disgrace, and we welcome the fact that the unjust case against him has now been dropped. We shall judge the proposed new military discipline legislation announced in the Gracious Speech against a benchmark of its effect on ethos and on the chain of command. We shall also monitor the misapplication of health and safety measures which threaten military preparedness.

I hope that the Secretary of State will start to give our armed forces the support and resources that they so badly need. They are supremely loyal to us, and it is time that the Government began to show them the same loyalty in return.

5.8 pm

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