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Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): The Secretary of State has just given a very impressive little speech on the maintenance of British fighting power. Does he accept that that has depended crucially for the past two centuries on the Royal Navy, which is now—for the first time in all those years—smaller than the French Navy? That is a matter of crucial importance. Will he use his first speech to the House as Secretary of State to show his profound commitment to the Royal Navy and give an absolute commitment that there will be no mucking around with the building of the two new aircraft carriers, which are essential for the maintenance of our effective fighting power?

John Reid: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments about my nice little speech. I thank him for his nice little speech. Unfortunately, it is wrong. It assumes that bigger is better. He seems to have forgotten the lesson of Trafalgar, even within a fortnight of the 200th anniversary, that our side was smaller than the French and Spanish fleet. Nelson had 27 ships, compared with the 33 in the fleet he faced. He won, because fighting capability and power cannot be equated with the number of vessels. Fighting power depends on the technology on the vessels, how well trained the men and women aboard are and the morale of the troops. The training and morale of Nelson's troops gave him a huge advantage over the French and Spanish.

Let us bring the question to the modern world. Is it possible to have smaller numbers and greater capability? Of course, it is. For example, there were far fewer air sorties in the second Gulf war than in the first Gulf war but they hit far more targets because they used different technologically directed bombs—so-called "smart" bombs as opposed to dumb bombs. Let us consider the number of ships that are necessary for the United States to put out two, three or four carrier task groups. Because of the building of ships nowadays, there is a far higher return on the fleet on the sea active than would have been the case 10 or 15 years ago. That is why Defence Secretary Rumsfeld's prediction, when he worked for the Reagan Administration, that his fleet then would be twice the size of the one that he has now does not mean that his smaller fleet now is less capable. It is not.
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Although I respect the hon. Gentleman's work on the Public Accounts Committee, it is a false to assume that one necessarily has less capability because one has smaller numbers. That is patently not the case; otherwise we would have retained conscription in this country and would have 200,000, 300,000 or 400,000 soldiers who were very good at painting Nissen huts black and white but not very good at the front in a war.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I have a great deal of sympathy for what the Secretary of State has said and support much of it. However, can I take him back to the subject of Iraq and ask him whether our American allies have asked us specifically to replace the capability that other countries are taking out of Iraq between now and the end of the year? A gap will have to be filled, and I am curious to know whether we have had a specific request to fill that gap.

John Reid: The answer to that is no.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend argues that size is not always important, but does he agree that the Government are committed to one of the largest shipbuilding programmes ever? That is leading to shipbuilding returning to communities in, for example, the north-east when it was taken away from them under the Conservative Government.

John Reid: The answer to that one is yes. I agree with my hon. Friend. We are getting through a lot of questions.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware that I met this morning delegations of workers from my Bridgend constituency who were exercising their right to lobby Members of Parliament about the possible removal of work at the Defence Aviation Repair Agency site in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith). They have grave concerns about the possible loss of their expertise. Will the Secretary of State join me in recognising the concerns that those workers have asked to be conveyed to the House? The majority of them are ex-RAF personnel who want the House to understand their ongoing commitment to the defence industry and to the defence of the country. Will he recognise the important role that such defence workers play in the ongoing security of this country?

John Reid: Yes, I very much recognise that, and I do not blame my hon. Friend for raising her constituency interest in the matter. Workers in the defence industry play a very important role and, over the years, I have found that they have been prepared to go through some very difficult transformations and to re-educate, reallocate and so on in a way that has not been possible in every section of industry.

I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise, however, that the Government have an obligation, particularly when we have a duty of care, to make sure that, when we place young men and women in war situations, we get
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the best value for money not just to please the accountants but to make sure that the men and women whom we place in such situations are protected to the very best of our ability. Any pound that is wasted and that is not value for money is taken away from the protection, training, technology and so on that they have at the front.

I know that such points are borne carefully in mind by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the armed forces when he looks at these matters, but I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that we have an obligation, first and foremost, to maintain the effectiveness and output of our fighting power rather than a primary obligation to keep this or that industry in the position in which it has been for some time.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State give way?

John Reid: I promise my hon. Friend that I will come back to him, but we are now 22 minutes into the debate and I have read only three paragraphs of my speech. I am more than happy to spend a lot of my time answering hon. Members' questions instead of making a formal speech because I know how important these issues are, but I should make a little progress, if for no other reason than my duty of care to my civil servants, who have spent a lot of time preparing this stuff. The three paragraphs that I have read so far were actually written by me, so that does not help to bring my officials in.

I was pointing out the balance of rights and responsibilities in the international community. Of course we can argue about the way in which those responsibilities are discharged, but these decisions are not easy. The decision about Kosovo was not easy, but on balance the House supported us going in there, even though the United Nations Security Council did not—there was a veto. However, the House felt that it had a morally compelling responsibility that superseded that veto. I suppose—and hope—that we are discharging such responsibilities by doing what we can in Darfur, too.

Those rights and responsibilities form part of what has become a more complex security architecture because, as the world has become even more interdependent and changed in the post-cold-war period, the nature of the threats to our security have changed. It is accepted that we must address the political causes of problems, which is why at the G8 summit we will talk about not only aid and trade in Africa, but hopefully the middle east peace process. We must do that in addition to using what we would traditionally regard as the defence posture, or physical fighting power. We will debate today the broadest context of our interests and commitments throughout the world.

I have already said something about Iraq. We said at the time that we were committed to the long-term reconstruction of Iraq and that is still true. It is why we are still there two years on and why we will remain there until we have helped the Iraqis to complete the transition to a secure democracy. As I said at the beginning of my speech, we will not be deflected from that commitment by today's events.

We are making steady progress in Iraq. The infrastructure was severely run down in the years before the war and has not been helped since by being the target
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of terrorists and insurgents. Investment in services such as electricity and water, which was minimal for 20 years or more, is now increasing. Despite all the difficulties in the country, we can point to areas of progress. Around 2,300 schools and about 1,000 hospitals have opened. Some 70 million textbooks have been distributed. I do not want to present a glowing picture of the situation in the country, as some politicians have, but steady progress is being made, especially on the political and security sides. We are now embarking on discussions to allow the Iraqi people, through their representatives, to provide themselves with a constitution. They will then go on to a referendum and the election of a Government at the end of the year and I hope that the time lines will be met.

We remain committed to helping the Afghan people to restore security, stability and prosperity to Afghanistan. In the midst of the sombre situation in some parts of the country, let us remember that the presidential elections last October were an outstanding success, although that was unexpected in some quarters. The parliamentary elections this September will be a major step forward. About 1,000 personnel from all three services are deployed in Afghanistan, along with civilians. They are deployed as part of the NATO-led international security assistance force and also contribute to the US-led coalition. We are working alongside the Afghans and our allies to develop the capabilities and skills of the Afghan security forces, to help train the Afghan national army and to provide advice. Afghans and Afghanistan continue to need international military help. Elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban remain active there; we have not destroyed them completely.

Opiates, drugs and narcotics remain a huge problem. I understand that something like 60 per cent. of the country's gross domestic product is connected with the drugs trade, which makes it a formidable task to deal with. In my view, no country can develop a stable, sustainable and uncorrupt form of government unless and until that is dealt with. About 90 per cent. of the heroin in this country comes from opiates derived from Afghanistan. That position represents a threat both to Afghanistan and the United Kingdom.

We have agreed that, next May, we will lead the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps headquarters, which has an essential part to play in dealing with Afghanistan. At that stage, we anticipate that international security assistance force control will move from its current location in the north and the west down to the south. We will play some part in that, in addition to our role in the headquarters of the ARRC. We will move down to Helmand province, but I cannot give the House further details at the moment for the simple reason that I have not yet decided. There will be a multinational presence there, but we are still reflecting further on the details, the costs and the allies that might be with us, but as soon as I have further details, I will present them to the House.

As with all the other issues that I have discussed so far, in the face of a complex, multi-faceted security problem—not just the physical presence of an enemy with guns and tanks—we will attempt to achieve the same in Afghanistan as we hope to achieve elsewhere. We also need to address some of the roots of the problems, which touch on alternative livelihoods, economics, humanitarian aid, policing, judicial systems,
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the Foreign Office playing a major role in the politics, democratic control for the Afghans themselves and, in that context, the use of fighting power and force. If we do the one without the other, none of this works any more than will attempts to solve all the world's problems by military intervention while ignoring the causal economic, social and political injustices responsible for the problems in the first place.

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