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Mr. Kevan Jones: I am listening carefully to what my hon. Friend is saying and it is bringing back all my yesterdays in the 1980s Labour party—I still have some of the scars from those days. He argues for unilaterally giving up our nuclear deterrent, which is fine and I respect him for that. However, in his last comment he argued for a cheaper version of the nuclear deterrent. He cannot argue that we should give up the deterrent, yet say that a cheaper option could be available to deal with possible threats from failed states such as North Korea.

Mr. Prentice: I thought that I was speaking as clearly as I am capable of doing, so it saddens me that my friend, who said that he was listening to my words, misunderstood me. Let me say it again slowly for him. I am not in favour of the Trident submarine system, so I would get rid of it—I said that. I also said that some of my friends on this side of the House would look at other options and went on to describe the cheaper options, such as stand-off cruise missiles. There is no contradiction in my position.

Jeremy Corbyn : My hon. Friend will recall that Rob McNamara made a similar plea when he spoke at the non-proliferation treaty review conference in New York recently. Will he acknowledge that one of the arguments used by the elements in Iran and North Korea that want to develop nuclear weapons is the fact that the five declared nuclear weapons states show no signs of disarming? Indeed, their position is quite the opposite because Britain and the United States show every sign of wanting to re-arm further. It becomes harder to argue against nuclear proliferation if we ourselves are expanding the nuclear horizons.

Mr. Prentice: That good point allows me to return to my old friend Michael Portillo. He has turned into a real ally because he wrote in The Sunday Times on 19 June:

I do not know whether the British Government think that the nuclear deterrent is a pre-condition of retaining our membership of the UN Security Council. I appreciate that the situation is immensely fluid, so we must start to think laterally about the way in which we respond to new challenges, instead of staying locked in an old position.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am amazed that my hon. Friend is now a bedfellow of a right-wing individual such as Robert McNamara, who impressed me when I met him. I am also amazed by the idea of my hon. Friend getting into bed with Michael Portillo. Rather than trying to close the argument down, surely the way forward would be to do exactly what the Government want to do and have a serious debate about the shape and form that our nuclear deterrent should take, which I would support.
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Mr. Prentice: What a chilling thought: getting into bed with Michael Portillo. I too want a debate, but I do not want an open-ended debate that goes nowhere. I said in Defence questions on Monday—I think—that I want a focused debate. I want the Government to produce background papers showing advantages, disadvantages and costs. We must consider the effect on the Royal Navy. It was said earlier that the fleet is going down from 33 boats to 27—

Mr. Ancram: To 25 ships.

Mr. Prentice: The fleet is going down to 25 ships. Spending a fortune on replacing the boats—the terminology for the submarines—will have implications for the Royal Navy budget.

I want to end—[Interruption.] Is my friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) listening? I do not know how much it would cost to replace Trident because although I have tabled parliamentary questions about it, I am waiting for the answers to come through the pipeline. The Library has just published an excellent paper, which I would recommend to all hon. Members. It is called "Trident and the future of the British Nuclear Deterrent" and it tells us that Trident cost more than £9 billion—that is £9,000 million—at 1991 costs. If we go down that road again, another staggering sum of money that we cannot afford will be expended. It is a matter not only of Trident, but of something much more prosaic that we have all grown up with—the nuclear weapons establishment in Aldermaston. Since 2000—only five years ago—it has cost us £1.5 billion, as the Library paper tells us. If people knew that, they would be marching again today.

That is my view and I hope that the Prime Minister is listening—not just today, but subsequently. That is my contribution to the start of our debate. I hope that we can have an open debate, that the Government can be serious rather than just going through the motions and that we can secure in due course a cogent response to the points that I have made.

3 pm

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) has raised a very important matter, to which I hope to return later in my own remarks.

The bomb blasts in London today have cast a terrible shadow over the whole country and this afternoon's debate and I associate myself with the comments of the Secretary of State for Defence and the shadow Defence Secretary. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those caught up in these terrible incidents and to their families and friends. Our thoughts are also with the emergency services as they go about their difficult jobs.

I wholeheartedly endorse the decision of the Secretary of State and others to proceed with this debate. It is right to do so, as it sends an important signal to those who wish to destroy our democracy. I thank the Secretary of State, who is no longer in his place, for his courtesy in giving me advance notice that, because of other serious commitments, he would probably not be present to listen to the speeches of myself and others. We fully understand that.
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For all the disagreements in the House on different aspects of defence issues, there is a consensus that we live in a rapidly changing world. The uncertainties of old have changed but not disappeared and we are still coming to terms with the ugly new uncertainties of the 21st century. Our armed forces have to grapple with those uncertainties day in, day out, and I echo the tributes of others to the professionalism, dedication and bravery of all who serve on our behalf. The reputation of our armed forces is second to none, so we are right to be proud of them and grateful to them.

This year, we mark the 60th anniversary of the end of world war two, which is a sobering reminder of the costs and horrors of war. This week, we have been paying tribute to veterans of all wars and conflicts, and I applaud the Government's initiative in establishing the event. Last week, many of us were fortunate enough to participate in the magnificent Trafalgar celebrations on the Solent—a fantastic tribute, on which all involved should be congratulated. It was a privilege to be there. All those commemorations and events are a reminder of the freedoms that we enjoy and we must never take them for granted.

As part of the Trafalgar celebrations, some of us had the good fortune last week to attend a reception on HMS Invincible in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen. What we did not necessarily appreciate at the time was the fact that it may have been the ship's swansong, as we now hear that it is to be mothballed.

The fate of HMS Invincible is symbolic of the major changes taking place as a result of the defence White Paper. Across our armed forces, a small-scale revolution is taking place at the same time as we witness some of the highest levels of commitment in the post-war period. The Defence Committee's fourth report of the last Parliament raised serious questions about the ability of the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces to manage that process. The Secretary of State has given a forthright response. In so doing, he has set his Ministry some very challenging tasks at a very difficult time.

Iraq remains the country's most pressing overseas commitment. Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the professionalism of those in the British armed forces who have served and continue to serve there. Similarly, I convey my condolences and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the families and friends of those who have given their lives in the conflict. We should not forget those who are recovering from the injuries and wounds that they have suffered there.

To say the least, the security situation in Iraq remains perilous—with more than 1,000 deaths since the formation of the new Iraqi Government in April and the recent kidnapping of the Egyptian ambassador-designate and the attempted assassinations of the Bahraini and Pakistani ambassadors this week—but some progress has been made in the provision of basic public services. With the Iraqi Ministry of Health reporting that more than 75 hospitals and nearly all the primary care clinics that were damaged or looted during and after the 2003 conflict have been rehabilitated and with further work under way to construct new—and rehabilitate older—hospitals in Iraq, progress looks good. However, we should not deceive ourselves that Iraqis are enjoying anything approaching a normal life, and they will continue to have a long, hard haul over the coming months and years.
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Over what is now a very short period, the people of Iraq must finalise the constitutional arrangements that will enable them to take full control of their own sovereignty. The constitution must be drawn up by the 55 member committee by the middle of August to allow a referendum by the end of September that will, in turn, allow fresh elections to be held by the middle of December. None of that will be easy.

There are some positive signs, which we welcome. The constitutional committee has agreed to the membership of 15 Sunnis and the head of the general conference for Sunnis in Iraq has said that Sunni clerics will soon encourage people to register with the electoral commission and vote, raising hopes that political efforts by the Shi'a and Kurdish-dominated Government to draw the Sunnis into the political process may now be bearing fruit.

As that political process develops, the ongoing role of the coalition forces is increasingly in the spotlight. While recognising the key security role of the multinational forces, it is clear that the Iraqis themselves see the occupation, however mandated, as an ongoing political problem, not least because, as yet, there appears to be no clarity about an exit strategy. The signals from Washington are mixed: the Vice-President says that the insurgency is in its last throes, while the US Defence Secretary says that it may take a dozen years to quell the insurgents.

The Iraqis are right to want a clear exit strategy for the   multinational forces and it is the coalition's responsibility to set out one. The Secretary of State for Defence gave some signs of that happening in his interview on the "Today" programme earlier this week and in his response to the questions from the shadow Defence Secretary on Monday and, indeed, in his speech today. We have started to see the beginnings of a strategy, and we are encouraged by that, as far as it goes.

Liberal Democrat Members remain of the view that we can make the greatest contribution to Iraq's internal stability and the development of its body politic by setting out a clear timetable for a phased withdrawal of our forces in line with the United Nations mandate authorised by Security Council resolutions. That must take account of the security situation, the state of public services and the completion of the constitutional process, but without such a strategy, the chances of a swift improvement in the terrible conditions in which Iraqis lead their lives will be minimal and the risks that we will become mired in a situation outwith our control will become all the greater.

In Afghanistan, we face a different set of challenges and realities, and we are taking on greater commitments. Much progress has been made since the fall of the Taliban Government in 2001 and another important step will be reached with the parliamentary and provincial elections due in mid-September, but the security situation in the country is bleak. As the UN special envoy, Jean Arnault, reported to the Security Council a couple of weeks ago, it is going through a "negative evolution", with almost 400 people killed by the Taliban this year. The soaring levels of heroin production are another indication of a country that is still in deep trouble and the statistics that the Secretary of State offered us earlier highlight that starkly.
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We support the efforts that the Government are making as part of the international community's programme to bring long-term stability to Afghanistan. The leadership role being taken by the United Kingdom is a reflection of the skills and qualities of our armed forces, and they are to be congratulated on that. Like others, we look forward to hearing details of the forces to be deployed, as the headquarters Allied Rapid Reaction Corps takes on its responsibilities, as anticipated, in 2006. But this commitment comes at a time when the armed forces are seriously stretched. Squaring the circle of these substantial commitments will be no easy task.

The recent National Audit Office report, which has been referred to already, set out some real problems in respect of readiness. It gave the MOD credit for its readiness reporting system, but throughout the document serious questions are raised about our armed forces' ability to react swiftly to new and unforeseen threats or operational imperatives. It makes for stark reading. In the period under review, more than a third of our armed forces had "serious weaknesses" in their readiness levels. The NAO identifies intense pressure on supplies and personnel, which, it says, have been redistributed to a point where effective and well-equipped fighting forces can only be assembled by widespread cannibalisation of military units and supplies. It concludes that the MOD

The NAO report is clear that military activity levels have consistently exceeded defence planning assumptions, and that that will remain the case for the foreseeable future. Inevitably, this brings into question the very assumptions themselves and the sustainability of the current, unexpected levels of commitment. We will doubtless hear more on this issue during the wind-ups, but a detailed MOD response to the report is surely needed as a matter of urgency.

Echoing the conclusions of the NAO report, recently published figures reveal shortages of essential personnel across the services. Answers to parliamentary questions have highlighted that the Army is short of more than 600 medical personnel— including nurses, surgeons and anaesthetists—400 intelligence personnel, 900 logisticians and more than 1,300 engineers. The Royal Marines are short of more than 600 engineers. These are essential personnel. Our armed forces' ability to carry out demanding operations rapidly, effectively and safely must surely be put in jeopardy without these essential specialist and support personnel. Again, we need to know what action has been taken to address these shortfalls.

It is not just the specialists who are under strength. The MOD's own figures show that the Army has at least 1,600 fewer soldiers than the target strength, and it has been suggested that the shortfall figure is expected to increase. The Army's full-time fighting strength, as of 1 April, was some 102,000, yet the official training requirement is for more than 104,000. The Army's size is being cut by the regimental restructuring announced last year, and it is now short of well over 1,000 soldiers.

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