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Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who dealt with some problems that have been around—it is a shame to say—for a long time. The Government must face the problem that the slow procedures of defence procurement—the hon. Gentleman compared them to the gestation period of several African elephants—take such a long time to run their course that the equipment being bought has been superseded and is out of date by the end of the process. The hon. Gentleman suggested that it would be helpful to have more urgent operational requirements and I believe that the Government solved many problems in Iraq by following precisely that procedure, though they created new problems as well. The Government's moves towards increasing the speed of procurement started about 15 years ago with Peter Levene: they have improved things a little, but not solved all the problems.

I am delighted to hear that the Bowman project—it was greatly delayed when I was Minister of State for Procurement, when most hon. Members here today were in short trousers—is at last beginning to produce some tangible results for the armed forces. The Government deserve to be congratulated on that.

In his customary very knowledgeable way, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) went through some of the recommendations of the Defence Committee. I would particularly like to follow up his point about recommendation 5, which is for a destroyer or frigate to be made available in the Caribbean only during the higher-risk hurricane months. My hon. Friend is right that that will leave a serious gap. In 2003, I visited Key West with the Intelligence and Security Committee. People were hugely complimentary there about the work that our ships do in the Caribbean on drugs interdiction. They wanted not less, but significantly more of that contribution, as we did the job so well. It is a shame that the Government's decision announced in their response to the Defence Committee report was not the subject of a statement on which they could be properly questioned. I am not at all sure that it is the right decision.

Today in London, we know how vital it is to have security and defence forces of which we are proud. It is good to know that they are well resourced and able to take on the unpredictable challenges that we all face nowadays. Let us not forget, however, that the incidents that have occurred today in London are the sort of events that have happened on a regular basis in Iraq and that our troops are working with courage and persistence to restore order in that country in sometimes difficult and extraordinarily unusual circumstances.

The Secretary of State drew attention on Monday to a crucial matter. He said that it was a pity that the praise and gratitude showered on our forces in Iraq for trying to maintain normality there is not always echoed by the media at home. He is right about that. It is not in the least surprising that the work of our troops in Iraq is not news, because it is the media's role to report "news" in the sense of something unusual. The fact that—day in, day out—8,500 of our servicemen and women are working hard to help the Iraqis to lead a normal life is not news. They do not receive publicity for doing that simply because it is not remarkable that they do their
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jobs so well. They always have, and if we politicians treat them right, I suspect that they always will. They have been well trained in the difficult circumstances of Northern Ireland, winning the hearts and minds of the people who live there, and it is not surprising that they do the job so well in Iraq.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): At the weekend, I met a squaddie who had just returned from Basra and I had a drink with him. He told me quite clearly that the Iraqi people are kind, friendly and welcoming, and that they are very appreciative of the excellent work that the armed forces are doing out there. That is certainly no surprise to me, as someone who has regularly met members of the Queen's Lancaster Regiment; but I simply wish, as the right hon. Gentleman says, that it was more widely known among people in this country. It is not more widely known because of the way in which the press distort what is actually happening.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I agree with the general thrust of what the hon. Gentleman says. I am not sure whether it is right to say that the press distort what is happening; it is just that the press inevitably concentrate on the news. We can all be proud of the sort of work that our armed forces are doing in Iraq, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has just said.

Our armed forces will continue to do a good job for this country, so long as the politicians treat them right, and I worry sometimes that we politicians do not treat our armed forces right. We sometimes take for granted what they do, and we sometimes make their lives more difficult. The conditions under which they work—the recruitment and retention conditions—are often exacerbated by pay and terms of employment that are extremely complicated and do not match the world outside.

I should like to hear from the Minister when he responds to the debate how he believes that recruitment to the armed forces is going. What does he believe is the structure of the recruitment process? There are suggestions that the process has been stripped out to provide people and equipment to the front line. That may be a short-term answer to what is a medium and long-term problem. I should like reassurance from the Minister when he responds.

Similarly, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body is important and needs to preserve its independence in everything that it does—independence not only from the Executive, but from the Treasury. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) has often suggested that the Treasury is working for the Russians, and the Ministry of Defence is inevitably accused of making decisions that are Treasury-driven. Given the expense of defence, that is hardly surprising.

Yesterday in Trafalgar square, as the Red Arrows flew over, we realised quite what a source of pride not just the Red Arrows, but everything that our armed forces do, is to the whole country. I was delighted to hear from the Minister on Monday that the Ministry of Defence will increase pilots' flying time. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) said, 16 and a half hours' flying time a month is not enough to maintain the capabilities of our fast-jet
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pilots. When the Minister said that those hours would be increased next year, that was good to hear, but by how much? Will the increase be enough to improve the capability of our pilots, so that we can continue to produce the Red Arrow pilots that we all find so inspiring? The aircraft also need to be available, rather than being cannibalised, as has been suggested and discussed in some of the Defence Committee's very good reports.

Finally, this is an appropriate day on which to hold this debate because it falls in veterans awareness week. We can remind ourselves of how essential to our future are the well-maintained, well-resourced armed forces that we have come to rely on, but let us never forget how essential the veterans were to our past and to our present. They stood shoulder to shoulder to defend our world, our country, our values and our principles, and we will remember them.

4.25 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): As we remember all those who have been personally affected by today's tragedy, the overriding message must be one of calm and of avoiding knee-jerk reactions. I say this as someone who lived in Italy in 1978, when terrorist acts included the kidnapping and murdering of the then Italian Prime Minister. I know that Members will agree that we must be determined not to give in to terrorism.

As we remember this weekend the end of the second world war, I want to turn our thoughts to the immense bravery and sacrifice of so many of our citizens. It is indeed a very fitting time to be debating defence in the world. At the end of the first world war, there was a determination that such slaughter should never happen again, and the League of Nations was set up. As we all know, in spite of idealism and optimism, the League of Nations did not live up to the great expectations of it.

The United Nations was set up at the end of the second world war and in a mood of optimism. Its history has not been easy, and there have been many setbacks. Now, on the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war, it is vital that we again recognise the importance of international collaboration, and that we rededicate our efforts to working at a European and a global level. We are a major world player. We are influential and with that influence comes responsibility—a responsibility to use that influence effectively.

It is so heartening that vital issues such as tackling poverty and climate change and promoting fair trade, which were once the cries only of minority groups and the Churches, are now mainstream issues that are being discussed at the highest level—at the G8. That is due in no small measure to this Government's conviction and activities. Too often, however, efforts to eradicate poverty are thwarted by armed conflict. We now need to use our influence to strengthen the United Nations, and to work at a global level to eliminate pointless massacre. We know that in dealing with some bullies and tyrants, talking is unfortunately not enough. We need a strong deterrent force, and to show that we are prepared to use it. Given our influential position in the world, we need to work with a broad range of countries. We must maintain and develop our defence capacity not just for our own defence, but as part of our contribution to global peace.
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Technology is advancing at such a pace that we need to invest in the appropriate research and design. We must recognise the wide-ranging expertise and skills of our defence forces—both those in active service and those working on the design, manufacture and maintenance of equipment. We owe it to all those who fought for us in the second world war to develop and maintain the appropriate technology to safeguard our defence capacity.

The second world war was a struggle to defend the values that our generation now takes for granted. This week, we remember the sacrifices of men and women in the first and second world wars and in the many wars since. Many of us will attend commemorative events, but it is important that we do not forget as soon as the razzamatazz and publicity are over. For that reason, I welcome this Government's decision to introduce the veteran's badge, which can be worn with civilian dress. It will serve as a permanent reminder of the service of our veterans and of our gratitude to them. Let us never forget.

4.29 pm

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