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Mr. Gordon Prentice: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Lewis: I am sorry but no, I am about to conclude.

This debate has taken place on a solemn day in solemn circumstances. These circumstances remind us that we have to protect ourselves, and they do not suggest that the way to protect ourselves is always to do everything that our enemies and opponents want us to do. It is not enough to say that the suicide bomber should have his cause understood. It is not enough to say that it was predictable that these events would happen. Of course it was predictable, but that does not mean to say that we could have done anything other than what we did, which was to try to take on the godfathers of, and root causes of, terrorist movements in countries far from here. If we do not take them on far away from these shores and tackle them in the way we have, on a bipartisan basis, we can expect more—not less—aggravation, atrocities, death and destruction within these shores.

5.41 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): All our thoughts are elsewhere at this sad time, and I certainly share the sentiments expressed by all Members about the developing tragedy outside this House. It is worth putting on the record a press release from the Muslim Council of Britain, which condemns what has happened. It states:

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) should pay heed to those comments.
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Once again, we have had a vigorous, healthy and well-informed defence debate that has shown the importance of our armed forces to us all. I may not agree with many of the points made by Opposition Members, or even with some of those made by Labour Members, but I    think that we will all agree—with perhaps one exception—that the praise that we give to the armed forces is well deserved. The services deserve our thanks and admiration for their selfless efforts, in often dangerous and unpredictable circumstances, in countries throughout the world. They serve this nation well and they can take justifiable pride in all that they do as a force for good.

I thank for their contributions the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram)—I understand that he cannot be in his place to hear the wind-ups—my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith), the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), and the hon. Members for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning). I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, and I thank him for his contribution in Iraq, along with other Members who have served in that theatre and elsewhere in recent times. I also welcomed the contributions from the hon. Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), and, of course, from the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis).

In opening this debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to some of our successes in helping to make this a better and more secure world. To that end, our armed forces have served with distinction in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and west and central Africa, as well as in Northern Ireland. Our forces will remain committed in all those areas for as long as they are needed. However, it is obvious that the challenges that we face today—international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the risks posed by failed and failing states—cannot be solved solely by military solutions. An effective response to these problems requires integrated planning of military, diplomatic and economic actions at national and international levels.

My right hon. Friend made it clear that NATO and the Euro-Atlantic partnership remain a cornerstone of our defence. My right hon. Friend also made it clear that the European Union has a distinct role to play in addressing today's security challenges. Our presidency of the European Union provides us with the opportunity to continue to develop the European security and defence policy. That is an opportunity to improve European capabilities and achieve greater co-ordination between the civil and military components of the response to an emerging crisis.

The work reflects our efforts nationally to join up the activities of different Departments and improve our ability to address the threats of today and tomorrow. The Ministry of Defence is working ever closer with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for
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International Development and other Departments to try to deal with threats and tensions before they escalate into conflict.

The global and Africa conflict prevention pools that were set up in 2001 provide us with a unique cross-Whitehall structure for co-ordinating military, diplomatic and development activity to tackle the long term and underlying causes of instability overseas. Our policy is to focus our engagement on those countries and regions where we believe that the United Kingdom can make a genuine difference. Through that strategy, we have achieved notable successes in several countries across the globe, from Belize to Indonesia.

Let me give some practical examples of what our people achieve through their activities. The British peace support team in east Africa has been training African Union personnel so that they can undertake peace support operations in Darfur. Following our successful support for Kenyan de-miners, operating with the United Nations in Eritrea, the Royal Engineers are assisting the Kenyans in developing the international mines action training centre in Nairobi. I had the honour of officially opening that centre last year. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham asked why we are in certain places. I hope that he considers that activity to be beneficial and therefore justified.

The United Kingdom also leads the world in expertise on security sector reform. That work develops potentially unstable countries' security structures so that they can provide their own security and reduce their reliance on assistance from us and other nations. Let me give two examples. Our experts have supported the Jamaicans in developing their national security strategy and are training the Indonesian military in the importance of civilian oversight and the democratic accountability of the armed forces. Does the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham agree with that deployment? If not, why not?

The conflict prevention pools also fund security sector reform activities to support post-conflict stabilisation in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans. In Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence supports Afghan defence reform, demobilisation and disarmament. That work is complemented by DFID and FCO-led programmes for reintegrating its competence and reforming the police. Does the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham believe that that is a place where our commitment is worth while? [Interruption.] He questioned where we are, what we are doing and the merits of it.

Of course, we can always improve on the way in which we do things. We especially acknowledge the challenge that conflict prevention and stabilisation work presents in the period that immediately follows conflict. We are in a crucial period, when we need several Departments to react quickly and in a co-ordinated fashion to begin reconstruction activities as soon as the security situation allows. We recognise some of the weaknesses in our approach to Iraq, but as a result of our experience we decided last year to establish a cross-Government, post-conflict reconstruction unit. I could provide other examples but I want to deal with the debate.
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The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes made several points that other hon. Members also mentioned. He referred to the National Audit Office report on capabilities and military readiness. He mentioned Afghanistan and our work on counter-narcotics and he asked about recruitment. The NAO report on military readiness suggested that 38 per cent. of the forces reported serious weaknesses in readiness for new operations. Critically—I emphasise that word—the report showed that only 2 per cent. of forces reported critical weaknesses that would make it impossible to deploy them on operations. Of course, those have been addressed and corrected. By the end of March, no forces were reporting critical weaknesses.

Some weaknesses are inevitable given the current operational commitments, especially in units recuperating from operational deployment. It is important to understand what is happening and to put in place measures to correct that. It is important to represent the balance of the NAO's views. The report specifically says that the MOD has a

and, importantly,

Let us look at the impact. The armed forces are heavily committed, but the number of regular armed forces deployed on operations was reduced from 20 per cent. to 18 per cent. over the course of the year, and has gone down from the 35 per cent. peak of the war-fighting stage in Iraq. We believe that that is challenging but sustainable, and that we can do more if need to.

The impact on the Royal Navy was also examined. It has been said that in the worst-case scenario little more than half the fleet would be able to deploy within the allocated time as the result of a deliberate decision by the MOD to run down the Navy's readiness. In paragraph 2.8, however, the report makes it clear that as it continues to be likely that the greatest operational demands will be made of the Army and some parts of the RAF, the MOD has deliberately taken risk against peacetime levels of some maritime forces. I believe that that is sensible—one has to balance priorities and needs. To mitigate that risk, however, the Navy has introduced a system of reduced support periods for some ships to make sure that those that we are most likely to need are available. Again, that appears to be working well. The Navy is not currently indicating any critical weaknesses and the NAO report shows how readiness might decline if remedial action is not taken. It acknowledges in paragraph 2.11 our decision to put additional funds into the Navy to ensure that the worst-case scenario does not come to pass. Once the problem has been measured, mechanisms are put in place to address it.

On the cannibalisation of equipment, the removal of ship' fitted equipment—STOROB—is not a new concept. It is only used, however, to make high-readiness operational commitments when a donor ship is either reducing in readiness towards upkeep of disposal or is already in upkeep. Sensible STOROB management is an effective way of dealing with the problem. It becomes a matter of concern, however, if we are doing that to such an extent that we cannot deliver the Navy's requirements. Hon. Members have expressed deep concern about cannibalisation, but only
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4 per cent. of requisition stores preparing ships for putting to sea used that method. It would be great to make it 0 per cent., but it is effective management.

Counter-narcotics is without question a very big issue in Afghanistan. People present the argument that it is a problem, but no one comes up with an answer about how to tackle it or what resources need to be put in place to deal with it. We understand the nature of the country and the people better, but we have only been there a short time. We have clearly identified that the best solution will be achieved through the Afghans themselves, who must take on the challenge as much as us. They must accept that they need to strengthen their resources so that they can deal with the problem specifically and effectively. That is part of the mission in which we are engaged—it is about lifting the capabilities of the Afghan army in the special anti-narcotics force and in the Army as a whole so that it can tackle the problem.

A survey of the 2004 poppy crop in Afghanistan revealed that cultivation had gone up by 64 per cent. and that production had gone up by 17 per cent., which is clearly unwelcome. There are early signs this year, however, that there may be an overall reduction in opium poppy cultivation, but we must wait for assessments later this year from the UN and the US. If people identify the problem, they must suggest mechanisms that we need to put in place to deal with it. We are trying not only to bolster the strength and ability of the Afghan Government to deal with the problem militarily, but to work across the whole civil administration in Afghanistan using measures on law enforcement, alternative livelihoods, criminal justice, eradication, demand reduction and regional co-operation. Narcotics is a big issue, but one that I believe we are beginning to tackle vigorously.

We must always pay close attention to recruitment and retention. Trends happen before we necessarily understand that they are trends, and we are always in the position of having to deal with them in terms of our best understanding of their impact. By the end of financial year 2004–05, the services had achieved 96 per cent. of their overall recruiting target. That is a significant achievement, even though the targets had been reduced because we set them in line with the size that we wanted our armed forces to be. However, we still found it hard to achieve 100 per cent. of that reduced target. Anyone who has seen the energy, effort and intensity of work that the recruiting teams put in will know that that was not for want of trying.

We are up against a range of factors. We have a problem with the gatekeepers. The economy is strong, which makes recruitment in a particular age cohort difficult. All those issues have been addressed by the armed forces and we shall continue to do the best we can on recruitment. If there is a problem of retention, we need to understand why it is happening and what remedial measures can be implemented. If those measures do not work—sometimes they do not—we will have to find other solutions. The process is sophisticated and we are making great efforts to address the problems.
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The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk mentioned the fleet review last week—a wonderful occasion. He also spoke about HMS Invincible as though something new had happened. In fact, we simply brought forward by a number of months what we were going to do anyway, and those who followed what was happening in relation to the utilisation of our carriers would have known that that was going to happen.

The hon. Gentleman called for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq; interestingly, he did not call for a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. I question why. If withdrawal is right in principle in one country, it should be right elsewhere. I do not believe that it is right to set a timetable because it simply establishes a target at which those forces that are out to do evil can aim. I do not think that they would sit around and wait for the timetabled withdrawal. Rather, they would escalate their activities to precipitate an earlier withdrawal, causing greater loss of life, not necessarily among coalition forces, but among their own people. That is what is happening in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned shortfalls in some of the key enablers—logisticians, intelligence corps and other key personnel. That is one of the reasons why we are restructuring the British Army. We are taking approximately 2,500 posts, redefining them and then reinserting them as key enablers. We recognise where the shortfalls are and we are trying to address the problem as part of the overall reorganisation.

Let me deal briefly with the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow—I just noticed the time. I mentioned the Muslim Council of Britain in my opening remarks because I believe that it speaks for the good, decent Muslim people of this country. I think that the hon. Gentleman is dipping his poisonous tongue in a pool of blood, and I think it is disgraceful.

It being Six o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

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