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22 Jun 2006 : Column 1505

Stewart Hosie: The Minister spoke about retaining the current nuclear deterrent. The Chancellor’s comments about the long-term tend to indicate that there will be a replacement. The Minister said that officials would carry out the necessary risk assessment to make a decision about the future and that there would be parliamentary scrutiny. If I recall the Prime Minister’s answer correctly, he said that the decision would come back to Parliament, but will the Minister confirm that there will be parliamentary approval rather than merely a report and parliamentary scrutiny in the normal way?

Mr. Ingram: I think that I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman’s party wants to get out of NATO, never mind its non-nuclear stand, although it may be revising that. Of course, if members of the Scottish National party decide to change their policy—as they should—they will come under the nuclear umbrella, so they will have a problem in squaring those views. Perhaps that explains their approach to NATO and to the way in which it tries to deal with problems in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

I have made clear what we said. Our manifesto commitment was clear and the way in which I set out the process for the development of the policy was abundantly clear. It is not inconsistent with anything that anyone has said recently.

Dr. Julian Lewis rose—

Mr. Ingram: I want to move on. Members know that I do not run away from debate but I have already been speaking for 45 minutes and I have several other important policy matters to set out. I want to talk about our personnel.

We recognise that our people remain our greatest asset, and we are doing our utmost to implement policy that will provide our service personnel with conditions and services that help to generate and maintain battle-winning defence capability. Among the wide range of projects and initiatives under way, I shall mention two in the context of the debate: improvements in training and accommodation for our people.

The defence training review rationalisation programme aims to provide modern, cost-effective specialist training, improved facilities and accommodation and significant savings through the more efficient utilisation of a reduced training estate. That will give our servicemen and women the best living and learning environment that we can provide, and we expect to announce preferred bidders later this year.

The importance we attach to our personnel is also reflected in the investment we are making in modernising the defence estate across the country. In Colchester, the modernisation programme will enable us to move more than 2,000 service personnel from their current cramped and inadequate living accommodation to state-of-the-art, single occupancy, en-suite accommodation fit for the 21st century. It will also provide exemplary social and working conditions for personnel across the garrison.

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Bob Russell: The Minister is describing a private finance initiative project. Will there be accommodation in the new garrison for every serving soldier?

Mr. Ingram: Not in the whole British Army. The figure I mentioned was 2,000. I realise that the hon. Gentleman is a strong supporter of the project, but as I do not know the basis for his question I cannot give him a specific answer. If I can find out the answer before the wind-ups, I will let him know. It is a major project and he has taken a close interest in it. I was proud to cut the first sod—

Bob Russell: That was me.

Mr. Ingram: I will not even go there. It was great to see the project and the enthusiasm of everyone associated with it. The private contractors and our own people—both civilian and military—are keen for it to succeed.

I want now to touch on future policy and to address our long-term strategic defence posture. Our investment decisions are measured in decades ahead, rather than individual years, and we need to get them right. The debate is an opportunity for the House to consider the challenges of the longer term, and to understand how the Ministry of Defence is looking at them. The primary responsibility of any Government must be to provide security for its citizens, but we also have a global responsibility to defend international stability. It is in the UK’s interest to act internationally to bring about a peaceful and prosperous world.

Our prosperity rests upon globalisation and we need, as a nation, to remain engaged in its development to ensure both our security and success. Our armed forces are a key asset for achieving that. Their quality and reputation are second to none. Their capabilities allow us and, often, international organisations, such as the UN, the EU and NATO, to respond to threats and to support an international system based on human rights, good governance, democracy, civil and political liberties and free trade.

As the House will agree, no nation can be the world’s policeman, and that applies equally to the UK. However, we will continue to act where it is right to do so. The British people expect nothing less. That is why we have to adapt in good time to the trends that we identify both at home and around the world. We do not expect that purely national and military solutions will be adequate. Armed forces cannot act alone to maintain international stability. As I have indicated, we recognise that the major security challenges of this century will require joint, integrated and multinational solutions. UK policy needs to be based upon putting to good use the resources and expertise of different Departments in the UK, and different nations across the world. We will continue to build on our alliances, working together with the international community in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and Africa. It seems to me that public debate tends to focus on the British and American roles only, but we must not ignore the vital contributions of our allies and partners.

The success of our British military contributions has derived from expeditionary forces whose structure and capabilities provide speed, agility, deployability and the
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ability to conduct a range of tasks. Those capabilities, which make the UK armed forces almost unique, are possible only because of commitment to professional excellence and sustained investment to deliver what is required in today’s—and tomorrow’s—security environment.

All that brings me to the longer-term policy question of the future strategic context. Globalisation is driving unprecedented growth and prosperity across the world. Increasing cross-border flows of resources, goods, services and people will spread values and ideas. We can expect greater wealth, lowered cultural and ideological barriers and widening freedoms. All that could be suggestive of a 21st century world where conflict between nation states would be a rarity, unlike the terrible wars and traumas of the 20th century. However, as we move into the 21st century, we see the beginning of profound changes to the strategic environment. There is the speed with which powerful forces are developing, the range of unpredictable ways in which they could interact, and the vulnerability of an increasingly interdependent international system to physical, economic or political shocks—all those things breed uncertainty.

Key security challenges for the future will include the familiar—weak and failing states, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism—but we also need to consider the potential security consequences of climate change, rapidly growing pressures on natural resources, accelerating technological change, and the social, cultural and geopolitical challenges that will accompany the rise of Asia and other emerging powers. It is not possible to predict how those and many other factors will interact, but it is right to acknowledge that not all of the potential futures are benign and that conflict within and between states will not disappear. Weak states will continue to face severe pressures. Extremist ideologies will still find breeding grounds among those who believe that they are not gaining from rapid change. Even a return to confrontation between major states or blocs cannot be ruled out.

British Governments, like the entire international community, will continue to have to work hard to promote security and success in that challenging future environment. We need to consider systematically how our armed forces can strengthen the UK’s ability to act, to influence the international management of crises and to respond to unforeseen events. Later this year, the Ministry of Defence will publish a paper on the future strategic context for defence. It will offer an analysis of the future strategic environment and its implications and, I hope, improve understanding of the issues and the key questions to be decided.

Painstaking analysis of security challenges helps to maintain the vital continuous understanding among service people of how they fit into overall policy, which I mentioned at the beginning of my contribution. It also helps us to continue to give our people the right tools, by investing in the highest priority programmes. Beyond the services, in a democracy such as ours, major decisions require an informed public discussion. I hope that today’s debate will contribute substantially to that process and I look forward to hearing the contributions from both sides of the House.

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1.53 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Let me start with a quote from 1997:

That was our Prime Minister in full pre-election flow. What have we seen from the Government he brought to office? The answer is further commitments in Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan, and cuts in our armed forces of almost 40,000. The Army is down 9,000, the Navy is down 10,000 and the RAF is down 16,000 since the Government came to office. This year we will spend only 2.2 per cent. of our GDP on defence—the smallest proportion of our national wealth that we have spent on defending our country in any year since 1930. So much for the overstretch that the Prime Minister described when he was in opposition.

That level of defence expenditure is supposed to provide for, at most, no more than one small-scale operation and two medium-scale operations at any time. However, since 1999, British armed forces have been operating over and above the Government’s own planning assumptions in every year but one. The Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Defence, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, have trimmed the available resources time and time again—at the same time as the Government have been asking our soldiers to do more and more. For example, the gap between deployments for infantry units had dropped to 15 months, when it is supposed to be a minimum of 24 months, increasing the stress placed not only on our servicemen and women, but on their families—something that is not sufficiently taken into account. As a consequence, there is a rising divorce rate among service personnel.

There are serious capability gaps now, and more looming in the immediate future. Only 40 per cent. of the Lynx and Gazelle helicopter fleet is fit for purpose—as is only 40 per cent. of the C-130K Hercules fleet. At times, we have had so few aircraft that soldiers have been left sitting on the tarmac in Basra because there have been no planes to fly them back home. This March saw the withdrawal of the F/A2 Sea Harriers, leaving the maritime fleet without air defence. As Ministers openly acknowledge, we shall be reliant on the United States for air defence of the fleet until the Type 45s, with their air defence role, enter service around 2009. These will be followed by the new carriers, with their joint strike fighters, which are due to enter service—well, we do not know exactly when they will be entering service. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us.

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman has missed the full explanation on the Sea Harriers. This keeps being raised. The background is that to have upgraded the Sea Harriers would have cost in the region of £500 million. The process would have been technically difficult and there was no guarantee of success; in fact, it was so technically
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difficult that it could have meant a delay in the aircraft flying. Against those criteria, the judgment was made not to proceed. That was done on the basis of military advice: “Don’t spend the money on something you can’t get a guaranteed return for.” Clearly, however, the old spendthrift ways of the Tories are still there. That is why we have such a big headache in defence in relation to some of the legacy programmes.

Dr. Fox: As ever, the Government, having been in office for nine years, can find nothing better to do than blame their predecessors for the problems that they themselves have brought in. Many in the military believe that the Sea Harriers could have been kept flying without a change in engine for some time yet, but the Government have chosen instead to leave that gap in our services and to leave us dependent on the United States. I am keen on our partnership with the United States, but we are talking about a Government whose members kept telling us when they were in opposition that there was overstretch and underfunding and that gaps were being left. Since they came to office, we have had greater commitments, insufficient funding and greater gaps.

Mr. Ellwood: However the Minister dresses it up, there remains a fundamental gap in our air defences. Even when the T45 is rolled out, it will still have only a limited radar capability to the horizon. The only way in which we are going to protect our fleet is by having either Sea Harriers or the F-35, which has the radar capability. However the Minister dresses it up, our sea fleet will be vulnerable until the aeroplanes are replaced.

Dr. Fox: My hon. Friend is not only knowledgeable, but has a regular discourse with the Minister in Westminster Hall. That sounds like a good attempt to make sure that we keep that discourse going. Since my hon. Friend has been getting by far the best of the debate, I am sure that he can look forward to that.

The Public Accounts Committee reported recently that on average, 30 per cent. of the UK armed forces had serious weaknesses in their peacetime readiness levels between January and September 2005. Our armed forces are already experiencing serious gaps in their capabilities, and as major projects such as the carriers and the future rapid effect system continue to fall back, the effect of those gaps will become more acute.

That brings me on to a second type of capability gap, which occurs when a capability is cut back to such an extent that it is no longer able to fulfil the role that is required of it. For example, there were originally meant to be 12 Type 45s. The number was cut down to eight, and the Government have failed to give a commitment on the final two ships, which would leave the Navy with six. That is the case before we get on to the ludicrous prospect of reducing our purchase of aircraft carriers, as has been rumoured, from two to one, to address budgetary shortfalls —[ Interruption. ] If the Minister wishes to confirm that we will be having two not one, I will happily give way to him.

Mr. Ingram: I think that I set out our future programme: future carriers—plural—the Type 45s, land systems and air systems. The programme is
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substantial. There was the biggest increase in defence spending for 20 years in the last spending round, so let us get back to the facts.

Dr. Fox: And let us get back to the spin from the Treasury. Not content with confusing the Government over their nuclear programme, the Treasury has been happily briefing that it wants the proportion that we spend on defence to be brought down from 2.2 per cent. of GDP and that major cuts might have to be introduced. Perhaps it would be worth while for the Cabinet to meet now and again to discuss some of these issues, so that we could get less confusion from two different wings of the Government.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend bear in mind what the Minister just said about the increase in defence expenditure? If a Government reduce spending on defence dramatically on coming to office, they can of course introduce the largest percentage increase in defence expenditure on the bit that they previously cut; that is not a difficult thing to do.

Dr. Fox: Obviously, my right hon. Friend has studiously worked out how Labour’s arithmetic is calculated and how the process of spin, which the Government have improved as a black art, can make something turn out to mean anything that anyone wants. The truth of the matter is that it is impossible for any Government to increase the number of commitments for our armed forces without equally increasing the resources that enable them to do their job properly. Without such resources, we get unacceptable cuts and a lack of capacity.

Mr. Jenkins: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Fox: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

Let me turn to the situation in Iraq. Many people see the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and claim that that in itself is an argument that the war in Iraq was wrong. I do not believe that. I still believe that it was right to want people to determine for themselves who would govern them. It was right to help people to enjoy free speech and a legal framework that they could design, which we take for granted in this country. It was right to free those people from a vicious and bloody tyrant who used chemical weapons against his own people. It has to be a good thing that we saw the end of a regime that had started two wars and was almost certainly sanctions busting and attempting to gain nuclear technology. Frankly, those who take a contrary view need to explain why Iraq, the middle east and the rest of the world would be better off with Saddam still in control.

Like everyone else in the Chamber, I believe, I want our troops to come home as soon as possible—but that can happen only when we are confident that the Iraq that we leave behind is a functioning stable nation. I purposely do not use simply the words “a functioning democracy”. Far too many people take the simplistic view that democracy simply means an exercise in electoral mechanics. It took us in this country 200 years to get from Adam Smith to universal suffrage. We are a
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liberal democracy, but we were liberal before we were democratic. We had a set of liberal values, a judicial system that applied equally to the governing and the governed, a respect for human rights, and the ability to own property and to exercise our individual liberty in a market system. All those things are necessary for a functional stable state. Being a democracy is not enough, as Gaza has all too clearly demonstrated. We need to take that into account when people consider the expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq and when they are likely to be achieved.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has blown his own argument out of the water in a few sentences. First he says that what happened was about democracy—not about weapons of mass destruction, incidentally, which was what the Tories and the Government were saying at the time—but then he says that it was not about democracy. His argument is a bit inconsistent.

Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that in a whole number of ways—if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will put them on record—it is worse for the population of Iraq now, under the occupation, than it was under Saddam Hussein? I am no supporter of Saddam Hussein; I am pleased that he has gone. However, the hon. Gentleman should see that his argument would lead to occupations all round the world, because there are plenty of Saddam Husseins in other places.

Dr. Fox: I was making the point—although not sufficiently clearly for the hon. Gentleman—that a stable and sustainable state is made up not simply of democracy, but of other elements. I can only explain the argument to the hon. Gentleman; I cannot understand it for him.

Post-war mistakes have clearly had several consequences, so we should accept what they were. Both the British and American Governments failed to plan successfully for the aftermath of the war. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) said time and time again in the Chamber that although winning the war would be the easy part, given the overwhelming firepower, the difficult part would be the reconstruction. The Iraqi police and army were disbanded far too soon, and I am afraid that the insufficient deployment of troops at the outset has led to a situation in Iraq that means we are likely to be there longer, and in more difficult circumstances, than might otherwise have been the case.

In recent days, both Japanese and Italian troops have withdrawn from the theatre of operations. The handover of al-Muthanna province to the Iraqi authorities is a development to be welcomed, but that does not mean that there is not still much to be done. Only this week the chief of joint operations made it clear that it would be some time before an area such as Basra could be handed over, although many of us already took that for granted. The Minister himself admitted that things had become worse, in that soldiers were in body armour rather than soft hats when he last visited. Intra-factional fighting in Basra is on the increase, and the Iraqi Prime Minister’s declaration of a state of emergency is a testament to that.

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