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We deserve an answer about what is going on in Basra.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): Just to help me in the wind-ups, can my hon. Friend tell me where Stop the War collects its data from?

Harry Cohen: I am simply quoting Stop the War, which will have to give that information itself.

Mr. Watson: Presumably my hon. Friend thinks that the information is reliable.

Harry Cohen: I do not know, as we have had virtually a news cover-up about Basra. I do know, however, that there are many deaths and many people are being forced to flee. Stop the War has quoted the information to me and I have put it to the House. It may be true, but we do not know. I bet that if the figures on the number of people killed in Basra were disclosed, they would be high. I invite the Minister to give us those figures when he winds up.

Mr. Watson: My hon. Friend must know that I cannot possibly speak for Stop the War.

Harry Cohen: But the Government know the number of deaths that have occurred among civilians in Iraq and in Basra, and their policy of saying that they will not give those figures is a disgrace. We still need a proper answer about what has been happening in Basra.

Then there is the matter of the death squads. The UN’s human rights chief, John Pace, said that they were overwhelmingly linked to the Ministry of the Interior. The then Minister, Bayan Al Jabr, said that it was not down to him and that the death squads were from the facilities protection service set up by the coalition. When I asked a parliamentary question about the FPS, I was told that the UK trained it. Why have we been training and unleashing the death squads that have caused so much damage?

I could raise plenty of other issues, such as Saddam Hussein’s trial and the killing of his third defence lawyer. He is not going to get a fair trial in Iraq, and it should be moved to The Hague. If it is all right for that to happen to Liberia’s Charles Taylor, it should happen to Saddam Hussein. President Bush is hell-bent on delivering the death penalty to Saddam Hussein and a fair trial can go hang as far as he is concerned.

I could mention a host of atrocities, but time precludes me from doing so. Robert Fisk said in an article that, when the Americans bring a lot of bodies into the mortuaries, they say to the people there, “Don’t do any post-mortems.” In Haditha, 24 innocent civilians—women and children—were slaughtered in their own homes. Even the American ambassador has said that there is huge social discord among staff. There is a catalogue of problems.

We need an explicit exit strategy. Muthana is a start, but there needs to be a coherent and swift exit strategy overall. That is not consistent with the criteria set out
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by Ministers, which were completely subjective and not measurable. The situation is not improving; it is closer to civil war—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman’s time is up.

2.38 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): It is welcome to have this chance in Government time to debate these important matters and to range across the whole realm of defence policy. I regret that it has not been possible to have the Secretary of State with us today, but it is still good that we are able to have these discussions.

These are important matters, because in recent months there have been many developments in our overseas operational activities. In the past five months, there have been announcements on major troop deployments to Afghanistan and decisions on the reconfiguration of British troops in Iraq. At the same time, the House has had to consider the Armed Forces Bill, the Blake review, and a series of critical manning, readiness and procurement reports. There are many other pressing issues that have not, until today, been subject to the same level of parliamentary scrutiny or debate, and I shall refer to some of those in a few minutes.

The defence White Paper proposed key changes to cope with new planning assumptions, reflecting the enhanced use of network-enabled capability, effects-based warfare and force restructuring. Those measures were said to create the circumstances for a reduction in future manpower requirements, but I wonder whether that can possibly be considered realistic now, when the demands on our forces in many different places have increased so much.

It must be of profound concern that, although the National Audit Office and the Armed Forces Pay Review Body have found that the services have been operating beyond planning assumptions for at least seven years, the Government have successively reduced armed forces strength requirements, leaving what the Defence Committee describes as “little if any fat” in the armed forces. I am sure that the Committee is right. When outflow from the armed forces is at a high, recruitment is at a low and our overseas commitments appear likely to increase, there cannot be any justification in those reductions in numbers. What impact will that have on our reliance on harmony guidelines and the extent of our reliance on reservists?

The latest Defence Analytical Services Agency figures show an increase in the total annual outflow from the armed forces. The figure is now 24,290 compared with 23,430 in April 2005. Similarly, recruitment from civilian life into the UK regular forces has dropped substantially, to below 20,000 in the past two years. It was reported earlier this year that the Army expects a 12 per cent. recruitment shortfall compared with its target. Will the Under-Secretary confirm recent reports that the bounty offered to soldiers who persuade friends to join up is to be doubled, from £650 to £1,300? Does he acknowledge the serious recruitment problems?

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The Armed Forces Pay Review Body’s annual report in February attributes the increase in voluntary outflow to “operational pressures” and

which it labels as “retention-negative”. The National Audit Office readiness report identified

as a potential cause of retention problems. It went further, saying that the problem

The Armed Forces Pay Review Body identified serious shortages in key trades and skills. The Government have declined to make public, on what they describe as “operational grounds”, the extent of the shortages in specific areas, but the existence of several operational pinch points is seriously worrying.

The report identifies specific shortages in trades in the Royal Engineers, the Royal Signals, the Intelligence Corps and the Army medical services and asks questions about the prevalence and extent of the problems. What progress has been made in filling those gaps?

Questions are being asked about the effect of operational strains on our armed forces, consequently calling into question the feasibility of the revised defence planning assumptions in the defence White Paper. The NAO readiness report warned that a third of British forces had serious weaknesses in their state of readiness, and of the cumulative effect of a series of minor risks. It has also been said that 8 per cent. of our armed forces are medically unfit for duty, which could get worse with strains on mental health from over-deployment. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made that point effectively. That is profoundly significant not only for the individuals—the hon. Gentleman was right to stress the importance of making facilities available to them—but it must have an impact on the calculations of the extent of deployment that we can sensibly undertake in future.

I want to consider some current operations. Understandably, there has been much discussion of Afghanistan. In a memorandum to the Select Committee in February, the Ministry of Defence stated that, despite manning shortages, deployment to Afghanistan is “manageable”. However, in its report today, the Defence Committee observes:

The Committee is quite right to make that very level judgment. I wonder what assessment the Ministry has made of the fighting capabilities of the Taliban and other illegally armed groups in the south of Afghanistan, and what assumptions underlie its calculation of the kind of help that we are going to get from the Afghans themselves.

We support the deployment of troops to Afghanistan. It is intrinsically the right thing to do, but we are less certain of the extent to which it is do-able. I was in Paris earlier this week for the meeting of the Western European Union, which had received a report from a group that had been to Afghanistan. The report concluded that there would be a need for overseas troops to be present there for 15 years. I do not think
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that political or public opinion in the many parts of the country that are supplying those troops is in any way ready for that.

It is in everyone’s interest to achieve the stabilisation and reconstruction of Afghanistan, not least because it supplies 90 per cent. of the world’s opium. This concerted international effort has come rather late in the day, however. For three years, not enough progress was made. I fear that energy was being devoted to Iraq at the expense of Afghanistan, and the task is now more difficult because of that neglect. The Government have yet to explain how they can reconcile the concurrent objectives of achieving security and making progress on counter-narcotics. It has already been pointed out that the prevalence of the connections of the drugs industry throughout Afghan society and within its political institutions means that the drugs trade is the foundation of the Afghan economy. Effective measures against the trade are going to make the security situation even more challenging.

I hope that our forces will find ways of overcoming that tension, but I am unclear as to what role they will play in the counter-narcotics strategy. Does NATO have sufficient numbers of combat troops in southern Afghanistan, where the level of violence has reached a new high? What provision is there to cope with any further escalation in hostilities? This is undoubtedly a highly challenging mission, and we must be clear that an enduring solution will not be achieved without comprehensive political reform and serious reconstruction. Success will also depend on the active and constructive engagement of Afghanistan’s neighbours, especially Pakistan.

There needs to be clarity on the co-ordination between the different national contingents serving in the international security assistance force—ISAF—as the hon. Member for Woodspring said. There have been examples of overlap, and the co-ordination does not seem to have been as strong as it might have been. With the forthcoming unification of ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom, there needs to be clarity on the counter-insurgency role undertaken by NATO forces, and a recognition of the dangers of mission creep. There is a real danger that Afghan society will see all foreign troops in the same light, and come to view all of them as unwelcome.

Italy has begun the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq, with a view to complete withdrawal before the end of the year. As that involves the second largest contingent in multi-national sector south-east, I wonder what effect the withdrawal will have on our forces and commitments there. The Secretary of State told me when he made a statement just a day or two into his new post that the objective in Iraq was to reach a situation where we could hand over security responsibility to the new Government—I think that everyone would agree with that—and that the strategy was to achieve the objective. A full debate in the House on Iraq is overdue, and any such debate should be led or shared by the Foreign Office rather than being viewed simply as a defence matter.

A new strategy is needed in Iraq, central to which should be a peace process led by the United Nations to achieve national reconciliation and the internationalisation of support for Iraq. That process would need to build on the policies that have been set out by the Iraqi Prime
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Minister, and would work towards the agreement of an international compact setting out the commitments of all sides and a comprehensive security and reconstruction strategy. It would need to build on the good work—to which I pay tribute—of coalition forces that are busily engaged in the training, equipping, professionalising and regularising of the Iraqi security services. But it would need to go a long way beyond that.

We need a regional contact group to strengthen the engagement of Iraq’s neighbours. We need a comprehensive disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration strategy comparable with those that coalition forces have overseen elsewhere. As the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) rightly said, we need an end to systematic and indefinite detentions by United States and, indeed, Iraqi forces, with safeguards against abuses. We need an enhanced national programme in Iraq to promote human rights and the rule of law. We need to expedite the reconstruction process, do what is possible to eliminate corruption, and increase the involvement of the United Nations and the World Bank.

As all those components begin to progress, it will become feasible to start talking about a programme for phased security transfer and the withdrawal of coalition troops. To get anywhere near such an approach, however, will require the United Kingdom to use its influence in Washington to press for US support, and it will have to be developed and implemented with the approval of, and in partnership with, the sovereign Government of Iraq.

Le me say something about procurement. The defence industrial strategy has rightly received a generally warm welcome, despite some concerns about its potential impact upon smaller companies. How will the Ministry of Defence monitor its impact over a period, and ensure that it is having a benign effect?

I will not attempt a tour d’horizon of procurement issues in one short speech, but a few brief points are worth making. What progress is being made on technology transfer in relation to the joint strike fighter? Last week, discussions between Bill Jeffrey and Gordon England failed yet again to achieve a statement of principles to facilitate the United States’ sharing of technologies with Britain in the context of the JSF programme. Does the Minister believe that a memorandum of understanding between our two nations will be produced by December, as previously planned? Does the recent publication of a report in the US saying that the costs of the JSF could be better controlled if there were competition to provide engines revive any hopes for Rolls-Royce?

Mr. Arbuthnot: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be a great shame if the Farnborough air show came and went without clarification of the technology transfer?

Nick Harvey: That is a very good point. The Farnborough air show will soon be upon us. I hope that it will focus minds and produce some agreements. That would be a realistic and sensible time scale in which to try to conclude discussions that are vitally important. No one wants to see the JSF programme fail, but British Ministers and officials have—rightly, in
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my view—taken a robust line with the Americans, and it is essential for this thorny issue to be resolved as soon as possible.

Another procurement issue that urgently needs attention is heavy lift capability. My noble Friend Lord Garden has persistently raised the issue in another place. What resources has the MOD with which to address that urgent problem, and when does it plan to do so?

We must ensure that the drive to meet planning assumptions does not lead us towards reduced stock holdings and spares. There are obvious risks associated with purchasing to meet urgent operational requirements, as we saw in the case of Operation Telic. The readiness report from the National Audit Office states:

and that applies particularly in the fleet. What progress is being made to reduce that dependency, which is often inefficient and manpower-intensive and which restricts operational flexibility?

One issue that has not had parliamentary scrutiny but deserves it has to do with pre-emption and the Geneva conventions. In a speech in March, the then Defence Secretary called for a reappraisal of the Geneva conventions and an expansion of the doctrine of pre-emptive strike. Will the Minister say whether that is Government policy? If so, what revisions are proposed to those conventions, which form the bedrock of international humanitarian law? In light of the catastrophic consequences of the Iraq invasion, on what grounds should the pre-emptive strike doctrine be expanded? The UN High-Level Panel concluded last year that existing international rules on the use of force are sufficient, but that they need to be respected.

Finally, I turn to the matter that has been referred to already and which has dominated this morning’s newspapers—the replacement of our nuclear deterrent. In February, the Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee:

That was a welcome sentiment, but I wonder about it. The number of scientists working on hydrodynamic testing at Aldermaston is being increased for the first time in 20 years, and additional investment of more than £1 billion is being made in that facility, with more than £10 million allocated to preliminary work on Trident renewal.

I have been rather surprised by some of the answers to parliamentary questions that I have received in the past few weeks. Will the Minister confirm that no work is currently under way at Aldermaston on designs for a new nuclear warhead? It seems inconceivable that that can be right. We need transparency from the Government about the process, and they should actively provide information to Parliament and the public so as to inform a full debate on the matter.

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