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22 Jun 2006 : Column 1539

I was delighted to hear that he is intent on supporting our armed forces at home and abroad. If that implies that the money for any replacement of the nuclear deterrent will come out of new money, not current Ministry of Defence programmes, we will be making some progress with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

My Committee has produced a report on the deployment to Afghanistan, and we will undertake a second inquiry fairly soon. That deployment has two elements that are separate, but co-ordinated: the movement of the allied rapid reaction corps from Rheindahlen to take over the international security assistance force operation in Kabul; and the 16th Brigade doing a slightly different job in Helmand. In our report, we concluded that we fully supported the deployment to Afghanistan and considered it essential in the interests not only of the economic and social stability of Afghanistan but of the region and the world as a whole. The attack on the twin towers demonstrated the consequences of allowing states to fail, and we felt that it was right to take the action that we did. In that, I fully echo the remarks made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).

Various issues arise out of the deployment. It is essential to the credibility of NATO that the mission should succeed. We are worried about the national caveats that many members of NATO placed on the use of their troops. When we visit Afghanistan as a Committee, as we will shortly, we will need to satisfy ourselves that the rules of engagement, which the Minister tells us are more robust than any that have operated before, are a cohesive feature of NATO’s operations. I am afraid that I do not agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea that one can say to countries, “If you don’t want to play by our rules of engagement, then don’t come.” The method of collecting troops together to go to Afghanistan was difficult and time-consuming enough, and too many countries might simply say, “All right then, we won’t come.” We need a broad international coalition in a country such as Afghanistan, given the difficult things that we are doing there.

Will the Minister tell us whether the operational command and control between ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom has been fully worked out yet? That is not entirely clear from the Government’s response to our report. I am grateful to the Government for providing that response within two months, to the very day, of the report’s publication.

Our report refers to our worries about air assets and vehicles. We stated that we were concerned that the Harriers would leave Kandahar in June, and we were delighted to hear that the Government have decided now, perhaps because of what we said, perhaps through pressure from NATO, to extend the deployment of Harriers in Kandahar until at least March next year. I hope that, by that time, the runway in Kandahar will be upgraded and can take some of the F16 planes, which can then be brought in from other countries.

We were also pleased when the Ministry of Defence announced in April that, as a result of requests from commanders in the field, more than 60 Pinzgauer armoured wheeled vehicles were being ordered for deployment in
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Afghanistan. I was therefore a little surprised when the Minister, in responding to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) about what vehicles would be available, did not confirm that good news. I hope that he will confirm that the acquisition and deployment will happen.

We were unsurprisingly worried about overstretch. The number of troops in Afghanistan is low and the tasks that we ask them to perform are difficult. We need to be clear about their remit. We made the point that there is a fundamental tension between the aim of destroying the narcotics trade, on which a huge proportion of the Helmand province relies in order to live, and introducing security and stability to the area. The Government response to our report states there is no such tension. I simply cannot understand the logic of the Government’s position. The tension exists. That is not to say that the twin roles are wrong. They are right, because one cannot introduce long-term security in a drugs state. We have to get rid of narcotics from Afghanistan and introduce stability and security. However, there is tension between the two roles, which British troops, having worked in Northern Ireland and Iraq, will be well trained and equipped to tackle.

I said that I was in Iraq a couple of weeks ago with the Defence Committee. We found greater ground for hope than the media in this country would have us believe. We were encouraged by the formation of the final building blocks, which were put in place while we were in Baghdad, of the Government of Iraq. We were pleased that the Minister for the Interior and the Minister for Defence were appointed. That will produce some hope for Iraq. We were encouraged by the fact that the Muthanna province was close to being ready to be handed over. We were encouraged by the extent of the training of the tenth division of the Iraqi security forces. We were told that, in spite of the attacks on people who tried to join the Iraqi security forces, the Iraqi army is fundamentally full. It is being trained effectively by British troops, among others.

No one would suggest that the whole picture is encouraging, however. There are serious worries in Basra and elsewhere. We were not convinced that the local government in Basra was working in the interests of local people or the security of Iraq, or that there was any proper control over the killings between the various power-seeking Shi’a groups. However, I do not believe that there is an insurgency in Basra. The insurgency is happening in the north and west of Iraq. In Basra, there is a power struggle between Shi’a groups who see it as a rich area that they can exploit for their own interests, and they are using the most violent and awful means to do so. So there are real worries about Iraq.

We felt, when we talked to our troops in Iraq, that their morale was high. They are doing the most incredible work in the harshest possible conditions. I remember travelling through the city of Basra in an un-airconditioned Warrior armoured personnel carrier, and, when we reached a place of comparative safety, the mortar cover being taken off. When 50ยบ C air came flooding in, we thought, “Thank God, that’s cool!” The working conditions in those vehicles are extremely difficult, and the troops working in Basra are carrying 40 or 50 lb of body armour, kit and ammunition, which is very difficult for them.

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It is not just that there is no fat in the operation. Our troops are not exactly penny pinching, but they have to juggle all the time with the available personnel, and with equipment that might be unavailable or going out of service. The number of helicopters there is tiny, and the number of vehicles is too small. To return to what the Chancellor has said, and to the support that he has given to the defence of this country, I hope, now that he has said those things, that he means them. I also hope that he will put our money where his mouth is.

4.1 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It is a bold Back Bencher who follows two right hon. colleagues of such great distinction in these areas as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). They know what they are talking about. I shall therefore seek not to try to equal their distinction, but to talk about rather different matters.

I wholly agreed with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea when he said that this debate should not be about Afghanistan, Iraq or the renewal of Trident. Those subjects are sufficiently large to warrant an entire day’s debate or more—perhaps several days debate over the years to come. To presume that those topics can be covered in this relatively short debate this afternoon would be a mistake.

I therefore intend to keep off the subjects of Iraq and Afghanistan, apart from mentioning in passing that my own strongly held opposition to what we did in Iraq in 2003 is one of the perfectly sensible reasons why I have ceased to be a Front-Bench spokesman on defence. I could not have continued to perform that role, given that I did not entirely approve of what my party was doing at the time. I also have some reservations about whether we shall be able to look back, in 10 or 20 years time, and say that what we have done in Afghanistan has been a success. I very much hope that it will be—it is a job that very much needs to be done—but whether we can be confident that that is the case is a matter of some debate. However, Iraq and Afghanistan are matters that we can debate at length on other occasions. Similarly, the whole question of the renewal of Trident is a huge matter for debate in the years to come. It is a matter for the nation, not just for party politics.

I felt slightly queasy about the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s intervention in the debate yesterday, not least because, if anyone takes the opportunity to Google the words “Gordon Brown” to check up on what the right hon. Gentleman has said on defence, they will find that, over the past 10 years or thereabouts, he has said nothing at all on the matter. So far as I am aware, he has never visited a defence establishment. He took no interest in defence until last night, when he reiterated what had been said in the Labour party manifesto, but made it appear that he was making a spectacular announcement on the £25 billion of defence spending on renewing Trident. I suspect that that has far more to do with his tactical position in the Labour party than with a strategic approach to the defence of the world.

I want to spend my time today commenting on something that I was greatly encouraged to learn that the Government
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are doing. The strategic defence review was, in its time, radical and far-thinking. Given the 17-year time span, most people thought that it represented a worthwhile approach, although we regretted the failure to release the foreign affairs baseline on which the SDR was said to have been based. A strategic defence review cannot be very good if the foreign policy baseline is not known. In any event, that relatively radical and forward-looking document was severely outdated following one event on 11 September 2001, which made all previous thinking about defence irrelevant. Defence thinking as a whole had to start again from scratch.

I do not think that the subsequent so-called new chapter of the SDR—or indeed the defence White Paper, which one of our defence chiefs described as being more about slogans than about policies—added much to the debate. I was pleased to hear from the Minister today that a new strategic context White Paper would be produced later this year. I hope that it will represent a fundamental piece of thinking, founded solidly on a foreign policy baseline. It is no good talking about defence in the abstract; we must talk about it purely in the context of foreign policy and, nowadays, the context of security at home. We must involve the Home Office—and the Department for International Development, in passing—in that consideration. We need to know what our defence forces are required to do before deciding how to enable them to do it.

There is a degree of confusion about that. Are our servicemen required to defend the homeland against an aggressive outside attacker? I suppose that that is theoretically the case, but it is probably very unlikely. It is hard to imagine any third party attacking the nation, although of course it is right for us to have the capability to put up a defence should that become necessary.

Is it our job to deter a potential aggressor? I suppose that the question arises of what we do if and when it becomes obvious that Iran is going to make use of its enriched uranium for military rather than any other purposes. If that becomes obvious, to what degree does international law allow us, alongside the Americans, to take an aggressive stance of one sort or another against Iran? At what stage do we believe that pre-emption becomes a reasonable cause for the use of force?

During the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, it was said that we must stop the Iraqis using their weapons against our soldiers in Cyprus. That was one of the excuses in the dodgy dossier. What was ignored for the moment was that Foreign Office travel advice for tourists was that it was perfectly acceptable to travel to Cyprus throughout the Iraq crisis, at the same time as the MOD was telling us that we had to invade Iraq to prevent that from happening.

Surely our armed services have a role to play in home defence. Perhaps the Territorial Army or the reserve forces could be involved. Surely we should be playing a significantly greater role in defending our nation on shore from asymmetric terrorist attack. Is there a bigger role for the TA than the role conferred on it in the new chapter of the SDR? Might that bigger role be sorting out huge emergencies? At present, it appears that we could do a pretty good job if a serious emergency occurred in London—probably—but what if there were simultaneous attacks on three of our cities? Would our forces be up to dealing with that? Might there not be a role for the TA?

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Alternatively, is our role to take part—along with NATO and the United Nations, and possibly even the European Union, although I doubt it—in some form of coalition, going around the world and suppressing tyrants? That is often cited as the reason for what we did against Saddam Hussein in Iraq—and I am very glad that we did it; he is a bad man and I am glad that he has gone. But will our role in future be to enter willingly into coalitions, perhaps alongside the neocon element in the United States, galloping around the world sorting out bad men?

I remember Richard Perle saying in a notable speech that he believed that the US was a sort of sheriff, galloping around the world at the head of a posse sorting out the bad guys. One of the closest advisers to the US President, he made it clear that anyone not in the posse was one of the bad guys, and that he believed that we had to perform a type of neo-imperialist policing duty around the world. Although there may be some such role to play, we did not play it in Cambodia or Darfur, and international law provides scant justification for that approach.

The Pentagon has justified what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere by saying that a war is being fought against terrorism, but our defence policy is different. We say that we do not want to engage in warfare against terrorists, and that we want to prevent asymmetric attacks being levelled against us. That difference between the UK and US approaches is very important. In that context, there is one significant gap in what this country otherwise does rather well, and that is that we are not entirely clear about why we do some things. In particular, there are discontinuities in the responsibilities undertaken by the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office. For example, is the Home Office or the MOD responsible for homeland defence, or does DFID have a role in that? I believe that we should consider introducing a sensible military stratagem planning mechanism, as has happened elsewhere around the world. Another option might be to establish a Government Department that deals with military planning, which would consider such matters in very fundamental terms.

Moreover, we need a fundamental discussion of the intelligence services. Should we retain the present structure of three separate services, or is it time for them to be amalgamated? My noble Friend Lord Hamilton asked that very question in the other place only this week. Again, is it right to retain our three services? Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Collins has said that he believes that we should abolish the RAF. I hasten to say that I do not agree with that at all, given that there is a substantial RAF base in my constituency, but I believe that we should look at the fundamentals of our defence policy. What are our people being asked to do, and why? What sort of mechanisms is needed to ensure that they are able to carry out what is asked of them? We need the sort of grand strategic policy for the UK that we have not had since 1956.

As many speakers have said, our armed forces are very professional, but they suffer from their own can-do approach. Almost regardless of what politicians ask them to do, they will salute, turn to the right and march off and do it. It is possible that they grumble
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about it, in the dark corners of their messes, but they never do so in public. They do what they are asked to do, and they are incredibly professional. However, how long can we rely on that can-do approach? I do not much like the word “overstretch”, but there are real signs that our armed forces are being asked to do more and more with less and less. Despite the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s comforting words last night about the comprehensive spending review that is coming up shortly, there has been briefing going around to the effect that the Army could be cut to 80,000 men. That is smaller than the international definition of what constitutes an Army, and a British Army of that size would be the smallest since Waterloo.

I accept that all that may be the result of counter-briefing. The Chancellor may well make it clear during the comprehensive spending review that the 80,000 figure is nothing to worry about, that the reality is not nearly so bad and that the true figure will be a fantastic 85,000. That would be a classic example of the sort of thing that the right hon. Gentleman does.

We do not need an Army with 100,000 personnel—we need one that is significantly larger than that. Our Navy and Air Force also need to be larger, so that they and the Army can perform all the tasks that this Government, and all Governments in the foreseeable future, will require of them. In addition, personnel need to be better paid. What incentive is there to be an Army corporal, in charge of 10 people in situations of extreme danger, when the pay is only £14,000 or £15,000 a year? Police constables get much more. We must look at pay and conditions in the armed forces, as well as at the equipment—both personal and on the larger scale—that is provided. We must also consider every aspect of how our armed forces personnel are sent into war. We need a fundamental review of why we are doing things, how we can encourage our people to do them and how to be certain that whatever we do in the future is done well. One thing is for sure: the European Union is not worth the paper it is written on with regard to defence. The notion that we can have some sort of European Union defence force in the future is laughable. The only countries worth talking about in the defence world today, and the only people who can truly project power for good around the world, are the United States and the United Kingdom acting together in NATO. Without those two nations and NATO, I shudder to think about the future of our great globe.

It is right to have a fundamental look at what we are asking our armed services to do and Opposition Members will co-operate with the Government in doing so. Having done precisely that and published the results, they should look fundamentally at how best to achieve them. They should look into manpower and equipment, how our armed forces are structured and the rules of engagement. They should look at human rights and health and safety—I was astonished to hear someone say that they were glad that an exercise had been stopped because someone had twisted their ankle—the International Criminal Court and how people are asked to act on the battlefield. All those things are fundamental to doing a first-class job, which our people have always done, and to continue in a fully professional way for years to come. If we do not do so, we will not be able to play the role that we havetraditionally played—the role of doing significant
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good in securing the safe future of our globe.

4.16 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), not least because, having been in the Territorial Army, he speaks with authority. I think I am right in saying that he is the only person to have done three stints in the armed forces parliamentary scheme and to have reached the dizzy heights of a brigadier, at least.

I would like to place our debate in context by asking what the Government think of their armed forces. I can see what new Labour thinks simply by looking in front of me. Apart from the Minister who is winding up the debate, the silent Whip and the silent Parliamentary Private Secretary, there are acres of empty green Benches. Not a single Back Bencher is in his place for a debate on defence policy in Government time. It is embarrassing— [Interruption]—so embarrassing that the Minister is about to intervene.

Mr. Watson: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has attended throughout the afternoon, but we have already heard two contributions from the Government side. When I look around the Chamber, I see just four more Conservative Members than we have had this afternoon.

Mr. Robathan: As the Minister has kindly pointed out, our smaller party has six Back Benchers in their places, which is six more than the Minister has on his side—and there is, of course, the token Liberal.

So what do the Government think of our armed forces? I shall give three examples. First, in 2003, the Deputy Prime Minister—still hanging in there with his Office—in front of a number of witnesses, including some of our Doorkeepers, said, “All soldiers are boneheads.” That is what he thinks of our armed forces. Secondly, there is the disgraceful way in which the Government refused to take any action to assist soldiers and others on operations to register to vote before the last general election. I raised the matter time and again, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), but the Government took no real action. One can only surmise why not.

The third indicator of the new Labour Government’s view of the armed forces is seen in a business news leader article, entitled “Huge cuts threat to defence industry” in the Evening Standard on 12 June this year. Written by Robert Fox, who is generally pretty well informed, it says:

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