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Chancellor Gordon Brown...wants £1 billion taken from defence and given to...homeland security...A recently retired chief of staff commented: Theyll have to tear up Labours whole defence strategy and start all over again....defence chiefs have already been told that at least one major procurement programme has to go
probably the aircraft carriers. I have no idea whether that is true, but I do know, as hon. Members have already pointed out, that in this Chancellors time here, he has shown precious little interest in and very little support for defence. I speak today against that background.
The major point that I should like to make is about the politicisation and the responsibilities of senior officers in the armed forces, and then I shall touch on the situation in Afghanistan. First, on senior officers, last November I was quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying that the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, lacked the courage to stand up for his soldiers. I first discovered that that had been quotedI had had a conversation with the journalistwhen I got a telephone call and was asked to ring General Jackson, who had rung the then leader of the Conservative party. I asked him why he had phoned the then leader of the Conservative party instead of me, and he did not really answer. He hectored me down the telephone for 30 minutes in a somewhat bullying way.
It is not my business to have an argument with the Chief of the General Staff, so I am glad to say that a mutual friend organised a meeting. We had a meeting for an hour and three quarters. It was a convivial meeting and we discussed things in a reasonable way. There was not much meeting of minds, but I acceptI promised him at the time that I wouldthat I have no knowledge that he lacks courage. It was quite wrong of me to have said that he lacks courage, and I withdraw that unreservedly and apologise to him. I said that I would do that at the first opportunity, and this is the first opportunity that I have had. However, I did tell him that I would not withdraw the bit about standing up for his soldiers, and that is part of what I intend to discuss today.
Incidentally, I have no personal problem with General Jackson, so I do not wish this to counted as a personal attack on him in any way. He is a public servant who has given good service to this country over a number of years. However, I want to look at what has happened to the armed forces over the past three yearsI shall stick to the past three years.
We had an immensely successful Iraq war in March 2003, or whenever it was. We can all be proud of our soldiers, sailors and airmen for the work that they did then. Since then we have got immersed, as other hon. Members have said, in a very difficult situation in Iraq. We have now deployed to Afghanistan. We have had four battalions of infantry cut from the line of battle. Notwithstanding what was said by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), the TA is haemorrhaging soldiers. Once they have been to Iraq, where they have an interesting experience, most of them do not much want to go again. The reorganisation of the infantry battalions is taking place, too. Although the arms plot was imperfect, I do not believe that that reorganisation will lead to a better system for the infantry.
Demands are now growing for a federation for armed forces personnel. We have to ask why those demands are growing. Why are grass-roots members of the armed forces demanding a federation? Soldiers are public servants. Politicians make the orders and soldiers must obey politiciansthat goes for field marshals, generals and the likebut senior officers who demand loyalty from those below them are expected in return to give loyalty to those whom they command. That was certainly what I was taught, and hon. Members who have done any form of military service will know that.
Loyalty goes two ways, and the chiefs of staff who represent the armed forces in discussions with the Government should not be seen as the Prime Ministers representatives; rather, they should be seen as representing the armed forces to the Government. I understand that the chiefs of staff have access to the Prime Minister whenever they want it, but I have not heard of that access being used during the draconian defence cuts going on in all three services. What senior officer has resigned recently? None that I have seen, and there is a growing feelingit may not be fairthat some senior officers are apparently more interested in their careers, in knighthoods and in future cosy appointments than in the good of the armed forces and the personnel whom they command. I should like to turn to an example of that: the courts martial that have been taking place in respect of Iraq.
Tight discipline is essential in the armed forces, especially in war, as anyone who has been in battle knows, but discipline is being undermined by a growing human rights culturefostered, I am afraid, by the Governmentthat is encouraging barrack-room lawyers. Anyone who is guilty of a crime in the armed forces must be prosecuted, but we have a very difficult and continuing war in Iraq. We expect our soldiers to make split-second life-and-death decisions, while someone is trying to kill them. That is not the same as being on parade outside Buckingham palace or, indeed, policing a riot in Trafalgar square.
I will use one case of court martial as an example, because it is completely out of the courts nowthat of Trooper Williams. As hon. Members may remember, in July 2003 Trooper Williams was part of a patrol that stopped a handcart that was being pushed along, filled with mortar bombs. Understandably, the Iraqis pushing the hand-cart scattered. Trooper Williams and a corporal chased one Iraqi into a courtyard and then into a house, where he fought with the corporal accompanying Trooper Williams. Trooper Williams believedand who are we to gainsay him, as we were not there?that the Iraqi was trying to grab the pistol from the corporal, so he shot him, and he died.
Rightly, the case was taken up by the commanding officer of the regiment to which Trooper Williams was attached. He was arrested and investigated and brought before that commanding officer, who, having taken legal advice, dismissed the case, as was his right. He made a judgment that Trooper Williams was not guilty.
What happened next? Brigadier Vowles and Major-General Howellboth of whom, as I understand it, are primarily lawyers, rather than soldiers by first professionqueried the decision. A memo dated March 2004, from the then Adjutant-GeneralI believe it was Sir Alistair Irwinwas sent to the Chief of the General Staff. It states:
With the current legal, political and ginger group interest in the deaths of Iraqi civilians...there is a significant possibility that this case, our investigation and subsequent failure to offer for prosecution could become a cause célèbre for pressure groups and a significant threat to the maintenance of the military justice system. If the Attorney General became aware of it in the meantime, it is possible that would himself order a review of the case.
So this prosecution was all about ginger groups and the possibility that the case could become a cause célèbre
for pressure groups. I ask the senior officers involved: does that constitute standing up for Trooper Williams?
Following that, Trooper Williams was charged with murder under the civilian system and was to be taken to the Old Bailey. He was 18 years old when the incident took place, and for a year and a half he was under threat of trial at the Old Bailey. I suggest that that is a pretty serious matter for anybody.
On 7 April last year, at the Old Bailey, the Crown offered no evidence. I have been told by a senior officer that Williams should be grateful to the Army because, now that he has been tried at the Old Bailey, he cannot be tried again. I wonder what he thinks about that.
What was the role of the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, in all this? The trial judge, Mrs. Justice Hallett, believed that this was possibly a novel intervention by Her Majestys Attorney-General. One of her judgments says:
No-one in the Army has apparently thought to advise Trooper Williams that although his commanding officer had found in his favour he might still face a civilian prosecution. That is apparently because this is the first time
to the knowledge of those appearing before me and called before me, that her Majestys Attorney General has sought to exercise the powers accorded to him.
I considered the matter and...I decided that the case should be referred to the CPS because...while there is no suggestion that the court martial would not deal with it impartially, justice would be seen to be done by ventilating the issues in the civilian courts.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 10 November 2005; Vol. 675, c. 111W.]
I do not expect anything better from a commercial lawyer who happens to be a Minister of the Crown because of his friendship with the Prime Minister, but these people have no idea of the pressures on soldiers, who have to take life-and-death decisions in such situations. Their senior officers should stand up for them, and they should expect better from them. This Government have politicised senior officers in a way that has not happened before. Let me give two examples. I have in my hand an edition of The House Magazineone cannot get much more political than the in-house magazine of this placethat contains a big interview with the Chief of the General Staff. He also did the Andrew Marr programme, which is the BBCs major political programme on a Sunday morning.
Too often, senior officers are seen as apologists for Government policy, rather than as those who are obliged to carry out Government policy. If they disagree with me they are very welcome to say so, but I hope that they will consider my words, and whether there is some truth in what I am saying.
Mr. Watson: The hon. Gentleman is the Conservative partys deputy Chief Whip. For clarification, is he speaking for his party when he says that the senior officers of our military are apologists for the Government?
What I have said is not my opinion alone, but the opinion of a great number of soldiers of junior, and not so junior, rank to whom I have spoken. Nor is it just retired soldiers who think so, but a large number of serving soldiers and officers. I ask that senior officers consider whether there is anything right in my words. If I am wrong, they will dismiss me and ignore me, I am sure, as the Minister surely will.
Let me turn to Afghanistan. A good debate was instigated yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway). I counsel caution. The situation is difficult, and although I supported the action to oppose the Taliban in 2001, and sincewe cannot just run awaywe should none the less consider the history of the Afghan wars. Yesterday, my hon. Friend said:
In 1880 the Royal Regiment was virtually wiped out in the disastrous battle that it fought along the banks of the Helmand river at Maiwand. A British officer wrote, rather pessimistically, at the time that
making war and planning a campaign on the Helmand from the cool shades...is an experiment which will not, I hope, be repeated.
Well, the experiment is being repeated and the Taliban tell people in their night letters that their grandfathers are scratching at the soil in their graves to get out and kill the grandsons of the British troops they massacred.[ Official Report, Westminster Hall, 21 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 434WH.]
In the 1930s, in his autobiography Bugles and a Tiger, John Masters describes British soldiers still being flayed alive within the lifetime of some Members still serving in this House. I do not want to dwell on that, but shall perhaps quote Kipling:
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
And go to your gawd like a soldier.
There is no easy solution to Afghanistan, but I suggest we look at more recent campaigns, such as Dhofar, in which small numbers of soldiers supporting local troops did fantastic work. I view the campaign with great foreboding, and urge caution. I thought the points made by the shadow Secretary of State about how we need more helicopters and support if we are to expect our soldiers to work there were quite excellent.
Our soldiers, sailors and airmen deserve our support, and they deserve reasoned decisions from the Government. They expect a Government to respect them and look after their interests in a way that I do not believe this one does. They also expect their senior officers to show loyalty to their subordinates. I hope that they will, notwithstanding the examples that I have given.
Finally, I am sure everyone knows that Julius Caesar said that soldiers are not as other men, and when they think they are, they cease to be our guardians. Our soldiers, sailors and airmen are our guardians, and we should support them to the best of our ability.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): It is a great, if daunting, pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) who has a great deal more knowledge on this issue than I have. I have rarely heard such an impassioned speech in the House of Commons. If only more people in the Labour Government had had such direct experience of the armed forces, we might not have so many foreign military interventions.
I shall hone in on Muthana, the Iraqi desert region on the borders of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait from which it has been announced that British troops will pull out. That is very good news and I applaud the Government for having managed to secure that withdrawal.
There are many service personnel in Iraq from my constituency. I have been in the Chamber all afternoon in order to have the opportunity to pay a personal tribute to and to applaud service personnel from Shrewsbury and Shropshire who are serving their country in Iraq.
Recently, James Holt, a journalist on our local newspaper, the Shrewsbury Chronicle, was sent to Iraq and has been sending back photographs and stories about our servicemen and their experiences. Those reports in our local paper have really brought home to me and my constituents the fact that real people from our community are out there fighting for their countryour neighbours, brothers and sisters. I am always in awe at the sacrifices that they make.
I cannot call for a withdrawal from Iraq at this stage; it is not my partys policy and I am a loyal Back Bencher. However, I want to say two things about which I feel passionatelyI hope they do not get me into too much trouble with the Whips. Last week, Mr. Ken Tyrell led a large delegation of people from Shrewsbury to see me to discuss the war in Iraq. They passionately wanted to know when our troops would be withdrawn. They feel desperately sad when they tune into Prime Ministers questions week after week to hear the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition expressing condolences to the families of British servicemen who have been killed. That is a very emotive issue for my constituents. They applaud the Government for withdrawing our troops from Muthana and hope that soon we will be able to leave further provinces in the capable hands of the Iraqis.
My second point will stay with me for as long as I am a Member of Parliament. It is the most emotional thing I have ever come across, certainly from a political perspective. In January and February 2003, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, I received more than 200 letters from Shrewsbury womenbut not one manto tell me that they were worried that our country was going against the wishes of the United Nations, the Secretary-General of the UN, Hans Blix and every other opinion. They said:
We are worried and concerned that our country is going to war in these circumstances.
Those 200 Shrewsbury women, and my wife, convinced me that I should be against the war in Iraq. Week after week, I wrote in my local newspaper that the war was wrong. At the time, I was merely a parliamentary candidate, so it was much easier to express those views,
but now that I am an MP it will be interesting to see what happens in the future when I have to follow the party Whip. However, our experience in Iraq makes me cautious about our engaging in future wars in Iran and other countries.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend. Regardless of his views before the Iraq war, does not he accept that, as he became a Member of Parliament afterwards, and given the situation that we face in Iraq, we need to make sure we leave only when the situation is stabilised and that we leave a stable country behind when the job is done? Despite the fact that he may have been against the war at the beginning, I am sure that he wants our troops to leave with honour a stable country with a functioning liberal democracy.
Daniel Kawczynski: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I entirely agree. That is why I am not calling for the withdrawal of our troops. As I said to Mr. Tyrell and my other constituents, it would be wrong for us to pull out prematurely; our international reputation would suffer even more if we did so.
I am concerned about the lack of assistance in these situations from other permanent members of the Security Council. China and Russia are two huge military powers with extraordinary military spending and military capability, but they are mute on international problems and situations such as Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. If we are successfully to police the world, those important members of the Security Council have to become more involved, as do other NATO countries and other European Union countries that have not fulfilled their roles properly in sending enough peacekeepers to Iraq. We simply have too few troops ourselves to police the whole world in conjunction with the Americans.
At some stage, we may have to reorganise the permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations. They were drawn up immediately after the second world war. We now face a very different world. Perhaps countries such as Germany, although I have mixed views on Germany [ Interruption. ] My grandfather was Polish. Perhaps countries such as Germany, which are increasingly economically and militarily powerful, should be included as permanent members to get them to participate in these issues.
Trident should be replaced and we should have a modern version of a nuclear defence capability. I am amazed by statements by certain Labour Members calling for us to scrap the replacement of our Trident system. In this dangerous world, a United Kingdom without Trident, or a replacement for Trident, would be held to ransom by countries such as Iran. Nuclear weapons have kept the peace in Europe for more than 60 years and we must retain a nuclear arms capability. I am pleased that Gordon Brown has supported replacement
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