Previous Section Index Home Page

22 Jun 2006 : Column 1552

As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, it is important to have parliamentary scrutiny of the replacement of our nuclear capability. My vote will certainly be influenced by the options. If one option is simply to buy something from the Americans, to me that is nowhere near as attractive as having a nuclear capability primarily designed and primarily manufactured in our own country. When we have the debate, I hope that the Minister and the Government will give us the opportunity to decide between two or three options, rather than merely to vote yes or no to a new modern version of Trident.

Very little has been said about veterans, but, for me, veterans are of great importance. I draw the Minister’s attention to Polish veterans, in particular. One in six airmen in the battle of Britain was Polish. I am extremely proud of the role that my ancestors played in that. I know that people from many countries—countries that were occupied by the Germans—came and sought sanctuary in Britain in 1940 and we have to respect all of them. However, I argue—I put this point to the Minister as forcefully as I can—that the Poles have a unique and special role when it comes to foreign veterans in this country. I hope that, on future Remembrance days, those people will be acknowledged as unique, and quite apart from the French, Czechs, Dutch and others, because of the huge number who came and the courage and valour that they showed in the battle of Britain.

Mr. Robathan: I was brought up just outside London near Northolt airfield. My hon. Friend will know that there is a unique and prominent war memorial there to the Polish airmen who fought with the RAF for Britain and Poland in the last world war. I acknowledge it every time that I go by.

Daniel Kawczynski: I know the Polish nation and spoke to Polish Ministers a few weeks ago. The Polish people very much appreciate the monument that was built at Northolt to remember what they did in the second world war.

We must use our armed forces far closer to home. We have heard today about the interventions around the world in which our dedicated British armed forces are involved, but I delicately and gently suggest to the Minister that we have to use the expertise of the military to deal with some of the critical problems that we experience as an island nation in Europe. We need to try to deal with the things that matter to people.

I make no apology for raising this matter. I speak following one of the most difficult weeks that I have had as a Member of Parliament because one of my constituents—a young Shrewsbury girl—was raped by a failed asylum seeker from Africa. I am the chairman of the all-party group on Mauritania. I am appalled by the lack of financial assistance and expert training that we are giving to Mauritania and other west African countries to help them to deal with the thousands of illegal immigrants who pour from west Africa, via the port of Nouakchott in Mauritania, to the Canary Islands and ultimately the United Kingdom. Many people die on the perilous journey to the Canary Islands. There is an appalling and tragic situation right on our doorstep, but despite all the questions that I have tabled, all that has happened so far is that the European Union has sent a couple of dinky tug boats to help. Surely the Government should be doing more
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1553
about such a grave matter and using the expertise of our armed forces to help the Mauritanians to train their navy to police their waters more efficiently and thus stop the terrible human tragedy of immigration from west Africa to Europe, which causes great suffering. I make that point strongly to the Minister.

The Territorial Army is in crisis. Many personnel are leaving due to the huge pressures that are imposed on them. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) recently stated that recruitment to the TA is in crisis, and I totally agree with him. Other hon. Members have commented on the parlous state of the TA. During a debate on defence a few months ago, the then Minister rejected our concerns about the TA and assured us that numbers in the TA were rising, but that is not the case. Anyone who examines the figures will see that there is a tremendous outflow of members, so we need to do something about that.

Mr. Ellwood: I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend’s flow, because he is making a powerful speech. I went to a briefing at the Ministry of Defence about the TA and its numbers. Does he agree that it is upsetting to hear that members of the university officer training corps are now being included as part of the overall numbers for our TA, which is distorting the figures that show our true strength?

Daniel Kawczynski: I agree with my hon. Friend. That practice shows how desperate the situation is. The Government will spin it in any way they can to make the situation look better, but I have spoken to loyal members of the TA in my constituency, who have been extremely forthright—more forthright than I would have imagined—about their concerns.

Lastly, there are huge dangers in European defence co-operation across the board. The European Union wants a common defence force that would act almost as one across the entire European Union. We are the strongest military nation in the EU and we should cherry-pick our closest collaborators and partners. The Europe of 25 nation states has widely varying levels of capability. If I may say so, rather controversially, we can rely on seven countries in the European Union far more than on others to support us in combat. One of those—I do not apologise for mentioning it—is Poland. We should cherry-pick our partners and not have a common European defence force.

4.51 pm

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): I open my remarks by paying tribute to the men and women of our armed forces. Their determination, courage and sheer professionalism ensure that the quality of Britain’s armed forces is second to none in the world. It should be remembered that large numbers of the personnel deployed are members of the Territorial Army. Their involvement is vital to the scale of the commitment of British forces overseas. Our military continue to do a tremendous job, serving their country both here in the United Kingdom and in many deployments overseas.

I am sure the House will join me in acknowledging the debt we owe to all our service personnel who have lost their lives in the most recent conflicts. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and our thoughts and prayers must go to their families and friends.

22 Jun 2006 : Column 1554

It is vital to remember the harsh fact that the UK spends just 2.2 per cent. of its gross domestic product on defence. That is the lowest figure committed to our armed forces since 1930. In addition, we must remember the high cost of modern high-tech weapons systems. A modern naval destroyer may be a formidable combat asset, but no amount of high-tech wizardry can get the vessel deployed to two separate locations at the same time.

Our spend of 2.2 per cent. of GDP on defence may be low by Britain’s historic benchmark, but it is higher than that of our European partners. For example, Germany spends 1.4 per cent. of its GDP on defence, Spain 1.3 per cent. and Austria only 0.7 per cent. on defence, although it must be remembered that those nations have very limited overseas deployments. The United States of America, however, spends more than 4 per cent. of its GDP to fund its military.

We all recollect the reports of equipment shortages suffered by our troops in Iraq in 2003. Those were caused by the decision to hold off any preparation until late November 2002, four months before the start of the conflict. Ammunition, body armour and radios were among the equipment in short supply. During the war, members of 7 Parachute Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery were forced to use captured AK47s because their own SA80 rifles jammed. That was a direct result of insufficient supplies of oil to keep them functioning.

The American soldiers and marines in Iraq have access to RG-31 Nyala mine-protected vehicles which enable the crew to survive the blast of an improvised explosive device. Canadian troops deployed in Afghanistan also use RG-31s. British soldiers and Royal Marines need to make do with lightly protected Land Rovers. That is not acceptable. Shortages of vital spare parts mean that tanks, armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles are being cannibalised to keep other vehicles operational. Similar practices are used to keep aircraft operational and ships seaworthy.

Military equipment wears out, it is damaged, or it becomes obsolete, so it must be replaced. In Portsmouth, for example, there are 19 redundant warships. In too many cases, their replacements—we have heard that equipment will be replaced—have not been built or, in the case of aircraft carriers, have not even been designed. Too often in recent years, new equipment has been delivered late or over budget. In a speech at the 2001 Labour party conference, the Prime Minister promised a “strong defence capability”. The reality, however, is that the Government have delivered cuts in service personnel, aircraft, tanks and ships. There are fewer trained personnel in the British Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force than in 1997, despite a significant increase in defence commitments.

According to Lord Guthrie, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, in The Sunday Telegraph on 12 September 2004, the Army is “dangerously small”. Cuts have been made to the Territorial Army, which is at its lowest strength ever, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said. Current operations rely on the men and women of the TA, but the frequency and length of deployments discourage people from signing up to the TA, the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Government cuts in manpower and extra commitments mean that our armed forces are dangerously overstretched. In April this year, the Select
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1555
Committee on Defence report on the MOD’s annual accounts identified the overstretch in our armed forces as a cause of concern. The rules for minimum gaps between tours are breached in the Army, Navy and Air Force, and critical shortfalls in manpower have had a severe impact on specialist units.

Our military forces are being asked to do more than at any time since the second world war, as major operations have taken place almost every year since 1997. There have been new peacekeeping deployments, including one to Kosovo, and lengthy, ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased our commitments. In addition, the armed forces have had to assist in civil operations, tackling the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 and providing services during the firemen’s strike of 2002-03. It is unfair and self-defeating to keep taking personnel away from their families, and to provide unreasonably short breaks between operational tours, as that imposes an intolerable strain on family relationships and results in a far higher failure to retain experienced recruits.

Finally, I should like to touch on some personal issues. In the first Gulf conflict, I was in Israel when Saddam Hussein launched his Scud missile attacks on Tel Aviv and other Israeli towns. The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) was concerned that Saddam Hussein would not receive a fair trial. Did Saddam Hussein give a fair trial to the tens of thousands of people he massacred or to the people he gassed? He could not care less about any of his citizens. He is receiving a fairer trial than he gave anyone in his country. Iraq is a better place without Saddam Hussein, who was no great philanthropist.

I was not a Member of Parliament when the decision to go to war in Iraq was made. We must weigh up the situation. The loss of civilian life is terrible—I do not believe that anyone in any part of the House would say otherwise—but democracy allows the people to decide their own future. It is pointless to pretend that there will not be troubles along the way. Our involvement could have been better thought out, but that does not mean that it was wrong to remove a vile dictator who could not care less about his own people.

I do not pretend that my constituency is a military one, but many people have contacted me about Afghanistan and the vile trade in drugs that end up on the streets of my constituency. Charitable organisations try to stop our youngsters getting on to drugs, and if youngsters are unfortunate enough to get on to drugs, they help them with rehabilitation. The situation can only be helped by Afghanistan not exporting drugs to Europe, America and elsewhere.

Too often, we hear people condemn our troops for their actions. As has been said, however, we must recognise the tough job that our troops are doing. We are not talking about policing the streets of my constituency, although given the antisocial behaviour that sometimes takes place, perhaps that is what we need. Our troops are in an area in which they are being attacked daily. People are blowing themselves up to kill innocent civilians, and many of the deaths involve innocent civilians being killed by insurgents, who also attack our troops. I, for one, think that our troops are doing a wonderful job and that we should be proud of everything that they do rather than condemning them.

22 Jun 2006 : Column 1556

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend is making a passionate speech and pointing out some of the concerns, which many of us share, about Afghanistan. We have not covered the responsibility of Afghanistan’s neighbours to challenge the trade in narcotics. My hon. Friend has mentioned China, but does he agree that Pakistan has a role to play in preventing narcotics from being moved into the United Kingdom?

Mr. Scott: My hon. Friend has made a valuable point, and he is correct. I watched this Chamber before I was a Member of Parliament, and I have watched it since I became a Member of Parliament. I have seen politicians of all parties score political points at the expense of our wonderful troops, who protect us and defend our lives. No one wants to see civilians, whether they are in Afghanistan or Iraq, being killed, but what is done is done, and we are duty bound to make sure that Iraq and, indeed, Afghanistan are better places when we leave than when we went in. I think that we will achieve that goal, and I pray that we will. Have wrongs been committed? It is alleged that they have, and if they have, they must be looked into and rectified, but that does not make everything wrong.

In a previous life, I worked for an international charity with which I visited Ramallah. When I went into houses there, the people wanted a roof over their heads, food on the table and a peaceful existence—it is never the majority who cause the problem; it is always the minority. We can all make a difference, whether or not we agreed with the war in Iraq, and whether or not we think that we should be in Afghanistan. The people expect us to make a difference, and if we let them down, perhaps we are betraying what we are here for.

In my year in Parliament, I have not made that many speeches in this House, because I believe that unless one has something relevant to say, one should not say anything—perhaps I am unique in thinking that. However, this matter is important, which is why I am proud to speak in this debate.

In conclusion, our troops are doing a marvellous job. I hope that they are home soon for them and their families, and I hope that there are no more announcements expressing condolences to the families of troops who have lost their lives doing our work. I am proud of our troops—I am sure that everyone else is, too—and I send them my good wishes and wish them a speedy return home.

5.4 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to be called towards the end of this debate and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), who spoke thoughtfully and passionately about our debt of gratitude to our armed forces. I am sure that we all share those thoughts.

I join my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) in saying that we have had an interesting, thoughtful and provocative debate, but I am afraid that it has been far too wide ranging. We have managed to cover subjects as diverse as Army barracks, the joint strike fighter, operations in Iraq and the nuclear deterrent, not to mention all the other issues that are so important to us as individual Members or to the nation as a whole. We
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1557
cannot go into all those areas in sufficient depth in the course of one afternoon’s debate. I hope that the Minister and the usual channels will bear in mind that we need properly to analyse the decisions made by Government and scrutinised by Parliament.

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman and I have exchanged comments on this before. I take on board his general sentiments, but remind him that this is the third in a series of defence debates, with another one still to come. We try to separate out the various subject headings so that we can concentrate on one at a time. Personnel will be the next subject, while equipment was the previous one. Policy is a very wide-ranging subject. If we do not specify certain topics, Members will mention them anyway, because they talk about the things that they want to talk about.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful comment. I have a huge amount of respect for him, as he knows, but he must be aware of my views given my intervention on him at the start of the debate. The proposed subject of today’s business is defence policy and the fifth report from the Defence Committee on the UK deployment to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not solely a military topic, so representatives from the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should be here as well.

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman makes useful contributions, but I think that he has misunderstood the title of the debate, which is about defence policy. The Defence Committee has tabled its report on Afghanistan—it could have tabled any of its reports—so that becomes a subject for discussion, but the debate is about defence policy overall.

Mr. Ellwood: Either way, I think that the Minister understands my point. If we are to do justice to the important subject of Afghanistan, I should like to see not just him on the Front Bench, but his colleagues from DFID and the FCO.

One of the major topics that we have discussed this week is our nuclear deterrent capability. That came about because of the comments that the Chancellor made in his Mansion House speech last night. I found those comments very unhelpful. He sent a confusing message as to what the Government mean by long-term strategy, and a patronising message to the House of Commons about how and when debates on such subjects should occur. A decision has to be made on this important subject, and I am pleased that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench have said that we will demand a vote on it. The nation expects us to debate and to vote on it. It is sad that the Government are putting out messages here and there to satisfy—or agonise—Labour Back Benchers, instead of promoting the debate on this country’s nuclear deterrent.

We have already heard confusing messages on the subject. As the Minister will be aware, we design and make our own nuclear deterrent. The bombs are British; the American component is the delivery vehicle—the D5 missile. Without that, we obviously do not have the ability to deliver. Without the nuclear
22 Jun 2006 : Column 1558
submarines, we do not have the capacity to move the missiles. All those issues are up for debate because they have a shelf life and therefore need to be discussed in the next year or so. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will give us some idea in his winding-up speech of the official timetable, bearing in mind the Chancellor’s comments last night.

The Minister said that the debate was wide ranging and I want to consider missiles and missile capability. We talk about the subject with passion, whether or not it involves our constituents. We speak about the Royal Air Force, the Navy and the Army, but the advent of new missile technology is changing the conduct of warfare. For example, the radar systems that we now use mean that an aircraft-borne rather than a ship-based radar is required to keep our battleships safe. That is a fundamental change from the time of the Falklands war.

The Storm Shadow missile can be fired from 350 km away. If a missile can be fired from such a position, that changes warfare. It perhaps calls into question the existence of the artillery. I realise that, with that sentence, I have upset a massive chunk of the British Army, but it is a major question that we need to answer. What is the role of the artillery, given that an AS90, which is the standard artillery weapon, can fire only 15 miles, yet requires a battery of troops to provide the facility? Storm Shadow—indeed, any of the weapons systems that now exist—has changed the operational nature of what we do.

We have not held a debate about where we are going in the next five to 10 years because of changes in technology. That is the sort of debate for which I am asking the Minister.

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman should examine the debates on the consideration that we have given to future Army structure. That consideration is about restructuring the Army away from heavy into medium and light. Much re-roling is happening to deal with some of the issues that he mentioned and, importantly, to return to the Army some 3,000 posts in the specialist pinch points. Those key enablers will strengthen the Army’s capacity. That takes time, but we are investing in it.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful for that intervention, which provides some clarity. I hope that the debate will not be confined to the Army, but extend to the military as a whole.

A comment was made about disbanding the RAF. I hope that that does not happen but we must bear in mind that aircraft have been divided into two huge sections. A small or medium-sized helicopter is under the umbrella of the Army, whereas a large-scale helicopter or a fixed-wing plane is under that of the RAF. However, a commander wants to have the full array of assets under his command. He does not want to go through another operational level or a separate cell to call on those assets. We need to consider such command structures.

Next Section Index Home Page