My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) touched once again on his concerns about the decision to invade Iraq, but he was absolutely resolute on the vital importance of not reducing our military commitment in Afghanistan. He said that once we decide to go somewhere we must stay, and that sending
signals about withdrawals and timetables would be the worst possible thing that could be done for the welfare and safety of our forces.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) made a very strong speech. She made a robust defence of the armed forces in Iraq and touched on the role of the mediaan issue to which, if I have time, I shall return at the end. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who is Chairman of the Defence Committee, said that the Chancellor had repeated the Labour manifesto commitment on defence. He also raised the important issue of whether the Chancellor proposes to put his money where his mouth is, if he does indeed intend that the nuclear deterrent should be replaced, by funding it separately.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) asked a series of penetrating questions; I am glad that I do not have time to attempt to answer them all. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)I was sorry not to be present when he made his speechstressed, typically robustly, the need for senior officers to stand up for their troops.
My hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) illustrated something that is very true about life in this Chamber: when Members put aside their prepared speeches and speak from the heart about a topic that really excites and inspires them, they can hold the House in the palm of their hand. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) is a persistent campaigner on defence issues andbe it votes on Trident, roles for Typhoon or narcotics in Afghanistantoday was no exception.
My final point relates to the situation in Iraq, where a process of competing political will is being undertaken. I return, as I said I would, to the reference that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North made to the media. Over the 50 years of the cold war, we saw that political will was as important as actual military capability. The attempts that are being made in Iraq to break the political will of coalition forces are indeed being fuelled by selective media reports. There is an answer. The Government need a media strategy to ensure that propaganda from those who sympathise with the insurgents and the terrorists is matched by hard facts from the coalition forces, ably disseminated. I am not yet convinced that the Government have fully got their act together. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister can reassure me.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): We have had a wide-ranging debate on defence policy. I point out to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) that we have indeed had a proper discussion, although I note that we shall not conclude it with a vote.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces introduced the debate by talking about aspects of our broader defence and security policy, including the defence industrial strategy, arms control and the role of international institutions. He set out future challenges and how we see our policy evolving to deal with them.
Many Members made great contributions to the debate and first out of the trap was the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who asked us to confirm which nations are currently posted in Helmand province. Denmark and Estonia are currently there.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about service accommodation in Colchester, but since he is not here, I will not give the House a detailed response. I am sure that he will catch me at some appropriate point so that I can fill him in on the detail.
My good and hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) distinguished himself, as ever, by standing out against the crowd. Nothing has really changed, in that he and I probably disagree on absolutely everything he said, except when he quoted President Karzai saying that we need to support the institutions of civic society in Afghanistan. President Karzai has also said we need to deal with narcotics and terrorism, which are the biggest threats to those civic institutions, a theme echoed in the considered contribution of the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot).
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) has distinguished himself by making a big impact in the House in just 12 months. He talked about the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Like others, his experience on the scheme has clearly given him an idea of the front-line issues that our forces face. Tribute was paid to Sir Neil Thorne and we would all agree he does an excellent job in administering both the armed forces and the police schemes. When I completed the police scheme, I gained some understanding of the pressures gone through by people on the front line in the forces and the police. So much of what they do involves split-second decisions, and we can understand that mistakes are made. The schemes assist all Members, particularly those with civilian backgrounds, on the common problems faced by our three services.
My hon. Friend also talked about improvements in our service peoples kit. I was pleasantly surprised to visit Chilwell last week, where we prepare our reservists for mobilisation. The difference over even the last five years in the kit with which they are issued is remarkable. It would be a great fashion item in West Bromwich high streetthe services need to keep an eye on where the stuff goesbecause it is so well designed now, not just to be practical but to be quite fashionable.
The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) made his usual wise contribution. Much of what he said about what we have to do in Afghanistan was endorsed by many Members. He made a point about the Ministry of Defence having no friends, but I am not quite sure that was the case in the debate, although the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) probably has no friends left at the MOD
Daniel Kawczynski: I am not known for making personal comments in the Chamber, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that the defence forces cannot have many friends among the Liberal Democrats as only one Lib Dem has been present during the debate?
The contributions of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea must always be observed. He has many protégées, one of whom is standing for election in Blaenau Gwent today. I know he would want me to remind him of her views on Trident. She has expressed great concern about the future of Trident and about the wisdom of our current campaign in Iraq. I guess those points have to be made on a Thursday.
Mr. Gerald Howarth: I am grateful to the Minister for giving the House that information. Can he confirm the following pointif he cannot do so immediately, I am sure that his right hon. Friend the Minister of State will be able to assist him? Before the delivery of the new helicopters, will the current fleet of Royal Navy Lynxes be upgraded in the meantime, because they are seriously overworked? [ Interruption. ]
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) talked movingly about her recent visit to Iraq and stood up for the Navy in Portsmouth. I am sure that all serving personnel in Portsmouth will have been gratified by her words. Members of the Navy can turn their hand to anything. They are not only deployed on current operations but deal with hurricane relief and do important counter-narcotics work in the Caribbean, which I am told is a particularly attractive posting.
My hon. Friend also stood up for her mechanics. A key challenge of my defence brief is to make sure that our serving personnel, who have great skills and are trained to do remarkable things, almost day in, day out, can transfer those skills to civilian life. Sometimes, however, we cannot commoditise those skills into the certificates needed for particular jobs. She raised a good point about the mechanics and I invite her to talk to me about it to see if we can apply some clarity to the situation.
Our service personnel are extremely employable. I was amazed to read that 95 per cent. of them find jobs within six months of leaving the services. Our challenge is to make sure that the remaining 5 per cent. have as much support as possible.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) put a large number of questions, so I hope he will allow me to canter through just some of them. He talked about harmony and pinch points. Over the last year, the number of regular armed forces deployed on operations has fallen to about 18 per cent., but there are pinch
points and we are trying to deal with them. We are trying to target recruitment in particular areas, and we are looking at financial retention and re-engagementincentives, flexibility in the rank employed for some posts and how we mobilise reservists, as well as some contractualisation.
The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire made a characteristically wise and assured contribution. He raised many wise points. I look forward to his report on strategic nuclear defence next Friday. If it has already gone to the printers, I wonder whether there will be any addendums. I was delighted that he is delighted with the Chancellors commitment reported in the press today. I shall be joining the Chancellor at a veterans event this evening and I will make forcefully the right hon. Gentlemans point about the need for adequate resources to cover the demands. I am sure that, given the Chancellors recent pronouncements, he will want to listen to the Chairman of the Defence Committee with great interest. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Vector vehicle. It is not planned to be available until next March, but it is planned to be deployed with 12 Mechanised Brigade.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) fired off 30 or 40 points that the MOD should be considering over the next few years. It was a powerful contribution. He raised some serious questions that the UK will have to address in future years. In particular, there were his ideas for a department of military planning, the question of whether we are best served by three intelligence services and, perhaps most controversially in the Department, the question of whether we need three services. He commented that someone had suggested that we should abolish the RAF. There are no plans to do that
Mr. Watson: I know that the hon. Gentleman did not say that we should abolish the RAF. He said that someone else had said it. There is a point about how we deal with some of the service issues on a tri-service basis. One of the key challenges that we will have to take on in the next few years is to how we train our personnel. The defence training review will look at how we can provide basic training and specialist training on a tri-service basis.
The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) made an uncharacteristically unfair contribution, although a characteristically robust one. I expect nothing less of a revered Whip. The position that he holds in the Whips Office suggests that perhaps he should engage a little less with such allegations. The comment that he made about the Deputy Prime Minister when the Deputy Prime Minister was not in the Chamber was simply disgraceful, particularly given that he had to apologise to General Jackson for a previous allegation that he made.
Mr. Robathan: What I said earlier was not an allegation; it was a statement of fact and I can back it up with witnesses. If the Deputy Prime Minister wishes to sayas he hasthat all soldiers are boneheads, that is a substantial accusation that he should answer. That should not result in an accusation against me for stating a fact.
Mr. Watson: The hon. Gentleman has made that allegation twice and the Deputy Prime Minister is not here to defend himself [ Interruption. ] He is not here to defend himself. Given that the hon. Gentleman is an Opposition deputy Chief Whip, I thought that the comments that he made on the Chiefs of the Defence Staff were frankly outrageous. I am sure that they do not reflect the view of Opposition Front-Bench Members.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) spoke up for his constituents in his usual way. He spoke honestly and movingly about their views. He made a particular point about our Polish veterans and I was pleased that he did, because I come from Kidderminster, which is not too far away from his constituency and has a strong Polish community. Many members of that community served in the war and have a distinguished record. I am glad that he has given me the opportunity to get my thanks to them on the record. I am going to come out with a world first and praise a Liberal councillor, Mike Oborski, who has been a powerful advocate for Polish veterans over many decades. I glad that we can recognise the work that he does in Kidderminster and in England.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the Territorial Army and said that it was in crisis. I do not want to spend too much time focusing on the TA. There is a debate in two weeks time on personnel issues and perhaps we can explore the matter in more detail then. The TA has undergone great change in recent years. The Duke of Westminster, whom I did not know before I was appointed to my post, is a really inspiring leader for the organisation. He is literally thinking some unthinkable thoughts about how we can take on some of the challenges that the TA faces in the years to come.
The speech made by the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) reminded me of Englands first game in the World cup, albeit in reverse, in that the second half was inspirational. He made powerful points and held the attention of the House, especially when he spoke about Saddam Hussein and the way in which he treated his people and the people of Israel. The hon. Gentleman made the point that if Iraq is a better place when we leave than it was when we went in, our job will have been done. I think that we can all agree on that.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) made a wide-ranging contribution and I shall try to capture all his comments if I can. I take his point about the need for the Typhoon aircraft to have an air-to-ground capability. The redesign is taking place, although we have to work with our partners to get that done as quickly as possible.
Like several hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman talked about the need to win the propaganda war in Afghanistan. I absolutely agree with him. We need to ensure that our outreach programmes in Helmand province are right and that they have an Afghan front-facing approach.
Mr. Ellwood: I was not so much talking about the propaganda warperhaps another hon. Member mentioned thatbut trying to point out that there is no co-ordination on infrastructure, rebuilding and development. There is a call for an administrator to govern all that and oversee the money that comes in.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about how the counter-narcotics operation will be conducted. Several hon. Members touched on the need to get that operation right, because if we get it wrong, the area will become more insecure than secure. If the operation is going to be right, it will need an Afghan lead. We must be careful about the way in which we implement the strategy, as many hon. Members said.
Harry Cohen: When I quoted Stop the War as saying that a death occurs every hour in Basra, the Minister intervened to ask where it got its figureshe was casting aspersions on Stop the War with that comment. I have looked it up. The information came from an article in The Independent of 17 May by Patrick Cockburn, who was in Arbil, which said:
Majid al-Sari, an adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, describing the situation in Basra to the daily al-Zaman, said that on average one person was being assassinated every hour.
Mr. Watson: When I intervened on my hon. Friend, I simply knew that he would leave the Chamber and spend night and day trying to find the source of the quote. However, he will know that it is almost impossible that I am going to apologise to Stop the War, given the campaign that it is running to undermine our British forces abroad. Its behaviour undermines confidence in our services, so I will not take up his offer to apologise on this occasion.
In closing the debate, I want to make two points, although I will have to cut them down. First, we need to ensure that our people, who do a magnificent job, are properly looked after. Secondly, we need to ensure that they have the equipment that they need to do the difficult and dangerous things that we ask of them. Our success depends above all else on our personnel. I am sure that hon. Members will wish to join me in once again paying tribute to the courage and professionalism of the men and women of our armed forcesboth regulars and reserves. Those extraordinary people are doing extraordinary things in the most challenging circumstances. They are making a unique and valuable contribution to help to bring peace and security to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the world. I know that our debate will have reassured them that we have their best interests at heart and are all working to ensure that they have the finest support from the British Parliament.