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Mr. Ingram: I would suggest that the hon. Gentleman should not be allowed to move on, as this is an interesting debate. Can I sum up what the hon. Gentleman is saying and perhaps comment on the evolution of Liberal policy? The withdrawal strategy that the Liberals are proposing is going to be conditions-based, which is exactly the Government’s
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position. That being the case, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the Government’s position on Iraq.

Nick Harvey: Any policy will always depend on the conditions. It is part and parcel of what we have explained— [Interruption.] Right hon. and hon. Members heard what they wanted to hear rather than what was said. Of course any withdrawal from anywhere is going to be conditions-based, but our suggestion was put forward to explain to the public as much as anyone else the sort of time scale that should obtain. I do not really believe that there is much distance between the parties on this point; there are just different ways of putting it.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I would like to assist the hon. Gentleman. There is a difference in concept and we need to know which of the two he adheres to. It is the difference between setting a timetable before the conditions for withdrawal exist and getting to the eventual point, which he seems to refer to, when the conditions for withdrawal are acknowledged to exist so that a timetable to withdraw safely can be set. Which of those two is he advocating?

Nick Harvey: I say again that hon. Members may have heard what they wanted to hear. It was made perfectly clear—and I make it perfectly clear again—that all actions taken at any given time obviously depend on the conditions. What we were suggesting was an illustrative time scale of what could be achieved— [Interruption.] Be that as it may, let us look at the situation in Iraq.

As the Secretary of State described it, further progress is being made in Iraq. I welcome that and I absolutely accept that there is a difference between the prevailing security situation in the south, for which we are responsible, and the situation in Baghdad, for which the Americans are responsible. The suggestion that, because we have different views and a different anticipation of what commitments we might need to make in the future, we are somehow clashing or falling out with the Americans is simply not the point at all. I repudiate that. We are allies of the Americans—allies in what we are trying to achieve in Iraq and allies in what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan—but when Britain is so stretched in terms of our resources, I believe that we would be better able to honour that alliance by concentrating our efforts more clearly on Afghanistan in the future. I think that that is what the British public believe and certainly what our armed forces feel. The point has already been made that we should respond to what the armed forces themselves say and want—and they have made that clear to me and my colleagues again and again and again. There is no doubt whatever in my mind that that is the situation.

Before we paint too rosy a picture of what is happening in Iraq, where there have undoubtedly been some achievements, we need to recognise that the situation is still very bloody and that people are still losing their lives at an alarming rate. There is still an awfully long way to go in persuading the Iraqis that what we are trying to achieve there is actually having any sort of benign impact. Without raking over the
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whole debate about how we got into the Iraq war—we all understand which side we come from in that debate—there must surely be some acknowledgement that pre-invasion planning was lax, short-sighted and superficial and that if we had made better estimations of the domestic situation in Iraq, fewer lives might have been lost. British loss of life, tragic though it is, has been mercifully smaller than it might have been, but the loss of life among the Iraqi population has been absolutely woeful. I sometimes hear the Prime Minister moving the goal posts about the rationale for going in, and talking about regime change and how despicable Saddam was—none of which was presented as an objective at the outset. Appalling though Saddam and his killing regime were, the number of lives lost was nothing in comparison with what has happened in the four years since we went in.

We must remember that, apart from the inestimable cost in lives, the war has also cost a fortune in money. It is no wonder that our resources are so stretched. The war has cost us approximately £24 million a day, which will total £5 billion on 5 April. The huge black hole in our defence figures is therefore unsurprising.

It is essential to remember what the Baker report said about the necessity of engaging with neighbouring states. I regret that the Bush regime appears to have chosen to forget that. I have not heard as much as I would like from this country about trying to get the idea back to centre stage. It is essential that we engage and form a rapport with Iran. I agree with the hon. Member for Woodspring that, even at the height of the cold war, we sustained our efforts and dialogue with the Soviet Union. It is vital to step up and sustain our dialogue with Iran. It is also crucial to engage with Syria and other neighbouring states.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): Was my hon. Friend surprised to read in today’s newspapers that Israel had made overtures to Syria about perhaps reaching an agreement on the Golan heights, but that that rapprochement and discussion were curtailed by the Israelis because America did not want Israel to discuss anything with Syria?

Nick Harvey: If those accounts are true, it is amazingly foolish and misguided on the Americans’ part. If the Israelis had got to the point of being ready to sit down and have such discussions, what possible strategic benefit does the United States regime imagine is being served by preventing them? One can merely hazard a guess. It seems foolish.

We are in for the long haul in Afghanistan. Britain is committed to that. There is a political consensus here in favour of it and a distinction to be drawn between our actions in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We are part of a much wider coalition in Afghanistan, where we are needed. If we were not there, the Taliban would soon re-establish themselves. There is clearly much wider acceptance of the presence of foreign troops by the Afghan population than by the Iraqis, and there is nothing like the appalling death toll of Iraq.

One must not however underestimate the difficulties that we face in Afghanistan. Our forces are stretched, our funds and troops are spread in two places, our mission there requires land and air power and there is a
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serious shortage of helicopters and specialists who are needed for more technical operations.

The interesting observation was made in a letter to The Daily Telegraph a couple of weeks ago that there are more personnel from the Royal Navy than from the Army in Afghanistan. I do not know when the Navy last fought a war for us in a landlocked, mountainous country. However, the action is a credit to the Marines and the others who are fighting there at the moment. Indeed, 1,000 or so of my constituents are serving there until April. I hear from them directly and their families the genuine difficulties that they encounter.

Some of the reporting of the shortages is misguided and some points get exaggerated. However, there is no doubt that, on arriving in the autumn, troops were shocked to discover how bad some of the equipment at their disposal was and the amount of cannibalisation of parts that had taken place. The Taliban have proved to be an effective adversary: they know the terrain, and if we leave them unchallenged, they will return in great numbers. They retreat into the hills over the winter months, and from previous experience we know that there is a real risk of their coming back and making themselves known in the spring. The peace will not come easily, and the nation building that will be needed to make Afghanistan secure and stable for the long term will take many years.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): On equipment shortages, would the hon. Gentleman expand on what equipment we are short of?

Nick Harvey: Armoured vehicles and helicopters are two of the most obvious examples. The helicopter situation has been well rehearsed— [Interruption.] I did not say anything about body armour. Clearly, there are not only shortages; according to the accounts that I have heard, the condition of some equipment is at full stretch. I acknowledged that some of the reporting has been exaggerated and misguided, but it is equally important that the problems should not be swept under the carpet. No rational person doubts that there are such problems.

Mr. Lancaster: While I accept that there has been some debate about whether certain items of equipment should be provided, I have no complaints, having served in Afghanistan, about the condition of the equipment that I was given.

Nick Harvey: I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I am relaying accounts that have come direct to me from constituents who went out to begin their action in September. They were prepared for what would be coming their way by the accounts that they had heard and read, and they reported to me that, in many respects, things were not as bad as they had expected. The state of the equipment handed over to them, however, had been worse than even the worst case scenarios had led them to expect.

Mr. Breed: I was in Kandahar last summer, as were other Members, and many of the shortages were not necessarily of the sort of equipment that perhaps the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) was using day to day, but of vital parts
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for aircraft repair and maintenance, for which there were long waits. To give a good example, one of the Nimrods went out with an instrument missing—a risk assessment was taken before it did so—while we were in Oman. That sort of equipment is not coming down the line quickly enough.

Nick Harvey: The example given by my hon. Friend is consistent with the sort of accounts relayed to me. There is no point in anyone pretending that all is as it could be, because that is not correct. It would be altogether more constructive to be candid about the matter, to face up to the fact that there are shortages in certain areas, and to take all steps possible to do something about that.

I applaud the efforts of our fighting men and women in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. We should be proud of what they are doing. Given that the operation might go on for 10 or 15 years, I share the concern that the current balance of relative responsibility accepted by different NATO member states is not sustainable. We will have to keep campaigning for other NATO member states to make a more serious commitment to help us to achieve what is necessary over the long haul.

We need more resources for our armed forces. We can see clearly where some of the pinch points are coming. We have heard recently about forces’ housing, which has a significant impact on service families. We know that the more frequent call to deployment than should be the case is taking its toll on families and on children’s education. When people come back from deployment needing treatment for something dramatic, the medical services available for them are absolutely first-class. However, the longer-term after care available for physical, mental and psychological problems is a long way from what it should be and from what we would want it to be. That is not to knock the efforts of any of those who are involved in providing those services, but rather to acknowledge that there is a long way to go.

On the forthcoming debate in the House on Trident, when the Conservative Government came to the Dispatch Box with the proposal to go ahead with the current Trident system, it was after the research and design work had been done. They had a clear proposal of what the system was going to entail, what it was going to cost and when it was going to come into service. It is to this Government’s credit that they have been much more open this time around at a much earlier stage. At the same stage in the mid-1970s, the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary ordered all the initial work without sharing the information with their Cabinet, much less publishing a White Paper and sharing it with the country.

I welcome the fact that we have had a White Paper and that it has been put into the public domain, but even on the basis of the White Paper, the Government are not anticipating a main gate final decision until about 2012 or 2014. Do they believe that Parliament’s debate in March this year is meant to be the last say, or will it be the first say and they expect it to come back here for a decision later? The world can change a great deal in five or seven years, and Parliament should be able to take a view in the future when it knows exactly what it is that it is being asked to take a view on.

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3.1 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): The British armed forces make a huge contribution to international efforts to improve security and peace around the world. When all the press coverage focuses on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to forget that there are also significant deployments of our forces in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Cyprus. It is not just on major operations that our armed forced make a valuable contribution. They also provide massive support in terms of peacekeeping, training and advice to other countries around the world. As I have said time and again, we owe our servicemen and women a debt of gratitude, and I join right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House in paying tribute to the courage, dedication and professionalism of Britain’s armed forces.

Joining the armed forces is a special commitment; it is not like taking up a job with Tesco or Barclays bank. When people join Britain’s armed forces, they are joining an organisation that at some time may ask them to put their life on the line in the defence of the country. I took the view when I was a Defence Minister that we should demonstrate how much we value the whole defence family, which hon. Members have touched on. We should demonstrate that we value our servicemen and women, our reserves and their employers, our cadets, our veterans, their widows and all the families associated with them in that way. In particular, the care and support that we give our veterans who have served our country around the globe over many generations is very important.

I have been greatly encouraged by the fact that 160 Members have signed early-day motion 356, calling on the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals to reverse the advice which denies 35,000 British servicemen who served in Malaysia the right to wear the Pinjat Jasa Malaysia medal. I hope that more right hon. and hon. Members will sign it.

The Secretary of State gave a wide picture of defence in the world, and the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) was right when he said that in defence terms we have always sought, as much as we can, to be bipartisan in our approach. I want to focus my remarks on the care and support that we give our servicemen and women and those who leave the services having served our country around the world.

Ex-servicemen and women become veterans the moment they leave the armed forces. It is important that we remind the public of the contribution that they have made. At the same time, we must ensure that the veterans who have served our country know that help, advice and support are available, and in my view that should be available for the rest of their lives.

For me, the bedrock of that is the work done by the Veterans Agency. I should like it to become the first point of contact in giving information, help and advice on issues of concern to veterans and their families. The agency does a superb job. Its work includes giving welfare advice, and its helpline on 0800 169 2277—I have been to the headquarters and listened to calls—gives tremendous support to those who have served Britain over the years.

I welcomed a Ministry of Defence initiative to pilot an advertising campaign promoting the work of the
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Veterans Agency so that those who serve in our forces, and those who have already left, know that there is a point of contact for them to receive help and support. Our ambition should be to make the agency as well known to the British public as, say, the BBC.

The health and well-being of servicemen and women is of the utmost importance. Our forces deployed around the globe deserve only the best. I pay tribute to the tremendous job done by Defence Medical Services in ensuring that those who serve on the front line, in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else, receive world-class medical care and treatment. Its personnel serve alongside our troops wherever they are deployed, and work alongside colleagues in the national health service to great effect. I saw that for myself when I visited the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at Selly Oak.

Jim Sheridan: No one would deny what my right hon. Friend has done in promoting the work of the Veterans Agency, but does he agree that it is the voluntary sector that takes care of disabled ex-service people? An example is Erskine, in my constituency. The work of the voluntary sector in looking after people who are disabled as a result of conflict is one of the imponderables of life.

Mr. Touhig: Indeed. No matter how good the Government think they are—or local government think it is—at delivering services, without the voluntary sector in Britain many people’s quality of life would not be as good as it is. I pay tribute to those who work in that sector.

When I visited Selly Oak I met NHS personnel, and we saw a field hospital in operation. Every member of the NHS to whom I spoke was greatly impressed by the way in which Defence Medical Services takes medical support, help and care to our services in the front line. However, I am concerned about the increasing gaps in Defence Medical Services personnel, and the pressure to call up medical reservists working in the NHS.

I know that recruitment is always a challenge for the armed forces at a time when our economy is strong, especially when we need more staff for Defence Medical Services. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give us some idea of what the Department is doing to fill the gaps, because those Defence Medical Services personnel are very important to the support and sustenance of our troops, wherever they may be serving.

There is common consent that troops on operations around the world receive first-class care and attention, and it goes without saying that that is crucial to their well-being. It is long-established practice, however, that responsibility for the medical care of ex-servicemen and women passes to the NHS. I do not detract from the wonderful work that the NHS does, but I think we should do more. That is relevant to what was said by my hon. Friend about the voluntary services. If we truly value the men and women who are currently serving around the world in support of Britain, when they become veterans they should be able to receive specialised medical provision when they need it, and in my view that service should be provided by the Ministry of Defence. It is important for Defence Medical Services to continue treatment and support
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after service when people are demobilised, in partnership with the NHS.

I know that there is a view in the MOD that our servicemen and women can obtain priority treatment in the NHS when they have left the services, but I see little evidence of that in practice. I know how difficult it can be. One way in which the MOD could provide aftercare is through the reserves mental health programme, details of which were announced by my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), Under-Secretary of State for Defence and Minister responsible for veterans, in a statement to the House on 21 November 2006. The programme is open to any current or former member of our volunteer or regular reserves who has been demobilised since 1 January 2003 following overseas operational deployment, and who believes that it may have adversely affected his health. He can ask his GP to refer him to the programme. The GP is then kept informed of the individual’s progress to ensure that both he and RMHP staff are in possession of all the facts about the individual’s continuing health needs.

That was a groundbreaking development, but although it is a step in the right direction I believe that we should go further. I would like to hear that the Ministry of Defence is progressing work to offer that after-care to veterans who have been in the regular forces. I looked into that when I was in the Department and I know the difficulties and problems involved, but I hope that that work is being progressed.

Many Members will be aware of the excellent work done by Combat Stress. It does tremendous work in supporting veterans suffering from psychological disability as a result of their service in the British armed forces around the world. I recently spent some time with one of the workers for that charity, visiting veterans in my constituency; some of them are in their 20s, and they are suffering terribly as a result of incidents that took place during their service in the British armed forces.

I was hugely impressed by the commitment of Combat Stress, and I praise the MOD, which provides about £2 million a year to help it; it is worth every penny of that. However, it is time that the Government took on the ongoing role of supporting those who have left our armed forces. To do that would send a good message to those currently serving Britain on the front line around the world. Such work could, perhaps, be done in partnership with Combat Stress.

In terms of the issues that I have touched on, benefit would be gained from there being a much enhanced Department for Veterans with a wider remit to take responsibility for veterans’ health care and welfare and employment issues, and to ensure that the Veterans Agency becomes the first point of contact when people need help after demobilisation. Again, if that were done it would send a good message of care and support to our troops around the world.

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