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There is such a Department in the United States of America. Since 1989 the Department of Veterans Affairs has had a Cabinet-level position in the US Government. I am not suggesting that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should engage in a reshuffle at the current time, or that we follow the American example, but I know from my own experience that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who is the
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Minister for veterans, is responsible for everything from the Met Office to the Hydrographic Office, from MOD police to low-flying aircraft, and from recruitment and training to reserves and cadets.

The Government have done a great deal to demonstrate that we value the 10 million people in the veterans community. We created the first ever veterans Minister, but it is time that we take the next step and create a Department for Veterans Affairs. In terms of the wider debate, I hope that that would send a positive message to the men and women serving in the British armed forces around the world that when they return to this country, they and their families will be cared for, and that that care will be ongoing—that as long as they need that we will be there for them, as they are currently there for us.

3.12 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) has just done an extremely good job in singing the praises of the help that is available to those outstanding men and women who have served their country. I commend him for the work that he did when he was in government to improve those services, and I commend the Veterans Agency for the work that it does.

Members who serve on the Defence Committee are very lucky because we have the chance to visit our troops in the theatres where they are deployed. Although we read in our newspapers stories of poor equipment and demoralised men and women, we have the good fortune to see the reality. There are problems—as the Secretary of State was the first to acknowledge. We on the Defence Committee consider there to be problems with strategic lift. When we were in Iraq, we experienced problems both with lift and with armoured vehicles—those that we have there are old and hot.

The pressure on our armed forces leads to all sorts of pressures in terms of reductions in training. On that point, I congratulate the Secretary of State on his constructive response to my concerns about the future of Bordon as a result of the defence training review. It is essential that the Ministry of Defence works closely with the community of Bordon to ensure that that review is good for it as well as for the MOD. I thank the Secretary of State for assuring me that it will be.

Despite all the problems that we have read about in the newspapers, when we visit our troops in theatre, we meet people of quite extraordinary quality and with very high morale, because of the way that they are led, the job that they are doing and the fact that they are extraordinarily busy. They also have better personal equipment than they have ever had, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) confirmed in his intervention on the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). The disparities between personal equipment and larger equipment are the reconciliation of the little debate that they had. Our troops are not only the best in the world; they are, I believe, the last remaining institution in this country that has the deep respect of the country and of the world, so they must be doing something right.

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Last June, the Defence Committee visited Iraq—we debated that last week, so I will not spend too long on it—and we were most impressed by the work being done in Basra then by the 20th Armoured Brigade and others. There is a real difference between Multi-National Division (South-East) Basra, and the rest of Iraq. We came away with the impression that the south-east of Iraq is not a hopeless case. The Iraqi 10th division was rapidly becoming more capable, and it should be possible to hand over more responsibility to it and to be confident that it will acquit itself well.

I welcome what the Secretary of State said today about the remarks last week of Ambassador Khalilzad, who reminded us all that we have two roles. One is to run MND (South-East) and to hand it over as soon as is feasible to the Iraqis; but the other is as a coalition partner of the United States. For that reason, in that latter role the Defence Committee visited not only Basra but Baghdad. Again, we came away with the conclusion that the situation in Baghdad and in Iraq as a whole was not hopeless. We were impressed by the courage and determination of the politicians there, especially those who have been targeted and who have lost family members to terrorism in Iraq. They want to run Iraq themselves and they want to do it well; we must give them that opportunity. The question must be whether they are going to be able to do so.

I am not convinced that the United States’ plan is going to succeed. I am not convinced that 20,000 extra troops will be enough to cure the grievous mistakes that were made in the first two years. I am not convinced that the plan is supported even in the United States of America, let alone in Iraq. I am dismayed by the wholly different tones of the Iraq study group report and of the Kagan report, on which the United States’ plan has clearly been based. I am confused by the British Government’s support of both. How can one run a coalition when there is such a completely different approach to constructive engagement with Iran and with Syria? I do not know the answer to that question, and we do not get one by simply pretending that there is no difference. There is one thing that I am absolutely sure of: we should not be committed to an arbitrary date for the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, notwithstanding the utterly charming and delightful defence of his position by the hon. Member for North Devon. I gather that we have now moved to an illustrative timetable for leaving Iraq.

The Defence Committee also visited Afghanistan, last July. Again, we met some extraordinarily impressive British people serving their country, not only in the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps and the 16th Air Assault Brigade, but—crucially to the efforts of our forces in Helmand—the wonderful Chinook crews based in my constituency in Odiham. We also met the Apache crews. I am pleased to say that I had a hand in buying those fantastic helicopters some years ago. Little did we think that they would be pressed into the role of tactical lift helicopters, as we saw in that outstanding attack on the Taliban stronghold. That is only one example of the imagination and courage shown day in and day out by British men and women in theatre.

In our report, we express concerns about national caveats from NATO rules of engagement. I repeat
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those concerns now. We expressed concerns about the commitment of other NATO allies towards an engagement for which they voted. I repeat those concerns now. My Committee will hold an inquiry into NATO to see whether it is doing as well as it could and what its future might be. I hope that we might be able to fill the gaps left by the Riga summit, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring rightly referred. The Committee expressed scepticism that rebuilding Afghanistan could be achieved within three years. I do not express that scepticism now: it has turned to utter disbelief.

For all of those reasons and more, we will hold a second inquiry into the deployment to Afghanistan this year. To put it in a nutshell, I am becoming increasingly worried that we are trying to bring to Afghanistan the concept of the rule of law and of central government, concepts that the country has never actually had or wanted. We are trying to do that at the same time as we are destroying the livelihood of many Afghans. That is not a recipe for success, and we see the consequences in the radicalisation of British youth here at home. There is no sense of any co-ordinated campaign plan to win the hearts and minds of people in Afghanistan, Iraq or even in the United Kingdom.

On the way to Afghanistan, we also visited Pakistan, where I was left with one strong impression. It is all very well for us to criticise Pakistan for not doing enough to bear down on the Taliban, but the border is porous because, decades ago, the British insisted that it should be. It cannot be closed now because Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot agree on the line, so Afghanistan will not allow the fencing of the border that Pakistan has proposed. Pakistan has also deployed and lost more troops than the whole of the rest of the coalition put together. So before we insist on President Musharraf submitting himself to yet further assassination attempts, let us appreciate what he is up against and what he has already done.

British troops are deployed not only in Iraq and Afghanistan. The right hon. Member for Islwyn mentioned the fact that they are deployed all over the world, including in Cyprus, which the Committee also visited. A tour in Cyprus is widely regarded as a sunshine tour. All I can say is that we arrived in Cyprus in pouring rain. We visited soldiers who were part of the theatre reserve battalion who were either just back from or just about to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. Our forces serving with the UN were living in appalling accommodation, doing their best to solve a truly intractable problem. The countries involved should get a grip of themselves and stop putting burdens on the rest of the international community. It is no sunshine tour.

Of central importance to our future defence is the subject raised by the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown)—the decision on the strategic nuclear deterrent. My Committee is engaged in the third of its inquiries into that issue, this one on the Government’s White Paper. We intend to produce a report in time to inform the debate in the House, which we expect to have in March. As I said at the beginning of my speech, the Defence Committee is very lucky. We are truly busy, and likely to remain so.

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3.25 pm

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): First, I want to add my voice to the House’s expressions of admiration for our servicemen and women, both those who are in the field now and those who were active in the past. It is important to put that on the record, because it is often assumed that those of us who take a view different from the consensus evident in the House are somehow less patriotic or supportive of our armed forces. That is patently not true.

I urge the House to look at the amendment that was tabled to the motion for the war in Iraq. I wrote that amendment, and had the honour of moving it in this House. People tend to remember the first half of the amendment but not the second, which extended our support for and recognition of the courage and dedication of our professional servicemen and women. It is important that that be recalled.

This debate is entitled “Defence in the World”. I cannot think of a more euphemistic misnomer, especially given that the Secretary of State’s contribution seemed to revolve around the offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Afghanistan deployment was legitimate and received international approval, but all of us now know in our heart of hearts that the Iraq offensive was an illegal campaign to effect regime change—an action specifically outlawed under the UN charter. Perhaps we can debate that on another day, but I am sure that that is view taken by the majority of people.

I hope that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) does not take exception when I say that the tone of his remarks when he described the threat posed by Russia and Iran reminded me a little of Dr. Strangelove. I endorse what various other hon. Members said when they pointed out that Iran, which is increasingly besieged by nuclear power nations, does not share the British perspective on the matter. Again, Russia sees NATO encroaching further into the east and the US establishing a string of bases around its southern flank, so it is not surprising that it does not feel especially sanguine about the disarmament that the rest of us aspire to.

Most of all, I want to speak about the Trident programme. I was disappointed that the Secretary of State devoted only 2 minutes of his 51-minute speech to that programme. I understood the reasons that he gave, even though they had to be prompted by an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). Without that intervention the Secretary of State would not have mentioned Trident at all, but it is too important a matter for us to pass over lightly, although we had a debate on it recently.

The report from the Defence Committee published last June said that there was no need to embark on the Trident programme before 2014, and that matters were being undertaken with undue haste. I have read the White Paper a couple of times and, like a lot of people, was rather confused by the arguments being presented. However, I held in mind what the Prime Minister told the House on the subject. He said:

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The Prime Minister was absolutely right, and I could not disagree with that sentiment. However, in reply to a question from me he said that he relies heavily on experts. We all have to do that, but it is a commonplace to say that one man’s expert is another man’s dupe. There are certainly plenty of both around, so I went to my own experts. I sent each a copy of the White Paper and asked them what they made of it.

I should be happy to share with Ministers the response that they produced, although they may feel that it is beneath them. The seven-page reply to the White Paper, entitled “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent”, was written by four people: Dick Garwin, who was in the House recently and chaired the President’s Science Advisory Committee; Philip Coyle, Assistant Secretary of Defence and director for operational testing and evaluation; Ted A. Postol, the scientific adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations and the man who instituted the Trident II programme; and Frank von Hippel, who was Assistant Director for National Security of the White House Office of Science and Technology. Their credentials stand up to scrutiny, even for someone like me. They went through the arguments in the White Paper and made, in my view, extremely valid points which even I, a layman, can understand.

In summary, the reply concluded that the decision on Trident was premature. That echoes in part the June 2006 report of the Defence Committee. The reasons are straightforward and simple to understand. First, it is argued that the lifespan of the existing submarines is longer than presented because of operational changes that have taken place since the cold war. If equipment designed to last 30 years on the basis that it may be at sea for 18 months in every five years is at sea for only 12 months in every five years, obviously the stresses and strains will be reduced. Secondly, when the Government talk about the lifespan of the Vanguard class submarines, which are the platform for Trident missiles, they have changed the goalposts. Now they speak of a lifespan of 25 years with perhaps a further five. It has been asked whether the vessels can last longer if they are refitted. The answer is no, the Vanguard class cannot have its lifespan extended. It has been pointed out that the Ohio class submarines, which do a similar job, can have their lifespan extended by up to 30 years, so somehow there must be different laws of physics.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Not true.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Those words are not mine, but those of the scientists. The hon. Gentleman may speak from a sedentary position, but I shall not attempt to gainsay what the scientists say about the effect that decreased operational times have on corrosion on the hull.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I am listening to my hon. Friend carefully. May I suggest that he wait for our next report, which goes into this matter in detail? May I point out, however, that the Ohio class and Trafalgar class are different designs, and that the American operational methodology—that is, the time for which they are deployed—is different from ours?

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Mr. Kilfoyle: I accept that difference. By the way, I made a slip of the tongue. The extension is from 30 to 44 years, not an extension of 30 years, for the Ohio class. Nevertheless, that is a considerable extension.

There are arguments about replacing parts. There is a cogent response about steam generators, for example. It is cheaper to change parts than to change the whole vessel. What I do not understand is this: if the strategic objectives of the submarines and their missiles have not changed, in extremis could we not just replicate the same design? Could we not just have a replacement consisting of a second generation of Vanguard submarines if it is necessary, which I do not believe it is? Why do we have to design a new submarine and a whole new fleet at an exorbitant cost? If, in accepting the comments of my hon. Friend about the report that is to come, we put the tender out to BAE Systems, which produced the last submarine, yet its technical specification does not match up to the advanced specifications of older American submarines, would it not be foolish to have the same company making the same product when we know it will be inferior? The real question is: why are we being forced into an early decision? Do we have to decide now? No.

Mr. Ellwood: I had the opportunity to visit HMS Vanguard only a week ago, and it was clear that much of the equipment on board the submarine had had to be replaced within its lifespan. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, we could build the same thing again—but would we want to, when technology has moved forward? We can cut into a hull and replace a steam generator or a nuclear reactor, but it would probably cost more than building a new vessel.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am grateful to accept the hon. Gentleman’s advice. It adds strength to my argument: we need much wider debate before we rush in and make a decision. I do not say that as a member of CND like my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown). I have never been a member of CND—it is bad enough keeping up with the Labour party, never mind CND—but we need to engage in debate.

Why are we being pushed into an early decision? I may be a little paranoid, but I see a Prime Minister who has been supportive of the defence establishment coming to the end of his term of office, and I see pressure being brought to bear on him by the industrial military establishment to get the decision through now. That establishment knows full well that a successor Prime Minister might take a more enlightened view—in my opinion—of what is needed for a British nuclear deterrent. That does not mean that there will be no deterrent, but that all other options will be explored, so that people are not bounced into a decision that they may come to regret.

3.36 pm

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): Much as I would like to speak about strategic and procurement issues, I shall defer that to another occasion, because I want to talk about personnel—the men and women in the armed forces. Everyone is unstinting in their praise of those who serve in the armed forces. I was fortunate enough
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to be a member of the Defence Committee for a while, and like its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who is in the Chamber, I very much enjoyed visiting our service personnel and was impressed by their work. They are outstanding.

The civilian world has moved on, but the armed forces world has not done so to the same extent. Doctors who used to work in the evenings and at nights and weekends no longer do so. The working time directive limits the working hours of heavy goods vehicle drivers. Health and safety rules mean that, to assist baggage handling, there are limits on the individual items that can be carried on board aircraft. In many ways the civilian world has become a more regulated and protected place.

The armed forces, however, have not become better regulated or better protected at all. When there is an emergency, health and safety go out of the window and the working time directives has to be forgotten. I recall a visit to troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina shortly after they had moved into Vitez. We were impressed by the brilliant job they were doing; their living accommodation impressed us in a different way—it was appalling, and we admired the resilience with which the troops withstood their abominable living and working conditions.

A year later the Defence Committee was back in Vitez, but the living conditions had not changed at all. We were disappointed about that and told the armed forces that they must give higher priority to the living conditions of their men. By that time the Dutch had turned up, and were living in perfectly acceptable accommodation—it even had flower beds outside—whereas our people were in exactly the same accommodation as before.

In parts of the armed forces there seems to be a feeling that it is a sign of virility that troops can put up with almost any conditions. In Northern Ireland, for instance, living accommodation for our troops was absolutely abominable, in many cases. One of the reasons given for not improving it was that it would give a misleading signal to the local population—that we intended our troops to stay in Northern Ireland to assist the civil powers for a long time—so we needed to keep the accommodation as bad as it was to show that we were intending to leave. The idea that real men do not notice whether they live in a slum is wrong, and it is not the right thinking for the 21st century. Our troops deserve better—think of the lives that they live and the risks that they run. Hon. Members who have been to Northern Ireland will know that people there live from news bulletin to news bulletin. Families of people in the armed forces have to learn to put up with real, grinding anxiety, especially if they live in a dangerous area. Our servicemen and their families deserve and need special treatment, but too often they do not get it.

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