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So far I have talked about serving troops, but different circumstances apply when the military and civilian spheres overlap. Even in normal circumstances there are risks, hazards and problems for service families. Moving house inevitably causes disruption, and it is sometimes difficult for the wife or husband of a person in the armed forces to get a job. There are also problems for the children, who may have to change schools. In addition, some Ministry of Defence
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housing is substandard. The Government should try to understand the problems faced by service families. One example of the Ministry not taking account of those problems is its proposal to focus training in St. Athan in south Wales.

Some 60 per cent. of service ships are based in Portsmouth, and most naval families have decided to make their homes in the south Hampshire area, so that they are near the place where their ship is based, and where they do their training, as that minimises domestic disruption. Moving engineering training to St. Athan will tear the heart out of the Navy, because service personnel undergoing training will be based in St. Athan during the week, but at the weekend they will need to travel back to their homes, which will probably still be in the Portsmouth area. That will place an intolerable burden on naval families.

The worst problems of all occur when things go wrong. Sometimes, service personnel and their families are exposed to totally unacceptable conditions, and I shall give three examples. It is well publicised that there is a huge backlog of inquests in Oxfordshire because service personnel who are killed overseas are brought back to Brize Norton, and the inquest needs to take place in the Brize Norton area, which falls to the Oxfordshire coroner. It is intolerable that there should be a three-year delay in holding inquests. Three extra coroners are being drafted in, but there are still 70 cases outstanding. Think of the grief and distress that that will cause to families.

Mr. Ellwood: Would my hon. Friend consider the idea of having a dedicated MOD coroner to look after service personnel who are, tragically, killed overseas?

Peter Viggers: That would be one way of solving the problem. Another way, although it might require a change in legislation, would be to enable the inquests to be held elsewhere—for example, in the area that the serviceperson came from. As I will say later, what the Ministry of Defence should do, both in respect of that problem and others, is take on other Departments, such as the Home Office, and find a solution. I do not know what that solution is, but a solution must be found.

My second concern relating to service personnel is about Defence Medical Services. The subject was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who once had responsibility for it. Many a time, the House has heard me explain how distraught the population of Gosport and south Hampshire is that the only remaining military hospital, the Royal hospital Haslar, is to close. The Ministry of Defence is withdrawing funding from 31 March, and it is pinning its hopes on a move to Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham. The move is not working well—and it will not work. There are staff shortages—in some cases, of as much as two thirds or three quarters—in some medical specialties, particularly general medicine, orthopaedic medicine, general surgery and anaesthetics.

Although it is possible for the Ministry of Defence to recruit people to the armed forces to train as doctors—their training is paid for, of course, by the Ministry—retention is a major problem. The overall plan was to move Defence Medical Services to Selly
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Oak and to build a £200 million centre for defence medical personnel, accommodation and training. That was cancelled, and the plan now is to use RAF Lichfield, which is 15 miles away, on the wrong side of Birmingham. That is not working, and I forecast that it will not work. I asked to visit Selly Oak hospital because I was told by the Ministry of Defence that the plan was working fairly well. That is not what I hear elsewhere. I was told that I could not visit the hospital, and instead a briefing would be given in my constituency to people who are concerned about the issue. I have reiterated my request because I think that it is my duty to go to Selly Oak to see how the hospital is functioning.

There is an alternative solution to the problem—a south Hampshire solution. We should retain Haslar hospital, which is needed for civilian purposes anyway and can also be used as a mess and training centre, and we should link Haslar not only with Portsmouth, with which it is currently linked, but with Southampton university hospital. That would give medical training to the personnel who require it, across a broad spectrum, and would solve the problem of retention and morale in Defence Medical Services.

The third area where the Ministry of Defence is letting down its personnel is housing. I want to argue from the particular to the general. The particular case involves a constituent of mine who served for eight years in submarines. Because of a defect in the air conditioning system in the submarine he was poisoned, developed pneumonia and was seriously ill for some time. It was thought that it might be possible to transfer him to surface ships, so he was moved from Scotland to Gosport, but then it was decided that he would not be put into surface ships. Instead, he would be medically discharged from the Navy. He has residual asthma from his experiences in the Navy.

My constituent applied for housing through the facilities available to service personnel. The description of the process involved makes the prospects seem quite cheerful. It explains how service personnel should apply to the joint service housing centre, and how accommodation will be found in one of the 180 areas in which that centre operates. My constituent applied, but was not successful. The Department of the Environment circular 14/93, “Housing for People Leaving the Armed Forces”, with which I was associated many years ago when I was campaigning on behalf of former service personnel who were having difficulty obtaining housing, states:

My constituents put that point to the local authorities in Nottingham and Plymouth, where they came from originally, but neither Nottingham nor Plymouth wished to know at all.

Gosport is the current local authority. It accepts a responsibility, but the responsibility that it accepts under the law is that it must provide accommodation when a family is homeless. That means that they must be, in effect, on the street. The Ministry of Defence has
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taken proceedings against my constituent. It has obtained a possession order for the house, and in doing so has applied for costs, so my constituent had to pay £220 to the Ministry of Defence for the privilege of being evicted from his own house.

The situation as it stands is that, in due course, the bailiffs will turn up at that man’s house, he will be evicted and will then be given bed and breakfast for himself. He has a wife and four children. He also has furniture, which presumably would need to go into storage, and two dogs, which might go into kennels at a cost of £8 a day. I put it to the Minister that it is totally unacceptable that an individual, through no fault of his own, should have been put in that situation. In parenthesis, I mention that one of his daughters was in Ministry of Defence accommodation when the boiler was noticed to be defective. That was reported, but, before the boiler could be repaired, it scalded the daughter, who requires skin grafts. That kind of situation is completely unacceptable.

All three issues—the delay in inquests; defence medicine, which interrelates with the national health service; and housing—involve the Ministry of Defence overlapping in its responsibility with other Departments. The Ministry of Defence has had good service from individuals, but at the end of that period, for one reason or another, the individual cannot get the treatment that he or she so richly deserves. I put it to the Ministry of Defence that there should be a new understanding between it and other Departments whereby service personnel are not disadvantaged in that way, but given the kind of treatment that they merit on the basis of their service.

3.49 pm

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): In a wide-ranging debate, the Front-Bench spokesmen concentrated, quite naturally and properly, on the issues that face us in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to those continuing hostilities, two issues of overriding importance affect our stance on security. First, there is the question of our response to the growing evidence that the United States or its proxy, Israel, may unleash a military strike and possibly a nuclear one against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Secondly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) mentioned, there is the decision on Trident. I shall comment briefly on both issues.

I assume that if there was a US military attack on Iran there would not be any UK military involvement whatsoever, but I am not wholly convinced that our participation has been ruled out, so we must consider how a decision on the UK response would be made. As we learned from the Iraq war, it is astonishing that the decision to go to war—the gravest decision facing a nation—is still taken by one person alone in this country, namely, the Prime Minister of the day. There is no requirement to seek parliamentary approval and, even more astonishing, if the Prime Minister allows a parliamentary vote, and that vote is against war, he would still be within his rights to ignore it, as he has absolute power to commit the nation to war. That may be unlikely, but it is, none the less, an untenable position.

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Under the royal prerogative, which dates back centuries, the powers of the Crown exercised by the Prime Minister, without consultation in Cabinet or in Parliament, include the right to make war, to make peace and to sign and ratify treaties. The democratisation of prerogative rights is being actively sought by all political parties, and in opposition the Labour party stated that it would ensure

It went on to emphasise the fact that the decision to go to war and the ratification of treaties were special areas of concern, and that is clearly the case.

It is high time that those pledges were implemented. We urgently need a convention that requires the approval of Parliament to be sought before British armed forces are deployed and take part in military action. The Prime Minister should be required to lay before both Houses of Parliament a report setting out the proposed objectives of the action and its legality, including—and we remember the Iraq affair—the Attorney-General’s full advice about the legality of any such action. That would still allow the Prime Minister, if he deemed it urgently necessary, to deploy troops before the approval of the House is given.

In such circumstances, which are likely to be rare, the Prime Minister should still have to lay the report before Parliament within seven days after troop deployment had begun. Such demands are not out of step with constitutional practice elsewhere. In the US, for example, the war powers resolution of 1973—more than 30 years ago—requires that if the approval of Congress for waging war is not secured within 60 days, the President must withdraw US forces within a further 30 days. For all these reasons, will my right hon. Friend make it clear in his winding-up speech what plans the Government have to abolish, as we promised to do before 1997, the royal prerogative to commit the country to war, and in its place—I believe that this has wide support across the House—to regularise a democratic procedure by requiring a parliamentary vote of approval on a substantive motion?

The second issue is Trident. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he has already taken the decision to replace the system. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend said so eloquently, at present the biggest danger that we face is the threat of terrorism on our mainland. For that, of course, nuclear weapons are useless. The only argument to justify Trident replacement, to which the Government always resort, and I think this also applies to the Opposition— when one is opposing both Front Benches, one feels confident of the rightness of one’s cause—is that although nuclear weapons are irrelevant to our current security concerns, and even though we are now in an utterly different post-cold war environment, we may at some future point, inevitably unspecified, face either a rogue state, a re-emerging nuclear Russia or a nuclear-armed superpower like China.

I want to examine that argument because, in the last analysis, it is the only serious bottom-line argument that is advanced. It is seriously flawed on at least three counts. First, as is or should be widely known, our nuclear deterrent is not an independent British nuclear
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deterrent—again, my right hon. Friend with whom I had not collaborated before the debate, made the point excellently. We depend on the Americans for the warheads, the fuse and firing systems, the nuclear explosives, the warhead casings and the guidance systems. We cannot fire the missiles without US-supplied data and satellite navigation. As my right hon. Friend went on to say, we do not even own the missiles. They are leased to us by the Americans from a repository on the east coast of the United States under a system which, I believe, is known as rent-a-rocket. If we ever needed to stand alone in a situation where we did not have US approval, we would not be able to do so.

Mr. Ellwood: I do not wish to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman’s argument; I merely offer a word of clarification. My understanding is that once the missile is fired, it leans on no other technology whatever. There is no satellite navigation. If the Prime Minister decides to press the button, no other mechanisms are involved. It is an independent deterrent.

Mr. Meacher: I would dispute whether that is the case—whether there is no satellite navigation involved. Irrespective of that, there are several other aspects of the system which are clearly dependent on the Americans. That is the key point. It is in no sense a genuinely independent British nuclear deterrent.

Secondly, we get all that kit at a political price. The Americans offer it to us not because they depend on us for the defence of the west, but—this is why they are so happy to do it—because it makes us subservient to US foreign policy, as we have seen, tragically, over Iraq, where we apparently felt obliged to follow them, over Lebanon; and perhaps in future over Iran. To continue with that subservience for the next 30 or 40 years, which may well be the implication of this decision, is far too high a price to pay.

Linda Gilroy: Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a difference between independence of procurement and independence of operation, and will he take an assurance that it is in fact independent in its operation?

Mr. Meacher: There is obviously a distinction between the two, but if we are going to have a genuinely independent British nuclear deterrent, we need independence both in procurement and in firing and navigation.

Thirdly, the central argument that is advanced is that however marginal and remote may be the contingency of some future nuclear attack on the UK, the possession of nuclear weapons is still absolutely indispensable for our security. If that is assumed to be so for us, the same argument will naturally be used by others to justify their possession of nuclear weapons for the purposes of their own security. Indeed, the logic of the Government’s position, as possibly shared by the Opposition, is surely to provide a strong incentive for the proliferation of nuclear weapons in many other regions across the world—particularly, I fear, unstable ones. If that were to happen—I think that in the long term it is likely—would we have a safer world or a less safe world? The answer must be the latter.

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Mr. Ingram: Does my right hon. Friend believe that if Britain gave up its independent nuclear deterrent, Iran would immediately stop its nuclear programme?

Mr. Meacher: First, I have indicated that I do not think that it is an independent British nuclear deterrent. I have never taken the view that if we were to abandon the nuclear weapons that we have, Iran would immediately do the same. That argument does not hold. However, it could be argued that within the new international conference that I would like to see, we would have the moral and political authority that we do not have under the current proposals to press the case for preventing nuclear proliferation from going further.

To put the argument in the context of today’s situation, how can we insist that the UK must maintain its nuclear weapons to guarantee its security and at the same time lecture Iran to the effect that it does not need nuclear weapons for its own security and that the safety of the world will be compromised if it is allowed to go down that route? The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made a good, balanced and thoughtful speech, but I was not impressed by his argument that the situation in Iran is very different because of the wild rantings of President Ahmadinejad. I agree, of course, that that inflammatory rhetoric is extremely unhelpful, and it would be much better if he did not use it—[Hon. Members: “But he has.”] Yes, but the point about Ahmadinejad, which is perfectly well known to the British Government, is that he does not have the power in Iran—that lies exclusively with Ayatollah Khamenei and the senior ayatollahs around him. It would be quite wrong to take the view that we are justified in preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons and, apparently, quite justified in attacking the country militarily just because Ahmadinejad made a statement—an extremely unwise one—about Israel.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Irrespective of the argument that there is all the difference in the world between constitutional democracies having weapons of mass destruction and dictatorships that make explicit threats to annihilate other countries having those weapons, the right hon. Gentleman has to recognise that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty makes a distinction between five countries, including ours, and our obligations and many other countries, including Iran, and their obligations. We are observing our obligations and we are not undermining them by continuing to have a minimum strategic deterrent, whereas Iran is threatening to break its obligations.

Mr. Meacher: As I have already made clear, I am critical of Iran for its abysmal record on human rights and in other respects. I was just about to come on to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The truth is—of course, and as we all know—that the NPT was built on a deal whereby the non-nuclear countries would agree not to seek nuclear weapons on the condition that the nuclear countries would proceed in good faith towards full nuclear disarmament. That is what the deal says, and it will not convince anyone that we are genuinely fulfilling our side of the bargain if we replace the Trident system. I am glad that the Government are cutting the available operational warheads to fewer than 160 and
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making a corresponding reduction in the stockpile of warheads. I agree with that, but to claim that it is consistent with the NPT is, I fear, sheer casuistry.

The case for Trident replacement simply does not stand up. It is based, I suspect, on the aspirations for top-table status among the military and political top brass and perhaps—I genuinely recognise this—on an irrational fear in the aftermath of the cold war. The truth is that none of our wars was ever won by nuclear weapons. None of our enemies was ever deterred by them. General Galtieri was not deterred from seizing the Falklands even though we had a nuclear bomb and he did not. The US had nuclear weapons, but that did not prevent it from being defeated in Vietnam or now in Iraq. The French had nuclear weapons, but it did not save them in either Indochina or Algeria. Israel had nuclear weapons, but it was still chased out of the Lebanon by Hezbollah in 2000 and again last year.

Very briefly, my last point is that it is important to remember that more nations have actually given up nuclear weapons over the past generation than have developed them. For example, Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine—and other former Soviet states—and South Africa gave them up and they do not regard themselves as any less safe now than they were before. That sets a precedent that we should follow.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I give notice that I am going to impose the short-speech rule as close to 4.30 as possible, in order to ensure that hon. Members who have been waiting will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate. I anticipate that, at that stage, the limit will be about eight or nine minutes.

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