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4.8 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): The Prime Minister says that he wants a national debate about what sort of defence forces we should have. I welcome that. I suspect that the conclusion will be that we have no choice. Against the current position of overstretch and underfunding—in respect of people and procurement—we need to take a long view of how we got to where we are and where our nation and our military want to be in the future.

Our history and our heritage teach us—and economic necessity today demands—that we must sustain and pay for armed services trained and equipped for high-intensity warfare, with global reach and complemented by a strong diplomatic service. Both should be underpinned by increasingly sophisticated security services and intelligence networks.

In the nave of Salisbury cathedral fly the regimental colours of proud Wiltshire units that have served down the centuries all over the world. One is a tattered flag that was carried up the Potomac river in 1814, when our troops sacked the White House in Washington. Today—this very day—sees the sad end of that great military heritage as the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry, like many other regiments, ceases to be, but we welcome the birth of a new regiment: the Rifles. I wish it a great future.

The British have taken our language, ideas, trade and armies across the entire globe. Gone are the days of
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empire. The legacy is there—but we are not going to stop now. However, defence must start with the homeland. Some people thought that that was all over after the allied victory in the second world war. The slaughter in Northern Ireland rarely spilled over to us on the mainland. However, 9/11 changed all that. The Conservative party called for a dedicated homeland security Minister some years ago. The Government now look as though they might oblige by splitting the Home Office in two.

British forces are needed to protect the United Kingdom’s global interests in trade and shipping. More than 90 per cent of our imports come by sea. Those trade routes and vessels must be secure from foreign state intervention as well as from terrorism and piracy. That is why our forces must have global reach and power projection by land, sea and air. That must include amphibious capability, unmanned maritime systems, increasing use of unmanned combat air systems and space-based remote sensors. In other words, we must spend more on defence-based research programmes and do more collaborative work with our allies, including Australia.

Keeping the peace is also a legitimate function of Her Majesty’s forces. They are good at it—they are the best. I have seen that for myself in Bosnia and Kosovo. In Afghanistan, they are fighting a war as well as keeping the peace. In Iraq, our forces are in harm’s way, suffering the consequences of little or no post-conflict planning by the Government and our major allies. However, British forces should not be forced to become a gendarmerie, which is a different function from peacekeeping. They are in danger of becoming one because of the disruption of training schedules for high-intensity conflict in the UK and elsewhere. Their skills are being blunted—and it will not do.

I suspect that the British are genetically predisposed to belligerence. However, if we want a gendarmerie, let us create one. The British are brilliant at peacekeeping because of our national temperament. After 1,500 years of fighting each other in these islands we learned the hard way the virtues of tolerance and fairness, liberty and justice—all in the spirit of Magna Carta in 1215. We have been successfully invaded only twice—by the Romans and by the northern French, led by a Norwegian, but we were never subjugated.

I pay tribute to all my constituents who work at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down and at the Health Protection Agency, which is also based there. They are a vital and increasingly important part of Britain’s defence at home and around the world—they may deploy anywhere at a moment’s notice to defend our people and our interests.

I also salute those at the Defence Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Centre at Winterbourne Gunner in my constituency, who train our servicemen and women, and the staff of the police national chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear centre, which is also in my constituency, who have trained more than 7,000 police officers from every police force in the United Kingdom and other emergency services in the country.

Of course, at Boscombe Down, the Qinetiq team supports the Royal Air Force. It produces remarkable avionics in addition to maintaining the Empire test
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pilot school, which trains all our fast jet pilots and those of our allies. However, I ask the Minister to press harder for a solution to the problem of the eight Chinook helicopters which were delivered to Boscombe Down in 1982. I was told in October that a deal was being done with Boeing to bring them back into service. I had hoped that it would be completed by the end of November, but we have not heard a word. Will the Minister tell us in his winding-up speech what is happening to those eight Chinook helicopters?

We could not do without the Ministry of Defence police. They were originally founded by Samuel Pepys as royal dockyard police, and their officers now have full constabulary powers and extended jurisdiction in the UK to protect service personnel and their families as well as sensitive units and locations. They are currently deployed in Kosovo, Bosnia, Cyprus, Iraq, Sudan, Sierra Leone and the Pitcairn islands. The Ministry of Defence police, with their special skills, are currently the subject of two reviews into their future—the review of community policing inland and the armed guarding review. Both those reviews impact on my constituency. In winding up, will the Minister say when the reviews will be concluded and the results announced, because the effects on the Ministry of Defence police are serious?

Defence in the world has changed, and we must move on too. The old certainties of the cold war have gone and led to wholesale reappraisals of the role of NATO and co-operation between European nations on defence. In March, the House will debate the proposed replacement of our Trident nuclear deterrent. The Defence Committee is embarking on its third report on that so that we are all better informed before we decide on the issue. I urge the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) to wait for that report before being so definite about some of the technicalities that they described.

At a time of nuclear proliferation, I would take some convincing that we should not legally—I am sure that it is legal—upgrade our systems and build new submarines. There has been no evidence to suggest that unilateral action by the UK would make the slightest difference to others who are not signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and who are developing new nuclear weapons capabilities. We will continue to need a nuclear deterrent deployed at sea somewhere in the world. Those submarines must have global reach to defend British interests—trade and otherwise.

Britain will have to spend more on defence as a proportion of our gross national product. We must be able to pay our forces more, equip them better and deploy them with the weapons and equipment to do the job. We must also think afresh about why we and other European nations need to define defence in new terms. Homeland security and territorial defence are vital. Increasingly, protection of energy infrastructure, from gas and oil pipelines to wind farms and nuclear power stations, will be seen as important. The politics of energy may dominate, but there are parts of Europe where the politics of water and food are also increasingly important. As the climate change crisis climbs the political agenda, carbon emissions will also threaten peace and stability. Poverty and economic
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migration already cause great friction between states: even Portugal and Spain have their problems, as do Italy, Greece and Turkey.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) spoke about Turkey, and so will I. Turkey will become an even more important defence ally in future. The Turkish people, descendants of the Ottomans who ran a great European empire, are vital to the interests of peace and stability in their region, and vital to our interests too. I am astonished at the negative attitude to Turkey in Germany and France in particular. I am also gravely disappointed by the antics of some Members of the European Parliament who seek to block Turkey’s logical and welcome membership of the European Union. Turkey is a member of NATO and vital to western interests. We should welcome Turkey and thank her for many years of solidarity, through dark and difficult times in Europe and the west, from her position on our continent.

Given the absolute necessity of increasing financial, trade and manufacturing partnerships with China—a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty—and India, which is one of several nuclear powers outside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, we should work hard not just on our diplomatic relations with those great nations, but on our military collaboration. Time after time, we have seen that close military relations and exchanges of service personnel yield huge dividends for Britain and improve our security. I also commend the Australian Government, under Prime Minister Howard, for deploying Australia’s excellent military forces, not only in their natural sphere of influence—the Pacific—but for bearing their share of coalition operations in the middle east and elsewhere.

The challenge for this Government and the next—Conservative—Government will be to convince the British people that our future prosperity depends on matching defence requirements with defence resources. As the fourth largest economy on the planet, we can well afford to reprioritise our national budget in favour of our defence in the world, and we should do so.

4.19 pm

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this important and—at least until now—interesting debate. We have heard a number of far-ranging speeches. I particularly welcomed the contribution by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I pay tribute to him and the work that his team is doing in securing defence in the world for this country.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the contribution of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). He made a good and balanced speech. Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I did not agree with all of it. I certainly did not agree with his comments on NATO and the Riga summit. I attended Riga and my impression was quite the opposite. The commitment given by our United States allies in particular and all our European allies to the future of NATO was strong and welcome. Although they did not extend the remit or future goals of NATO, they made one thing clear: our success or failure in Afghanistan will determine the future success of NATO and its role in this country’s defence. I welcome that.

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Similarly, I did not agree with some of the hon. Gentleman’s threat scenarios, but he was right when he said that we should keep all our options open when we consider the security of this country in an ever-changing world. It is not simply a case of the very new threats, which are real and great, but the need not to take our eye off the ball afterwards. I was concerned to read, as everyone else did, that the Chinese succeeded in taking out a disused weather satellite with what I understood to be an intercontinental ballistic missile. I cannot speak for anyone else, but it sent a shiver down my spine because it enhanced the strategic threat that China poses to the world when we have always considered it to pose a tactical regional threat. The traditional dangers are always out there.

Clearly, the biggest threat we face—this is why we are fighting on two fronts, with two sustained conflicts, in Iraq and Afghanistan—is the direct strategic threat to this country from international terrorism. We have no option but to tackle that problem at source. Again, the hon. Gentleman was right to say that we should start looking afresh at our defence strategy. Indeed, the Prime Minister recently said that we should have a new debate on defence, and I agree.

The hon. Gentleman was generous in pointing out that the Government’s strategic defence review was a welcome document. It was foreign policy-led and identified some of the threats that we faced in the future and some of the things that we needed to do to address them. We then had the new chapter, following the 9/11 attacks, which added to the SDR, and the White Paper, which set out our capabilities for the future.

It is my belief that there has been a paradigm shift in the nature of the threat away from what we historically looked at to the new invidious and horrendous threats from an enemy that places no limit on the weapons it is prepared to use; nor does it place any limit on the number or type of people, including non-combatants, that it is prepared to kill. It is also prepared to die in the process. That is an unprecedented and qualitatively new threat. We should look at our defence policy in relation to it. Perhaps we should consider a new covenant with the armed forces, arising from that threat, setting out what we expect them to do now that we did not expect them to do in 1997, when the scope of the SDR was first drawn up.

Most members of our armed forces—who do a magnificent job every time and wherever they are deployed—did not join the forces to fight on a regular basis; they joined the forces to prepare to fight, as and when it was needed. The vast majority of servicemen and women did not actually fight between 1945 and the present day, but that is now changing. A large proportion of our service personnel are not only expected to fight but end up fighting, not just once but again and again in the most difficult circumstances, and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan but in west Africa, the Balkans and all over the world. That is a new arrangement, and we must recognise the commitment that our soldiers are now making.

Mr. Mark Field: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The problem is particularly acute in the case of the Territorial Army, many of whose members did not expect to fight at all. Now their families and
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employers are being asked to tolerate a second or third tour, which is making things impossibly difficult for many Territorial Army units throughout the country.

John Smith: I agree. We changed the role of the Territorial Army—rightly—under the strategic defence review to make it more relevant to the changing threats that we expected to arise all over the world, but I do not think we expected the level of commitment and the operational tempo that are now required.

This is not intended as a criticism of where we are, because we are where we are because we have to be there, but the present position may be a signal that we should start to think again about what the overall strategic defence requirement of the country is as a result of the shift that has taken place and the tempo at which we now find ourselves operating. I believe that that tempo has detracted from some of the other business in which we should be involved at present.

Let me give an example. It is drawn from personal experience, but it worries me. We agreed, by and large, on the future platforms under the strategic defence review, and we agreed, by and large—although with some argument—on future force configuration. However, I am afraid that we will be blown off course and major procurement requirements will be sidetracked because of the pressure of existing operational commitments.

How can we refocus on future needs and capability unless we consider again—10 years after we considered it the first time—a 10-year review? The Prime Minister has said that he wants a 10-year review, not just of defence but of other Government objectives. I think that some of the speeches today, particularly that of the hon. Member for Woodspring, indicate the need for a serious debate about what our defence needs are and what our future direction should be.

I am proud of our handling of the defence budget over the past 10 years. We have maintained expenditure. I know that that is largely a result of our recent operational requirements, which have necessitated contingency expenditure; nevertheless, we have done well. But can we continue with a peacetime budget when some might say that we are in a wartime situation? I do not know what the answers are, but I think we may need to think about that in the fairly near future. It ought to be recognised that we have engaged in more conflicts recently—five major conflicts—than at any other time in the last 30 years.

Let me end by referring to a matter of great importance which is part of the covenant that I think we should have with our servicemen and women: the provision of training, including future training, for military personnel. I congratulate the Ministry of Defence team on the announcement on 17 January that all technical skills training, phases 2 and 3, would be completely transformed and restructured for all three services. That will ensure that within five years—or a little longer—we will have one of the best military training regimes in the world. The defence training rationalisation programme—which commenced in 1999, following the strategic defence review which was part of the thinking on what our future requirements would be—concluded that the vast majority of training should take place at the old RAF St. Athan site in my constituency.

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St. Athan is a 600-acre site, and it was the largest military base in the United Kingdom. The intention is to provide a new purpose-built academy for the young men and women of our forces. There will be brand new facilities: brand new classrooms; brand new accommodation for both single and married people; brand new leisure centres; brand new sports tracks and gymnasiums; and there might be swimming pools, too. There will be the best such facilities anywhere in the world, and our servicemen and women deserve nothing less than that for the future.

Mr. Walter: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Smith: It will delay me, but very well.

Mr. Walter: I just want the hon. Gentleman to be aware that the Ministry of Defence has spent £100 million in the last four years on creating precisely such facilities at the Defence College of Communications and Information Systems at Blandford, which now will be abandoned.

John Smith: There is bound to be resistance to the RAF St. Athan move; I heard the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), whom I respect very much, express concern. However, the concern about that will be no less than the concern that was expressed about the creation of the tri-service military academy for our officer corps in Shrivenham, but I do not think that any Member doubts that that was one of the best moves that the Government ever made and that that academy is one of best additions to the training provision of our officers in the history of the MOD. It is so good that officers from around the world are queuing up to get into the facility and take advantage of the training—and I am sure that it will be even better now, as I recently discovered that warrant officers are being trained now at the academy and I am certain that they will put many middle-ranking and senior officers in their place.

We will now provide such training for all other ranks in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. There will be training in mechanical engineering, aeronautical engineering, electrical engineering, computing, information technology, intelligence, logistics, photography and languages in one of the largest military academies in the world. That will add value to our covenant with the servicemen and women of this country, who do such a magnificent job, and I thank the MOD Front-Bench team for making this courageous decision. I am sure that that had nothing to do with the fact that St. Athan has been a centre of training excellence for decades, so much so that I understand that the Minister’s father trained and developed his skills there in the late 1930s. That tradition will continue.

This is a huge investment. It will mark a step change in the quality of training. There will be the modern approach to training that we desperately need to meet the changing security environment. However, this move will also present challenges for the local community, which is 110 per cent. behind it. I am aware that contract negotiations are currently taking place, but I hope that the Minister will, when it is appropriate to do so, meet me and representatives from the Vale of
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Glamorgan, who want to work tirelessly to make the move succeed and to make sure that we address some of the issues involved.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am now going to invoke the short speech rule. There will be a nine-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches for the remainder of the debate. I call Mr. Mike Hancock.

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