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4.34 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Some Members might be under the impression that the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) was lukewarm on the idea of the training centre being sited in St. Athan; I have surely heard him speak with a lot more enthusiasm on that subject. I want to echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), who spoke with real concern about the way in which service families are treated. The Minister has made it clear in the past that he is understanding of those problems, but sadly, the cases that the hon. Member for Gosport identified are not unique. Given that 58 per cent. of the Navy’s married quarters are in the Greater Portsmouth area, he and I, along with other Members representing the region, know only too well the ongoing problems that many of our service families face.

The same point emerged from the speech of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who said that the general morale of the forces is closely linked to the way in which service families are treated. That was a very important point to make, and I had a lot of sympathy with what he had to say—except on Russia. The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) was right to point out to the hon. Gentleman that he had over-exaggerated the threat, and that he had failed to realise that some of the things going on in Russia have caused the Russians to do what they are currently doing. However, I share 100 per cent. the hon. Gentleman’s view on Turkey. This is an awful situation. The decision that the French took in passing their motion on the Armenian genocide problem could be repeated in the United States. I simply do not understand how that can be beneficial to the future of NATO or to the harmony that we want to create.

I do not want to discuss the nuclear deterrent in detail today, but I want to put a marker down. A one-day debate on that issue in this House would be wholly unacceptable. Given the level of interest in it, such a debate ought to last at least two days, preferably three. This issue is vital to the country, and a six-and-a-half hour debate on it would be simply unacceptable. The House should be given the opportunity to have a much wider debate, so that more Back Benchers have a chance to contribute.

I thank the Secretary of State for the time that he took and the generosity and good humour that he showed during his visit to the Portsmouth naval base. It was good to see him there. I had a few words with him before this debate started, and he was full of admiration for the base. He said how much he enjoyed
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the visit and seeing the new shipbuilding going on, and he noted the commitment of the work force, the Royal Navy and the city to maintaining the base. Other Members will doubtless make the same point about their constituency interests in this issue.

I was delighted, as many Royal Navy personnel doubtless were, that the Secretary of State expressed the view that newspaper stories about six or seven ships being taken out of service this year were complete nonsense. He said that he had just come from a meeting with the commander-in-chief, who had not asked for ships to be taken out of service. The Secretary of State reaffirmed his position and gave a full commitment, saying that he was in no way contemplating that, and that no such suggestion had been put to him.

No one can fail to have admiration for the men and women who serve in our armed forces. Those of us fortunate enough to have service establishments in our constituencies regularly meet service people who have returned from, or are about to leave for, other countries. That our nation has more than 20,000 personnel serving in some pretty dangerous parts of the world is a tribute to the training, dedication and commitment of those young people to doing that job. None of us should be anything but grateful for what they are doing on our behalf; we should appreciate what they are doing.

The question that I posed earlier about the reliability or otherwise of the trained Iraqi police and army is one that one hears repeated when talking to service personnel who have been there. Their problem is one of confidence. They are concerned about what might happen if the braking mechanism of the UK forces—or the US forces in other parts of Iraq—goes. Our forces act as a brake on much of the violence that is perpetrated by some of those we have put back in uniform. In answer to an intervention, the Secretary of State mentioned what had happened in Basra with the serious crime group, which has now been broken up. However, nearly every member of that group took their weapons with them when they left their post. Where were those weapons going? Were they going straight into the hands of the insurgents? We should have considered total disarmament in that situation, as we should have done in Afghanistan when we first invaded it.

Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I am highly cynical about and critical of the US’s new plan for Iraq. For them, it is a do or die situation. They have not been able to control the area thus far, so what will they do now? It will need to be an all-out war in that part of Baghdad, but what will happen if they are not successful? When the Secretary of State gave evidence to the Joint Committee recently, he likened the situation to squeezing a balloon—a squeeze in one area means a bulge elsewhere. I had some sympathy for his answer that the squeeze would not necessarily be felt down in Basra.

We got our intelligence hopelessly wrong about the state of Iraq. We disbanded the Ba’ath party organisation and the armed forces from day one, because intelligence supposedly told us that that was the right thing to do. No one in intelligence gave us any clue about the infrastructure in Iraq and how much of it had been shot away during the Saddam years. We got it wrong.

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In Afghanistan, we have the appalling situation of young service personnel dying there while young people are dying on the streets in the UK from drug addiction fed by the very poppy crops that our armed forces are not allowed to eradicate. We are part of a community that is paying farmers billions of euros every year not to grow anything. Would it not have been possible to eradicate the poppy crop and pay the farmers to do nothing? The Secretary of State suggested that that might double the poppy crop, because the farmers would take the money and grow the crops elsewhere, but we are supposed to be in control of that part of the country. Surely we owe it to those men and women whose lives are on the line in Afghanistan to allow them to do something that would save lives in the big cities of Europe, including the United Kingdom. It is a tragedy that we have not been able to do more on that issue. We should be able to do more.

Is it seriously suggested that we can put a timetable on our involvement in Afghanistan? I am sure that hon. Members recognise that Afghanistan is a much more difficult problem than Iraq, but the very reason we should eradicate those poppies is, as I have said, to prevent the deaths that they cause and to stop the financing of the very fight that is being taken to us. Without the financing from the poppy crop, the Taliban would not have been able to do what they have done. We should not allow it to continue. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to what has been an important and, I hope, helpful debate.

4.43 pm

Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): I wish to address three areas, namely, some domestic issues that relate to my constituency; Iraq, which I have visited three times; and the strategic nuclear deterrent. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) made a very good speech, and I am sorry that I missed some of it. As a Minister, he had responsibility for veterans’ affairs and I echo much of what he said on that issue. It is important not only that we value the veterans, but that we use the opportunities we now have, with the mechanisms that the Government have introduced, including veterans’ day, to link them with younger people so that they may come to value and understand the contribution that others have made, as well as the context of our political democracy, which has been fought for and has to be maintained. That development is hugely welcome.

On another matter, the Arctic Emblem medal is to be award posthumously to a late constituent of mine called Bill King. It is a disgrace that the contribution made by the merchant marine in the second world war has been left unvalued for so long, and I am very pleased that that is being put right at last.

I turn now to Iraq. I have read the counter-insurgency plan put forward by General David Petraeus, and the doctrine from Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute that goes with it. They have been melded together in the current overall US plan. I am less enamoured with the Kagan doctrine than I am with the Petraeus doctrine, as I can see where some of the latter has come from. The British contribution to the discussion gave US forces a better understanding of how to approach counter-insurgency warfare.

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When I was last in Iraq, a member of the US forces told me that Britain trains soldiers and not just warriors. That is the difference: the British forces are able to achieve a roundness of response that sets them apart from the Americans. We know that, to make the plan work, all the different elements must be put together.

However, I fear that the overall counter-insurgency plan will not work. It is strapped together with the Kagan doctrine, which is hugely flawed because it does not recommend that the US engage with the rest of the world, and especially Iran and Syria, to resolve the problems that face us in Iraq.

I believe that we will have another debate on these matters in 12 months, and that we will have to deal with the problems caused by the US approach. We will have to take account of both the military context and the political circumstances. A broader international conference is needed to examine Iraq’s internal political development, the reconstruction effort, and the military consequences of the war. Those problems will not go away. One Opposition Member spoke of the Americans’ “do or die” attitude, but that will not be good enough. The present difficulties are likely to return, albeit in a different form.

British troops in the south-east of Iraq are doing a lot of good work. Our plan is to draw back and let the Iraqis take control. When I met General Latiff, the current commander of the Iraqi army’s 10th division. I was able to look him in the eye and make a judgment about him. He is clearly a capable and brave man, and the Iraqis want to take over responsibility for the area. Our forces set them a good example, although it should be said that the circumstances are not as difficult as they are elsewhere in the country.

My fear is that the British plan will be disturbed. An analysis has been made of the effects that the US plan for Baghdad will have, and I hope that we are not shown too many red cards by the Americans. That would lead to the failure of our plan to let the Iraqis take control, and that would be wrong.

Like it or not, Britain is part of the coalition and is bound to respond when attacked. I was very unhappy with our response to an attack on Falluja much earlier in the conflict. I do not want British troops to be put in a similar position again, either by default or by design.

At the time, I spoke to soldiers of the Black Watch as they emerged from confronting that attack. They said, “Don’t put us into situations like that. We can handle them, and we did that very well here, but we didn’t have the intelligence that we needed. If you’re going to commit us, then commit us, but we can’t be expected to be rat catchers who get bounced around for a while. We can do the job, because that is what we do, but it isn’t what we should be doing.”

We cannot solve the problem in Iraq by adopting the approach that was adopted in Falluja. We will not win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people like that, or set them an example of how to build a country. If the situation in Baghdad deteriorates, I hope that we do not allow similar problems to arise by default.

I wish the counter-insurgency plan well, but it is only partial, as it takes no account of regional politics. As a result, I fear that no solution will be achieved in 12 months, and that we will have to have another debate on these matters then.

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We on the Defence Committee are discussing strategic nuclear defence. I am trying to let the facts and information inform my prejudice, even if I do not let them change it. At least I am going through that process, and the Government should go through it too. They should let the House inform them. My fear is that everything in this debate is conflated into one thing. I wrote a list for debate that includes matters relating to the construction work; the question of nuclear powered submarines as opposed to nuclear powered and nuclear armed submarines; diplomacy, our position in the world and whether we get a seat on the United Nations; the question of capability, its retention and whether we should keep the boats; legality; the question of time for the changes; and whether equipment can be refurbished rather than replaced. The arguments are hugely complicated in themselves, but together they make a picture. We need time to sort out all those different aspects and debate them. I do not believe that the debate in March will do that. That suggests to me a predetermined position. Okay, the Cabinet has a position and has told us what that is, but it does not have to be right. We should have the debate. We need time for the political calendar to turn. We do not need to make the decision in March, nor even in 2007. That might not be convenient for certain people who will leave, but they can always sit on the Back Benches and join the discussion. They do not have to be sat on the Front Bench, do they?

There needs to be time for a debate in Parliament and in the country, and for the political calendar to turn and party conferences to take place. Otherwise, there will not have been an open, proper discussion about all the aspects that come together in a complicated final decision that commits vast sums. My judge in all this is not the Prime Minister; it is my godson who is three and a half. I look him in the eye and I think, “What am I going to say to you, boy, about my part in this decision that will commit you and your future?” That is my determinant in all this. We all need time. This is not CND pleading or pleading from another interest group. I do not represent that. I speak for the ability to have proper, informed discussion about the issue, not simply a reaffirmation of predetermined and prejudiced positions.

4.52 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): The last two weeks have been a sad time for my constituency as a result of Government defence policy. In fact today is a sad day, because at midnight last night the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, which goes back to 1685, ceased to exist. We wish all the men well in their new incarnation in the Rifles.

Of more impact have been the Government announcements of 17 January that the Metrix Consortium was the preferred bidder for the £16 billion defence training contract—one of the UK’s biggest private finance initiatives. It intends to relocate the Defence College for Communication and Information Systems, including the Royal School of Signals, from Blandford to St. Athan. That means that defence training will cease at Blandford around 2011, affecting some 60 per cent. of activity at Blandford camp. The news was a blow for Blandford and the wider
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community. The camp provides state of the art facilities for communication and information systems training, employs around 3,000 military staff, civilian staff and trainees, and supports a further 1,000 jobs in the local economy. The South West of England Regional Development Agency has estimated that the economic footprint of the camp is worth around £300 million a year to the local area. Thus any move is significant.

I want to emphasise to the Minister that my main concern now is for the future of the camp after 2012. On 17 January I asked the Secretary of State to tell me whether the headquarters of the Royal Corps of Signals would remain at Blandford, and whether the Signal Officer in Chief would continue to be based at the camp. I would like confirmation in the wind-up that there is a firm commitment for Blandford to become the natural home of all Signals regiments when they are in the UK, with the technical support facilities that go with that role. As I mentioned earlier, the Ministry of Defence has spent £100 million on new facilities at Blandford over the past five years; it is definitely a centre of excellence and I want it to continue as the core of all Army communications and IT activity.

The main focus of my remaining remarks will be on the relationship between the EU and NATO member states. I have been involved in that relationship as Chairman of the Defence Committee of the Western European Union—the inter-parliamentary European security and defence assembly. I want to destroy a few myths about European defence structures, which inevitably involve current EU military capability.

Next month we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the treaty of Dunkirk—as Michael Caine would say, “Not a lot of people know that.” On 4 March 1947, France and the United Kingdom signed a mutual assistance pact, which was set in the post-war climate of friendship and co-operation and openly targeted at a vanquished Germany to forestall new aggression on its part. The French Government wanted to guard against what they considered a possible threat from across the Rhine.

The United States made known its preference for a regional pact that went beyond mere military matters, and in March 1948 five countries—the UK, France and the Benelux countries—signed the Brussels treaty, establishing what was then called the Western European Union, designed to guard against any armed aggression in Europe, not just aggression from Germany, against its members. The treaty organised co-operation among the five signatories in military, economic, social and cultural spheres, and a collective military high command of combined chiefs of staffs was created. However, the Brussels treaty was left devoid of its newly expanded authority when a succession of other treaties was signed establishing the Council of Europe, the European Coal and Steel Community and, of course, NATO itself. In April 1949, 12 Foreign Ministers gathered in Washington to sign the NATO treaty, which incorporated the Western European Union.

In 1955, after the failure of the European Defence Community, West Germany officially joined NATO, along with Greece and Turkey. At about the same time, the Brussels treaty was modified to create the successor WEU structure, which played an important role not
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only in integrating West Germany in the Atlantic alliance, but also in the restoration of confidence among western European countries and the settlement of the Saar problem.

The WEU did not have much of a role in the early years, but by 1984 Ministers had recognised the continuing necessity of strengthening western security, and that better utilisation of the WEU would contribute not only to the security of western Europe but also to an important common defence for all countries of the Atlantic alliance. The commitment to build a European Union in accordance with the Single European Act was signed, which brought a much stronger role in defence matters. There were operational roles for the WEU in the Gulf, the Balkans and on the Danube. That situation continued until 2001 when those roles were transferred to the EU, with the military staff, the satellite centre and the western European armaments group.

I stress that there is nothing new about the EU’s defence architecture, which under the provisions of the Maastricht treaty remains very much intergovernmental—a subject for co-operation between member states. That is the key point. As debates in the Bundestag authorising the recent German-led force in the Congo demonstrate, no soldier from a European state will be deployed in a conflict situation without the express approval of his national Government or Parliament. Any talk of a supranational European army deployed by Brussels is extremely premature. EU deployments of military force will continue to be made on an intergovernmental basis among willing nations, as is the case for NATO and the United Nations.

When considering NATO-EU relations, it is fundamental to remember that 21 of the 26 NATO members are also members of the EU, so relations between the two organisations are, to a large extent, relations between the same set of countries. Obviously, the United States is a major player, but if there is to be enhanced political dialogue, it must be among equal nations. In a speech on Monday, the Secretary-General of NATO asked:

That is the problem, but we have to move on. Reform is needed if we are to create and maintain Euro-Atlantic co-operation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) mentioned the genuinely disappointing Riga summit. We have to create a strong European pillar of NATO, and although the European Union is there to provide a framework, that must be done within the context of the Atlantic alliance and the wider global security system. Where appropriate, there can be a common approach within the EU. We must encourage all member states to invest in the necessary military capability, and we must make sure that their policies will strengthen the north Atlantic alliance by making a credible and effective European contribution to it.

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