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5.1 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Just last week, the Select Committee on Defence published its fifth report of the Session, the result of the Committee’s work in 2005 and 2006. That report
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reminded me why I have particularly enjoyed my parliamentary work this year, and of the breadth of our inquiry into past, ongoing and future policy. We considered a range of matters, ranging from the Met Office to the education of service children, as well as strategic issues such as the defence industrial strategy, and the strategic nuclear deterrent, which other hon. Members have mentioned. The latter two issues are of great importance to thousands of my constituents, as were our inquiries into troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, where some 1,000 servicemen and women whose bases are in Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall are deployed.

I pay tribute to those servicemen and women for the remarkable job that they do, and the service that they give on behalf of us all, and I pay tribute to their families, too. The fact that they do a remarkable job is reflected in the number of new year honours given to local men. Lieutenant-Colonel David Reynolds of the Parachute Regiment received the Queen’s volunteer reserves medal. An award was also given to Lance Corporal Nick Coleman of D Company, Devon and Dorset Regiment. As we have heard, that regiment recently came to an end with a moving ceremony in Exeter cathedral. He is now a corporal, and received a medal for the heroic rescue of his colleagues in a “hearts and minds” operation. Soldiers were giving out footballs to children when things suddenly turned nasty, and insurgents attacked. More recently, Sergeant-Major Colin Hearne and Captain Dave Rigg, local men, were involved in an astonishing rescue of a fallen comrade, which involved their being strapped to the stabiliser wings of an Apache helicopter.

In the time available, I want to discuss issues of concern to those working locally to support the provision of equipment for defence in the world, including the provision of the strategic nuclear deterrent. My right hon. Friend the Minister will know of the considerable uncertainties arising from industry consolidation, the defence industrial strategy, the naval base review, and the ownership of DML. As their MP, I am confident that the skilled men and women working at DML and the naval base will continue to play an important role in supporting the Royal Navy, but I know that we cannot afford to be complacent. Since December 2005 I have chaired the strategic group that brings together people in the company and in the naval base, the management and unions, senior people from Plymouth city council, the regional development agency, the Department of Trade and Industry and Jobcentre Plus to respond to the fast-changing circumstances.

At the employee briefings last February, we heard of the potential loss of 900 to 1,200 jobs, as we go down from two nuclear submarine refitting streams to one. The naval base review is developing

“The Case for Devonport” sets out how the facility there—the base of the strategic nuclear deterrent, with unique capabilities—can operate with unbeatable cost-effectiveness if the economies of scale that it is capable of offering are fully exploited. There is a track record of delivering multi-million pound annual savings—for example, £45 million from the submarine upkeep improvement programme—and we reckon that further
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savings of more than £120 million per annum could be released. We urge the Secretary of State and his ministerial team to look at fully realising value for money for the Ministry of Defence in the review.

We are satisfied with the framework that has been developed, except in one respect. That has been taken up with the review team, but I will take the opportunity of drawing it to the attention of Ministers. The socio-economic impacts, like the employment impacts, need a common framework. Through a comprehensive and professional study, we need to ensure that things are receiving a like-for-like evaluation. That is essential if we are to be confident that important options are not going to be arbitrarily dismissed or marginalised.

Finally on the naval base review, in Plymouth we realise the importance of obtaining value for money in relation to the overall MOD budget. We heard in many earlier speeches about how hard pressed that budget is. We need to get the procurement issues right because, as I have mentioned, we have many men and women who are serving on the front line and who need the right kit, in the right place. We are confident that what we have to offer at our naval base does just that, and we do not want the opportunity that the review offers to be fudged. We do not want a decision that is not clear-cut, or that is open to challenge. We want fairness, not favour. I urge my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister of State to take that clear-cut decision.

In the last few minutes I shall turn to the important decision on the strategic nuclear deterrent. The Defence Committee is on its third inquiry, on the White Paper. Our aim is to have a series of inquiries producing factual reports that will inform the debate. We have looked at the strategic context and the timetable. In particular, we have looked at the skills base. Next Tuesday we will have the final session, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We have previously met with non-governmental organisations, academics and lawyers. The Committee will set out and clarify some of the questions that colleagues are asking, such as, “Do we have to do this now?” and “What points in that direction and what doesn’t?” The single thing that does point in that direction is what I have just been talking about: maintaining the skills base in the different bases that contribute to the building and maintenance of the submarines. I remind colleagues that it takes up to 12 years to train a fabricator. That is aside from all the senior, complex work done by the design team. The teams cannot be reconstituted overnight.

What will the costs be? One of the reasons why we make our own submarines is that—I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) is not in his place to hear this—it is cheaper than buying them from America. There are other costs that have to be factored into the debate when thinking about what the real savings would be. People want to redeploy those savings on other expenditure—in this audience it would be on defence, but many others would argue for health and education. However, there would be decommissioning and economic regeneration costs. In Plymouth those economic regeneration costs would be
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astronomical. We are on the edge of what was the only objective 1 area in England. As another colleague has said, there would be costs attached to maintaining nuclear-powered, as opposed to nuclear-weapon-carrying, submarines. I hope that all that will come out clearly in the Defence Committee.

Indeed, what is the impact on the UK role in the Security Council and our contribution to the non-proliferation treaty? I recommend that colleagues read annex A of the White Paper, as it sets out how much we have done to reduce our nuclear arsenal, which represents only 1 to 2 per cent. of the world’s nuclear weapons. I would like what constitutes a minimum deterrent to be defined, as lawyers tell me that that has not yet been done. We can maintain our political and moral authority and keep our place on the Security Council—I have said that we do not need nuclear weapons to do so—and we shall return to those issues in March. It is an important decision, and I hope that the work that the Defence Committee has done will allow us to conduct the debate with more light than heat.

5.10 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) for her commitment to Devonport. Unfortunately, such is the state of the Navy that there is competition between the three main service bases as to which will remain intact. That is a debate for another day, but the hon. Lady spoke about her constituency with commitment and intellect.

We have had a frank, open and educational debate, which has rightly focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, as those are the areas in which we are heavily involved. The backdrop to the debate is the Prime Minister’s comment on board HMS Albion on Friday 12 January:

Perhaps we should mention that choice to our NATO allies. We have committed more than 7,000 troops to Iraq and 5,700 to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, however, the Prime Minister’s words stand in stark contrast to our military capability because, since 1997, there has been a dramatic fall in the size of our Army, Navy and Air Force and the procurement process has changed drastically: the number of aircraft carriers has been cut from three to two; the number of T-45 destroyers from 12 to six; the number of infantry regiments from 40 to 36; and the number of Eurofighters has been reduced, too. Will the Minister make a commitment to maintain the Red Arrows, as there is a shadow hanging over the pride and joy of the British skies? Will he assure the nation that there is a future for that important asset in his winding-up speech? There has been a great deal of discussion about the procurement process and its effect on equipment, notably the Snatch Land Rovers, which are inadequate in both Afghanistan and Iraq, so perhaps the Minister would be gracious enough to comment on that, too.

We are approaching the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and I am afraid that I do not agree with the glossy picture that has been painted in an effort to suggest that things are going well. I am pleased that General Dannatt was able to expose the reality of
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the situation, because only three of the 18 provinces in Iraq have been handed over to Iraqi control. Depending on which figures one uses, about 600,000 people have been killed since the 2003 invasion, and an average of 3,500 individuals are killed every month, according to a recent UN report. In fact, Baghdad has built a second morgue that can accept 250 bodies a day. That is the state of affairs in Iraq: we face civil war, so we must address the problem.

I have said many times that I never supported the war itself, which was a distraction from the real concern—Afghanistan. However, we are where we are. We have heard important voices such as Carne Ross, the former first secretary of the British delegation to the UN, who testified to the Butler inquiry that there were no weapons of mass destruction. We heard, too, from 52 diplomats, including former ambassadors to Baghdad and Tel Aviv, who questioned the Government’s middle east policy, which has caused us to endure many problems. A fundamental flaw in our ability to deal with Iraq stemmed from the fact that the previous Secretary of State for International Development, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), refused to participate in post-conflict work. We therefore missed the opportunity to win over hearts and minds and begin work on the reconstruction projects that were very much needed in the first few months after the main conflict.

The second fundamental error was the disbandment of the Ba’ath party. I intervened on the Defence Secretary and I was pleased that he finally acknowledged that that was a schoolboy error. It should not have been done. We immediately got rid of the army and the police force, but 80 per cent. of the current army and police force are former members of the Ba’ath party. Not only that—we also got rid of all the doctors, nurses and teachers. They all went home because they were not allowed to work, yet the majority of them wanted nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. They were simply working as best they could in the environment that existed then.

The biggest problem is the friction between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis. The bombing on 22 February last year of the al-Askari shrine, the Shi’ites’ most holy site, was the tipping point. Since then, Sunnis and Shi’a have found it harder and harder to work together. There is a growing insurgency. Many of the political groupings are linked to militias, and that is taking the country further into civil war.

Will the Minister comment on the growth of the militias, particularly the Mahdi army, which is one of the largest? I cannot see the leaders in Iraq disbanding these groups. First, they do not have the power, and secondly, the militias are helping them to remain in power. On 6 October last year, an entire Iraqi police brigade was taken out of service because it had links with death squads and looting, turning a blind eye to such activities.

On training, we were supposed to have reached a target now, four years after the invasion, of 400,000 trained Iraqi security personnel. We are not even close to 275,000. The Pentagon has stopped releasing assessments of the number of trained Iraqi soldiers, because they are not accurate and the numbers are in decline.

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The blueprint that we have for Iraq is wrong. The US is in a quagmire, and erroneous assumptions have been made about the readiness of the Iraq Government to take over. We are in denial if we believe that. There is corruption and looting, and al-Maliki has little interest in disarming the warring factions. We are not winning hearts and minds, as we should do, and there is a growing opinion that ethnic tensions have gone too far.

We are obsessed with keeping the original borders. Tens of billions have been spent to try and avoid civil war, but that has failed. We could easily move a third of the population of 28 million, build houses, roads and all the infrastructure that is required for towns and villages, and divide the country in three on a model similar to the United Arab Emirates. We have a choice. We can change the blueprint and consider that option, or we can continue as we are doing and end up with a divided country anyway, but one divided by war.

I conclude with some comments about Afghanistan. Iraq played a huge role in what is going on there. Too few troops went in—30,000 to begin with. Only four years later, in 2005, did we get to the heart of the Taliban’s operations in Helmand province. Even now, in neighbouring Nimruz province, there is not a single NATO soldier. I ask the Minister to shout to our allies, “Where are you? Why are you not with us fighting the battles out there? Please come and join us in Afghanistan, but leave your caveats behind.” The British are doing most of the work, along with our colleagues, such as the Canadians and the Americans, but where are the French, the Germans and the Turks? We will not win in Afghanistan unless we have more troops there and a more co-ordinated effort.

My final point relates to the shortage of diamorphine in the United Kingdom. It seems ironic that when we have G8 responsibility for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, a shortage in the UK of a commodity that is made from poppies, and responsibility for Helmand province, where a third of the world’s narcotics come from, we cannot come up with a solution that involves licensing the poppy crops and preventing the terrorists from gaining from that income.

5.19 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) referred to the speech made by the Prime Minister on 12 January on HMS Albion. I read that speech closely and repeatedly, because it filled me with dismay and concern. I would not be concerned were it merely the speech of a Prime Minister beginning his valedictory tour, but it presumably also reflects some of the thinking in the Ministry of the Defence and among the current ministerial team. The problem was that he painted a canvas divorced from the need to match our resources, capacity, service personnel strength, equipment and logistical capability with our foreign policy goals. Regrettably, he failed to recognise the political reality that in future the United Kingdom’s main bailiwick—the sphere in which our writ will run in terms of maximising our influence in military and foreign policy terms—must increasingly be the Euro-Atlantic region, the Mediterranean, the so-called “stans”, and the vital energy-producing areas of the Caucasus and nearby Asia.

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Of course, if there is genocide in the world I want the UK to use its good offices in every way possible to minimise and prevent it. However, in the troubled area of Africa, for instance, we must be realistic in recognising that the regional powers are now Nigeria and South Africa. People might not like it, but we must, to a large extent, defer to them as regards maximising our influence on despotic regimes and our ability to intervene.

The Prime Minister did not reflect that reality in his speech. He tried to draw a distinction by saying that some countries do peacekeeping and some countries do war fighting—a peculiar phrase. I do not see it in those black and white terms. Clearly, we have an obligation—we are a significant power in the world, and long may that be so—but we need to decide how and where we can have the maximum impact on the world and match that to our military resources. At the moment we are over-committed—demonstrably so. If something happened in our political backyard—perhaps in Kosovo or in Transnistria—where a major problem required intervention, the UK would find it very difficult to act on it, yet our constituencies would feel the greatest impact in terms of refugees and so on. I say to the Prime Minister, to the current ministerial team and to those who will succeed them in a few weeks’ time that we need to cut our cloth appropriately and bear in mind the fact that we must temper our ambitions in respect of military intervention so that it relates to our foreign policy priorities.

My next point concerns recruitment. I was dismayed to discover in a parliamentary reply from the Minister that we are not actively recruiting in our overseas territories. That is surprising, as they have a large reservoir of keen young men and women who should be invited to join our armed forces. It is also bad in principle, because ultimately their Parliament is here and we should be doing something about it. My question related particularly to Bermuda, where anyone who wishes to join the UK armed forces has to get permission to get out of being conscripted in Bermuda. That conscription, which is being tolerated by this Labour Government, is discriminatory on grounds of gender because it relates exclusively to young men. Women are not conscripted—although I am not arguing that they should be. There should not be conscription in a peacetime situation presided over and acquiesced in by Her Majesty’s Government, who bear the ultimate responsibility for it.

As we speak, some young men and women are appealing to the Bermuda supreme court to have their conscription overruled. I am asking the British Government to use their power to have a stay of implementation of that conscription in respect of those young men and women until the supreme court has exhausted that issue. That does not seem to me unreasonable. The British Government, who protest about their espousal of equal opportunities on gender in this country, should not be acquiescing in conscription elsewhere. They are acquiescing in it because the deputy governor is an ex-officio member of the defence board of Bermuda and a full-time Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomat, and the governor
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is the commander in chief appointed by the UK Government via the Foreign Office. It is wholly unsatisfactory.

In any event, we need to think more about the Bermuda Regiment. Its twin, the Royal Gibraltar Regiment—comprising all volunteers, with pay and rations comparable to the rest of UK forces and very much integrated within them—is highly regarded, but the Bermuda Regiment is not. The Minister of State, in his place on the Bench there, had to confirm in a parliamentary reply to me earlier this week that if the conscripts want to go to the lavatory after 11 o’clock at night, they have to be escorted by their non-commissioned officers. That is demeaning and it is indicative of the parlous state of that regiment, over which the British Government are presiding.

Colonel Baxter, our military attaché in Washington DC, was dispatched down there just over 12 months ago to investigate the Bermuda Regiment and he found it under-equipped and in a parlous state. In his report, which is on the governor’s website, he said:

He also drew attention to the fact that in the equivalent of the state opening of Parliament there—the local overseas territory legislature—the regiment turned up seven minutes late,

He also noted that it was

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