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This is a debate on defence in the UK, but I wish to trespass briefly on your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to comment on a visit that the Defence Committee made last week to Afghanistan. The success of our deployment in Afghanistan will have huge importance in the UK, because Afghanistan is the source of the vast majority of heroin in this country. We came away from the visit with a sense of confusion about our role in relation to heroin and the poppy. Are we there to destroy the poppy, to support the destruction of the poppy by the Afghan national army,
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to destroy some but not all of the poppy, or to leave it be? If we were a little confused about that, the Afghan people, whose hearts and minds we are trying to win, will be very confused about our stance.

As ever, we were very impressed by the morale and quality of our British forces in Afghanistan. We must remember that it is our job as politicians to ensure that our British forces are clear about their role and that, as a result, the Afghan people are clear about what we are doing there. One of the purposes of our presence is to prevent Afghanistan again providing a base for terrorist attacks on the UK, but there has been a worrying failure of communication.

According to the Secretary of State for International Development, we are no longer to use the term “war on terror”. I think that he has a good point about that, but we are part of an international struggle and we need a coherent approach across our allies. I worry that we seem to have no campaign plan to combat terrorism, either in this country or in the wider world. It is not surprising that we are losing the information war in the UK and seeing the radicalisation of Muslim youth if we have no joined-up campaign plan that everybody understands and to which everybody subscribes. Either we have a plan that is not being properly explained by this Government and the international community, in which case the Government should begin to explain our plan better very soon, or—more alarmingly—there is no overall strategy to cope with the terrorist threat.

Let us suppose for a moment that we do have a plan, but that we are communicating it badly. That is symptomatic of a wider failure to engage in and win the communication war. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the terrorists we face are extraordinarily good at turning everything to their advantage. They have realised that the deaths of Afghans or Iraqis play to their agenda. They have also realised that the deaths of coalition forces play to their agenda. So the more deaths there are in either country, the more the terrorists seem able to take advantage of the media opportunities that they create. We have not worked out, in our rather plodding western way, how to win or even how to fight that information propaganda battle.

Linda Gilroy: I am following the right hon. Gentleman’s speech carefully. Does he agree that in the information war the Iraqis and Iranians are much better at articulating what they are fighting for, as well as what they are fighting against? By using the expression “the war against terror”, we have been less good at describing what we are fighting for.

Mr. Arbuthnot: Damn it, I really should know better than to give way to the hon. Lady, as she has said exactly what I was going to say next. She is absolutely right: we will win people’s hearts and minds by promoting their hopes and aspirations, not by inspiring fear and saying what is going wrong. She is completely right to say that we have to be for our beliefs and values and against those who try to undermine their own security, but that we have to act in a way that appeals to people’s minds and hearts.

My suspicion, however, is not that we failed to articulate our plan but rather that we do not have one. That suspicion is fed by the fact that the Foreign Secretary has told us so. On 13 January, she and the
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Defence Secretary came before a joint meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) asked the Foreign Secretary whether she had

the terrorist threat—

The Foreign Secretary replied:

The right hon. Lady said more in the same vein, but the truth is that we really need a plan. The Government must show that they understand that the rise of fundamentalism in UK communities, as well as people’s sense of isolation, distance and lack of integration, are intimately connected with the difficulties and dangers faced by our troops in the middle east and with terrorism everywhere.

I turn now to how we look after our service personnel. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton said, we are about to conduct two inquiries. One will be into Defence Estates, the agency that administers the MOD’s physical estate, and the other will be into medical care for the armed forces. At this juncture, and with all due diffidence, I should like to pay particular tribute to the Defence Committee itself. It does a lot of extremely valuable work thanks to its members’ assiduity and hard work, and they are brilliantly and ably supported by the Committee’s Clerks and advisers. A great deal of hard work goes into the inquiries that we conduct and I hope that the House will agree that it is generally to reasonably good effect.

As I said, the Defence Committee is conducting an inquiry into Defence Estates. The agency has a broad range of responsibilities, one of the most important of which is the provision of housing for service personnel and their families. The quality of service housing has received much media attention. It is very variable. When the Committee visited Cyprus last November, we were shown some quite exemplary single living accommodation, but we also spoke to soldiers who were dreading being deployed to Hounslow because of its reputation for having some of the worst barracks in the Army. The MOD has a duty to provide decent living accommodation for service personnel, but it is clear that the quality of accommodation affects both retention and morale. That is why we shall be looking into the matter very soon.

For exactly the same reasons, the Committee will be looking into the medical care that our armed services receive. That has been dealt with in depth and with far greater expertise than I could hope to summon by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). He was absolutely right to concentrate on some of mental health issues that challenge injured personnel, as well as on the physical issues. The Committee is not sure about the state of the interface between Defence Medical Services and the NHS and about what happens when people are discharged from the armed forces. We are not sure whether that is being properly handled, so we shall be looking into the matter. It is essential that those who fight on behalf of our country
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and are injured and often suffer dreadfully should receive the very best of care.

In everything we say, we need to bear in mind the extraordinarily valuable contribution made by places such as Selly Oak hospital. There are media stories attacking the hospital, but there are also stories about the high-quality treatment given there. The Committee will do its best to get to the bottom of how such contradictions arise.

Finally, I want to touch on research and development. The Committee produced a report in February on the work of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. We noted that UK spending on defence-related research and development is about a tenth of US spending and that the gap is widening. The defence industrial strategy showed clearly that what we spend on defence research now will have a precise and definite bearing on our defence capabilities in 20 or 25 years’ time. Our deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq focus research and development on short-term operational requirements, which may be to the detriment of longer term research. We have to ensure that does not happen.

Although the Committee accepted that the Government’s defence industrial strategy sought greater investment in defence research from industry, we felt strongly that increased Government investment was also necessary to maintain the UK’s position compared with its competitors. We expressed concern about the possible impact of the shortage of science graduates, although DSTL told us that that was not a problem. Nevertheless, we felt that although the shortage of graduates might not yet be a problem for DSTL, it could be in the future. If there are fewer science graduates, or if they are tempted to go to other countries, that could pose a problem for us in the long term.

A couple of evenings ago, some colleagues and I were fortunate enough to be entertained by QinetiQ, the extraordinarily valuable and exceptionally good company that employs large numbers of my constituents. A number of interesting points were made at the dinner, but I shall refer to only two of them. In the commercial world, what is in the shops today was on the computer design screen less than a year ago. We desperately need to be able to match that speed to market—or, in the MOD procurement world, speed to front line.

The second point arises from the first. There is an aversion to risk taking in the civil service. There is no system for rewarding civil servants who take risks. In fact, it is quite the reverse of a reward system, because what happens is that they get hauled before the Defence Committee or the Public Accounts Committee. I believe that there is a need to encourage civil servants to take properly assessed and properly evaluated risks in the interests of getting equipment into service before it becomes obsolete.

Dr. Fox: I cannot quite remember who said, “Advisers advise, Ministers decide,” but does my right hon. Friend agree that the primary driver of this system has to be a ministerial one, because it is to Ministers that civil servants are ultimately responsible?

Mr. Arbuthnot: I agree and I will make a further point that relates precisely to what my hon. Friend says.
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It may horrify the House to hear it, but I believe that the current Minister for defence procurement is well placed to understand the point. Because of his background in industry, he understands the need for risk taking and the benefits that can flow from it. It is essential, I believe, that Ministers take those decisions to encourage risk taking, but it is also important that we scrutinising politicians learn the same lesson before we make life too difficult for those who take risks and sometimes fail.

3.21 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May I say how pleased I am to contribute to this timely and important debate? No one can get away from the fact that our armed forces are under tremendous pressure at the moment—not just overseas, but in the UK. As the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) said, we are in a new era in which the certainties of the cold war have gone. The threat now is from international terrorism at home and abroad, and the methods of dealing with those problems in the new security world are very different. That challenges the Government to respond to the threat, while putting great pressure on our armed forces to recognise that we live in a different and dangerous world.

Along with the right hon. Gentleman I was privileged to visit Afghanistan last week and see that the men and women of our armed forces are working tremendously hard and with great dedication. It was rather odd to see a submariner in Kandahar miles away from the sea, but the men and women we met in all three services were working tremendously hard. I have to say that morale was very high. However, I sometimes think that we forget the pressures on the families left at home and the great worry they go through when their family members are on active operations throughout the world. Indeed, I would like to concentrate on the welfare issues in today’s debate.

The Minister referred to the formation of the new armed forces independent complaints commissioner. Like other hon. Members in their places today, I was privileged to be a member of the Select Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill, which was good legislation. It went through a pre-legislative scrutiny phase in which many important issues were discussed in depth. I was pleased that, following the Blake report, the Government adapted the Bill to introduce a new armed forces commissioner.

No one can underestimate the damage caused by the revelations about Deepcut and the stories that we heard when the Defence Committee produced its report in the previous Parliament on the duty of care to young servicemen and women. I also have to say, however, that some of the media coverage was irresponsible and caused some unwarranted damage. I believe that the armed forces commissioner will help to provide a method of restoring some independence in dealing with complaints, and I hope that the post will be introduced as speedily as possible. I am a little worried that a lot of legislation that the House passes is left to the sausage machine of the civil service to enact. I am pleased that the advert for the armed forces commissioner has gone out, but the House and the Defence Committee will have to monitor the situation to ensure that the body is set up as quickly as possible.

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In this media age, it is becoming quite clear that the men and women serving in our armed forces and their families will not sit back quietly and accept everything they are given. Instead, they will raise matters affecting the welfare of individuals and their families. I tabled new clause 23 to the Armed Forces Bill, although the Government did not accept it, which would have formed an armed forces federation. I am not proposing that there should be a trade union for the armed forces because that would be neither helpful, nor the way forward. However, there is increasing dissatisfaction about welfare issues, but, unfortunately, there is no mechanism through which people can express their views and get the recompense that some serving members of the armed forces and families deserve.

If hon. Members want an example, I suggest that they log on to the army rumour service website, which is very entertaining on occasions. Let me cite a recent post on the website. An ex-serviceman wrote:

The post recognises the pressures on family life that are caused by separation from family and loved ones. It continues:

On 30 October 2006, the British Armed Forces Federation gained legal status as a company limited by guarantee. I would like the federation to be recognised as a body that can represent the views of men and women serving in the armed forces, and they should be allowed to join it. People say that that would be a radical step forward that would affect the chain of command, but our men and women are serving overseas in Afghanistan and other theatres with Australian and Dutch personnel and individuals from other international NATO partners, all of whom have similar types of federations.

The federation is carrying out important work by not only lobbying for improvements in housing, but giving personal legal advice on not just the compensation-culture end of the spectrum, but family matters at home. Such a range of services will increasingly be needed by a lot of members of our armed forces. I pay tribute to Douglas Young and others involved in the initiative. Sooner or later, this Government, or a future one, will have to recognise that we need a body that can be a vehicle for highlighting the problems faced by members of our armed forces and for expressing their anxieties. Such problems and anxieties will only increase as we ask our members of the armed forces to do more on our behalf in difficult situations.

We have already heard about accommodation, and the federation’s website shows that it is one of the most important issues to people. It is rather sad that media reports over the past few months have ignored the great work that has been done to put more money into accommodation for the armed forces. As the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) said, however, we cannot ignore history. The Conservatives have to take
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some responsibility for the sale of MOD accommodation, which was not a good deal for the taxpayer, as the hon. Gentleman said. Having researched my speech for today, I have to say that I agree with the former Prime Minister, Lord Callaghan, who said in 1996:

Is every single unit of accommodation going to be upgraded overnight? No. However, another brave decision by the Government, which will improve armed forces accommodation, is to get rid of the arms plot and to develop super bases. The hon. Member for Colchester tells me that some of the new family accommodation coming on-stream is of a very high quality. That will help us to achieve the standards that the families of our armed forces personnel deserve. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) made the point that over the next 10 years some £5 billion will be spent on armed forces accommodation.

We must not ignore the issue. Clearly, the Conservatives have jumped on a bandwagon, but the matter has been raised by members of the Army Board. Lieutenant-General Viggers recently said:

He went on to say:

I do not think that anyone in the House could disagree with that or with some of the comments made by General Sir Mike Jackson.

I temper that by saying that members of the Army Board should realise that they speak from a privileged position. Last year, the rent for the accommodation for the four generals came to £82,000, and if one adds in the cost of their gardeners, cooks and various other items, over £600,000 was spent.

Is the plan to improve accommodation going to be a quick fix? No. We ought to congratulate the Government on what they are doing to try to improve accommodation, not just here but abroad.

Some of the reporting of the medical treatment for members of the armed forces who are wounded in action has been sensationalist and outrageous. I have visited Selly Oak hospital, which I think is a fantastic facility. Using it is the right approach, as it has the necessary specialisms and the throughput of people means that expertise and skills are kept up to date. We must always be mindful of the fact that mistakes will be made in individual cases. However, I urge colleagues not to pick one example and then say that everything is wrong, because it quite clearly is not at Selly Oak.

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