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4 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): I apologise for missing the opening speeches and two hours of the debate. I was attending a dinner that the Minister for Europe gave for the President of Georgia.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) is almost Churchillian in his oratory, but he is guilty of missing out a bit of history from the Falklands to 1997, when he was a distinguished Minister, as was my successor as Chairman of the Defence Committee. I still find it difficult to view the work of the Defence Committee with detachment. Leaving it was not voluntary but imposed by a rule for which I did not vote and that I did not appreciate.

I remember reading that the hon. Gentleman’s grandfather famously said after the war that history would be kind to him because he would be writing the history. That was prophetic and brilliant and no hon. Member, with the possible exception of the hon. Gentleman, has more admiration for his grandfather than me. However, the hon. Gentleman was a Minister when the defence budget fell from 5.5 per cent. to 2.5 per cent. I recall Ministers appearing before the Defence Committee, and our pleading with them, “Please don’t think because the cold war is over that the threat to our national security has been dissipated. History shows that crises will return.”

I am not trying to be hostile; I want to be constructive in the same way as the hon. Gentleman and others. Governments are always guilty of finding reasons for not increasing expenditure on defence and for cutting defence spending. In 1997, the Defence Committee was Conservative led, and our last report before the general election said something along the lines of, “Defence expenditure has fallen to such a dramatically low level that, should any further cuts be introduced, we believe it will endanger the defence of the realm.”

The Government appear to be following a tradition of doing the bare necessity. I support the Government—if I supported the party under Michael Foot, I will always support it. I cringe about some of the things for which I had to vote in the 1980s, holding my nose every time I went through the Lobby to vote on defence issues. There was one exception: the Falklands, when Michael Foot returned to his “guilty men” days, and I applauded him.

I remember writing a mostly historical book about my local Staffordshire Regiment, which survived the Conservative Government. Thank God for the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who reversed some of the atrocious cuts that the Government had pushed through. Unfortunately, the new Government got their own back on some of the regiments that survived, and the early options for change policy appears to be in the process of implementation. As we have seen with some of the failures of the previous Government, supporters of this Government will also look back critically in 10, 15 or however many years.

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When I came to the debate late, I had a sense of déj vu, because the sale of the Ministry of Defence housing estate—sold by Michael Portillo to Annington Homes, also known as the Nomura corporation of Tokyo, Japan—was again being discussed. In the early 1990s, the Conservative-led Defence Committee said that the cuts to Defence Medical Services, as a result of defence costs study 15, had proceeded at such a pace and intensity that it doubted that it could ever recover.

The Labour Government made one of the biggest mistakes—which has been referred to rather approvingly—in flogging off the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. That was an atrocious decision, even though people now take some pride in it. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) was part of our four inquiries’ endeavour—

Harry Cohen: And me.

Mr. George: I am sorry to show how bipartisan the report was.

Therefore, Governments fail. At the beginning of this Government, I remember making what I thought was an amusing speech, which I called the A to Z of Tory procurement—the Clerks advised “foul-ups” as the final words. I said at the time that the speech had been made too soon, and now is the time to accuse the Labour party of making procurement mistakes.

All Governments make mistakes. They should at least have the humility to know when mistakes have been made, and look to history to try to avoid such mistakes in the future. The history of the British armed forces over the past 200 years shows an oscillation between intense effort to meet a sudden threat and—almost in a matter of days after the threat was over and military victory had been achieved—the inevitable descent in expenditure and recruitment. Once again, having bottomed out, a crisis emerges and the situation must be repaired in a short space of time.

What are the current dangers? We have all said that we now look back on the cold war almost as the halcyon days. We knew the enemy then: all the Germans looked like Anton Diffring, and the Russians all looked like Russians. Now, however, we live in a different world. The threat is different, but I fear that some of the cold war threats and problems will sneak back. There was a time when the cold war had apparently ended, and we were in our euphoric phase. With Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the beginning of democracy, we were in a loving embrace with Russia—no longer the Soviet Union—with NATO training the Russian military and good words all round. Anyone who thought that that would last in perpetuity had no knowledge of, interest in or wish to gain the experience of history.

It is too soon to start getting paranoid about developments, but we need to be aware of them. Russia went through an humiliating period, and is now coming out of it. The British and others helped Russia to develop its oil and gas industry, and now, understandably, it is becoming increasingly wealthy and self-confident. We are beginning to hear phrases which, if not alarming, are cause for concern.

The cold war created the need for cold war expenditure and action. Then we entered a period in which people said “Well, there is only one superpower
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now. All is going swimmingly. Russia is no longer a threat, and China does not really count.” We are moving into a different era now. We are no longer in a unipolar state; we are in a multipolar state. We are seeing a multiplication of ownership of nuclear weapons, and countries with significant grievances. As I am sure other Members have pointed out, we face a new range of threats. There are environmental threats, and of course there is the growth of terrorism.

We are having to deal with those new threats, but we may also face a recurrence of the old threats. It has been said that in an era in which we need forces that can be deployed rapidly, we do not need heavy tanks. People have said, “No one wants the Eurofighter any more, because it is surplus to requirements.” We are going to have to prepare for a traditional, conventional war, such as we fought only three years ago. We must prepare to defend ourselves with the concepts and strategies that were used in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, while having to deal with terrorism at home and a multitude of other pressures that we are beginning to recognise. Can that be done with a defence budget that is falling to a level close to 2.2 or 2.3 per cent., perhaps even closer than we fear? It cannot.

As everyone with a sense of history knows, after the Ottoman navy was largely sunk at Lepanto, the Ottomans licked their wounds, sailed home in what ships they had, chopped down every tree in Anatolia and built a new navy in six months, after which they were back winning naval victories. Our protracted procurement process may mean a delay of 10, 15 or 20 years. We must start to anticipate what the dangers may be in 10 or 15 years, or perhaps even sooner.

Members may say, “You have criticised the Government. Now may we have a little plug for the Government?” The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex rightly said that the strategic defence review was overdue and that its analysis was correct. Adjustments were made because of succeeding events, but one wonders how long it will be before more adjustments are needed. I am not calling for a new SDR, but five years from now we may be forced to admit that the strategic environment is different from the one that existed when the SDR was drawn up in the late 1990s.

I do not wish to be seen as an old cold war warrior who, Rip van Winkle-like, has fallen asleep for a decade and then returned to the world as if nothing had happened. I genuinely believe that we are entering a dangerous period of international relations.

I am very pro-America, and always have been. We should support the alliance, and support the United States even when things look pretty stupid over there. Anyone with a sense of history will know the importance of the United States to the security and survival of western Europe. Who was largely responsible for the delivery of eastern and central Europe? It was not the British or the French; it was the United States. Because of the deteriorating economic environment in the United States and the bruising that it, like the British, has received over Iraq, my concern is that the United States might do what it did after 1918-19: retreat into itself and say, “Well, it’s your problem.” It must not do that. However good our
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armed forces are, and even with Trident II or Trident III, could we survive? No, we could not. Can we rely on the European Union to defend us? No, we cannot.

In the dangerous world in which we now live, there must be an increasingly close relationship between the traditional allies—not only between the English-speaking peoples, but right across the world. The economic, social and demographic threats that we face have to be dealt with, but the primary threat will be the multiplicity of threats that I have been talking about. We can cope with those threats only by means of a solid twin-tracked alliance in which the American part is matched—and not only in terms of the quality of armed forces. We have learned that defence is no longer a matter only for the Ministry of Defence.

That brings me on to my main point. The debate is on defence, but the topic is in some respects anachronistic. Defence is a watertight area of Government policy. We know exactly what it is, who makes most of the decisions—the Chancellor—and who makes the decisions consequent upon his decisions. We know the personnel involved. However, 9/11 showed that each Department of State is not watertight. No solid wall can be built around the Foreign Office or the MOD. In fairness to the Executive, they have built up and developed a system of decision making that transcends departmental stovepipes. However, it is far from perfect, and I do not want there to be a crisis of decision making so that there needs to be an inquiry into that failure. I do not want the Government to have to rework constantly their decision-making and policy-making procedures to ensure that, in the event of a crisis—whether a minor crisis involving a relatively minor terrorist attack, or a major crisis—the entire series of edifices of central Government, Cabinet and Cabinet Committees, with the entire range of personnel involved, are so well calibrated in terms of both domestic politics and our relations with our international partners that our response is sufficiently swift and effective.

My major concern is an institution that is closer to home: our House of Commons. The Executive have over time acted to create a more cross-cutting decision-making process, but parliamentary structures remain wedded to 19th-century principles. We even call Select Committees “departmental Select Committees”. However, the Defence Committee, which I was proud to chair, broke the mould. After 9/11, a meeting was held—a couple of Members who are present attended it—of the Defence Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the International Development Committee. It was a substitute for a second recall of Parliament after 9/11. I contacted the Chairmen of those Committees as well as the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which is not a Select Committee, of course, and said, “Look, we’re all going to be involved in an inquiry into 9/11. Let’s get the ground rules right so that we do not keep calling the same people.” I asked the Defence Committee staff and others to list from one to 10 the best forms of inquiry. At the top of the list was a joint inquiry across the board: one large committee with inputs from the other Committees. At the bottom was the option of no co-operation whatsoever. What model of co-operation was chosen? The bottom but one, which was a joint briefing from the intelligence services. So the Defence Committee said, “Sod you—we are doing our own.”

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A lot of people were angry. One Cabinet Minister was incandescent with rage because we, the Defence Committee, at the instigation of the MOD, were undertaking an inquiry way beyond our competence as a Select Committee. We did it, however, and we covered defence and, to an extent, foreign affairs, home affairs, civil contingencies preparation and response, aviation and maritime security, the response of the health service, regional and local government, policing, and the private sector in a genuinely integrated inquiry, carried out by the Defence Committee on its own. After that we had exhausted our good will with the other Committees, which had progressively joined in, so we sank back again into our stovepipe.

I have done a lot of research on this issue. I wrote to the Leader of the House, who was not interested in my proposal. The Chairman of the Modernisation Committee was quite interested, but I got no reply from the Liaison Committee. I said, “Can we not think of ways of improving the situation and of getting out of our ‘stovepipe-ism’? Can’t we have a national security committee, which could be ad hoc and would come into effect only if a crisis occurred that required the Select Committee system to get the Committees together in a combined endeavour to deal with it?”

Mr. Kevan Jones: Everything is not as black and gloomy as my right hon. Friend is suggesting. His successor, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), has held a joint session of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees, taking evidence from the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary.

Mr. George: I am aware of that, although I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing it out. However, that is nothing—in fact, less than nothing. I recall saying that we must have more meetings with Foreign Affairs Committee. We had one with the MOD and then the Clerk was instructed that if that representative of the FAC ever attends a joint meeting, that is the end of any co-operation. So I lapsed for a moment into the attitude that I am now criticising.

I proposed a system that can replicate the co-ordinated response of the Executive. We cannot do that, because the Treasury can play one Department or Select Committee off against another. The Treasury will not appear before us—to my knowledge, only once in 30 years has a Treasury official appeared before the Defence Committee. We need to think about improving our own structures. There are models, of sorts, such as the Quadripartite Committee, and the Commons and Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights. We cannot deal with the multiplicity of challenges that a modern state faces by examining the MOD singly. If what the Defence Committee did on civil contingencies preparation and planning were replicated in a Government structure, it would fill a wall. Who—apart from the Defence Committee five or six years ago—has done anything about this issue other than table a few parliamentary questions? Who has asked questions of the Civil Contingencies Committee or the civil contingencies secretariat, which are vital to responding to a devastating attack? I wish that we would put our house in order in that regard.

I have not yet touched on the main points of my speech— [ Interruption . ] We have lots of time. I sought
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advice regarding the Register of Members’ Interests, and I should point out that I have an obsessive interest in the state of Georgia. That interest first developed in the mid-1990s, when Georgia was under the corrupt regime of Eduard Shevardnadze. I also headed the observation of a number of elections in Georgia, and in doing so I was very objective. I am very supportive of Georgia and I will never again be asked to observe an election there, or anywhere else probably. Alarm bells may be ringing and people may be asking what Georgia has to do with this debate—

Mr. Hancock: Yes.

Mr. George: Well, it is the one place that the hon. Gentleman has not visited. I cannot think of many places that fall into that category.

Mr. Hancock: I went there with you!

Mr. George: Well, perhaps the hon. Gentleman has been there once.

To try to minimise criticism, I mentioned earlier in my speech the fact that as the Secretary of State for Defence spent a lot of time talking to the President of Georgia—as did the Prime Minister—it must be a matter of interest for us. What happens in Georgia is of importance to us. First, so much of our energy comes through that country and BP is the largest investor there. Secondly, we want Georgia to become part of NATO and it is in our interests that that part of the south Caucasus is democratic. None of the countries to the north are democratic and the other countries in the south Caucasus are—to put it politely—not yet on the significant path towards becoming consolidated democracies. Georgia is trying very hard to be accepted as a member of NATO. It has gone through the acronym process of partnership for peace and, I hope, next year it will go through the membership action plan.

My great concern is Russia. I am not being paranoid and saying that Russia is a threat. It is not, but the speech that President Putin gave a couple of months ago in Germany criticised the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which must be the least harmful organisation in the history of the world. It is the Russians who are being paranoid. It is not in our interests that any Russian bullying achieves its aim of intimidating Georgia into accepting the re-establishment of Russian control. The Russians often forget that Georgia has extricated itself from the Soviet Union and Russia. More worryingly, it is possible that Russian pressure—not from the old Red Army, but from the exploitation of a near monopoly in oil and gas—will buy off any support that some countries might otherwise have given to Georgia’s burgeoning democracy and its aspirations to become part of the Euratlantic region and political culture and a member of NATO.

The British Government are doing much to assist in the modernisation of the military. Through the pipeline we are the leading investor in the Georgian economy at present, and we have close connections between our Parliaments and Government Departments. I hope that in one or two years’ time Georgia will become part of NATO.

When I first became a Member of Parliament, the antagonism on the issue of defence was appalling. The
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issue became so personal that it was impossible to achieve any consensus on any defence issue, and that was just inside the Labour party. Between all the parties, the debates were acrimonious and speeches on the issue could cause great offence on both sides. Now, despite the rhetoric and leg-pulling, and the claims that the Government have not done various things right, there is an incredible near-consensus on defence policy. Yes, there are those who do not want Trident, but there is substantial agreement on basic issues. Whichever party is in office over the next five to 10 years, I hope that that consensus will prevail. The challenges that the UK will face will demand clear-headed decision making in Parliament, because the level of threat will be unlike anything that we have seen for generations.

I am not making a valedictory speech, but I believe that the House of Commons is up to that task. The Opposition may not admit it, but they generally offer the Government their support and as a result we are going in the right direction. The way forward set down in the SDR is right, even though some substantial adjustments have to be made. However, we would be burying our collective head in the sand if we believed that the present defence budget, even though it has not been cut, was sufficient to deal with present difficulties, let alone future problems. If we want to adhere to our international obligations and fulfil the principal requirement that our state be defended, the money for that must be found somewhere. That is the challenge facing the Government and the next Prime Minister. We cannot expect our armed forces to continue their difficult task without the necessary funds or resources. I very much hope that the Government meet their obligations in that respect.

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