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4.31 pm

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): It was a pleasure to be in the House this afternoon to hear the sterling contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). I want to associate myself in particular with the remarks that he made at the beginning of his speech about our armed services and their families and about those who have fallen on behalf of this country.

Those remarks prompted me to reflect that defence should be any Government’s No. 1 priority, as it is our insurance policy that ensures that freedom and the right of self-determination continue in the UK. It was for that reason that the Falklands taskforce set out almost 25 years ago, as most of us will remember well. I am pleased and honoured to be going to the Falklands for the first time in June, to be present at the commemorations celebrating the return of freedom to the islands.

I agree entirely with the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) about the alliances with America and the English-speaking countries that have stood the test of time. We should work more closely with those who share our ideals and values.

I came across a quotation the other day that seemed especially apt for this debate on the UK’s defence. In his “The Art of War”, Sun Tzu wrote:

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That succinctly describes the dilemma facing those charged with the procurement of arms, vehicles and systems for our armed services on active duty on behalf of the UK.

In order to plan comprehensively for the defence of the UK, one has to predict future difficulties and conflicts that could threaten, directly or indirectly, our nation and its interests. It would seem that the present counter-insurgency challenges facing our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan—part of the war on terrorism—have not been accurately predicted by the military or by politicians. The Home Secretary recently talked about splitting the responsibilities of the Home Office to improve prospects in the war on terror. Perhaps the MOD needs to give a higher priority to counter-insurgency work, and to the necessary procurement for it, because the war on terror will most certainly not go away.

I am often reminded of the phrase “boys and toys” when I hear about the huge expenditure on procurement in the UK’s defence budget, not least because I have always believed that it is not what we spend but how we spend it that is more important. For example, the RAF’s budget is haemorrhaging because of the Eurofighter—that fantastically expensive creation of European integration—and if we enter into tranche 3, which will provide for ground attack, the aircraft will be too fast to be of any use as close air support in counter-insurgency work.

Similarly, the Royal Navy is besotted with the idea of its two future aircraft carriers, which inevitably absorb most of its funding. However, should not we ask whether those vessels will fit the requirements of the future? They will certainly be of limited value in counter-insurgency work, where the requirement is often as simple as inshore patrol vessels. The Army has been painfully restructured to fulfil the original concept of FRES—the future rapid effect system—to wage war against a conventional army at a distance, as part of the European rapid reaction force, double-hatted with NATO; yet that unattainable pipe dream seems to have been downgraded to the provision of medium-armoured vehicles.

The three examples that I have briefly described, with the extra parts bolted on to form the complete packages, are very large funding projects indeed. During the Westminster Hall debate that I secured on FRES, the Minister announced that its cost had risen, almost overnight, from £6 billion to £14 billion and I believe that it has now gone up to £16 billion in only a short time. Once again, the question has to be posed: can the UK afford such expensive procurement without compromising lesser but equally important projects with immediate needs, such as those to provide maximum protection and support for our troops on active service in Iraq and Afghanistan? The final question is the $64,000 one: will a future British Government be prepared to continue funding those expensive projects?

The MOD is making great strides in base protection from indirect fire, which includes the introduction of counter rocket, artillery and mortar—C-RAM—about which I asked an oral question on 22 January, following a tragic incident at Basra palace camp. Improved body armour has been supplied. The VIPIR thermal imager is excellent. Mastiff and Bulldog vehicles have been
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introduced and there are improved electronic counter-measures against improvised explosive devices. As has been said, there are additional medium-lift helicopters: eight mark 3 Chinooks, which are to be downgraded to mark 2s, to ensure that they actually work, and six Merlins from Denmark, which are exceptionally expensive aircraft. In addition, among other items, we now have the underslung grenade launcher and better communication kit.

Where we might be going wrong, however, is that the military, or perhaps even politicians, seem to want advanced technical toys that cover 100 per cent. of all possible requirements. I have already mentioned tranche 3 of the Eurofighter, but there is also the joint strike fighter, the Merlin helicopter and electric armour on new vehicles. Then, on cost only rather than technology grounds, there are the two carriers, Astute submarines, A400M transport aircraft, air-to-air refuelling replacement and the MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability—programme to replace all the Navy’s ageing supply ships. They are all incredibly expensive, and often need massive logistical back-up, yet we simply do not have the manpower to service them without taking personnel from other duties. Nor could we contemplate their potential loss, because we have insufficient financial resources to replace them, even if they could be procured at short notice, which is nigh on impossible.

Over the past three years, I have consistently pursued the issue of counter-insurgency, where the enemy is unknown and is indistinguishable from the local population. That was the main reason I was so sceptical about the original concept of FRES. It is essential for counter-insurgency work to have aerial surveillance, yet I am not entirely convinced of the reliability of unmanned aerial vehicles, which do not come cheap by any means, especially when the Iraqi air force has at least 12 SAMA CH2000 small aircraft fitted with XM15 electro-optical surveillance turrets for less than the price of one Lynx helicopter. However, the Minister will be relieved to hear that it is pleasing that the Army Air Corps now has four Britten Norman Defender 4S AL Mk1 aircraft, which I trust are still in Iraq. I recently tabled a written question on that point. They operate at a fraction of the hourly cost of other aircraft and are no doubt doing a superb job.

With the correct surveillance equipment, an expensive platform is not necessary to deliver results. With the contraction of UK forces in Iraq to Basra air base, for example, the limited routes into Basra should be under aerial surveillance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as should those routes going south to protect the supply lines from Kuwait. That should not be too expensive, but I wonder if the Royal Air Force and the Army Air Corps would work together and co-operate on such a project.

Moreover, insurgents are upping the ante, as it were, by taking out Warriors and Challengers, but it takes them considerably longer to lay the much larger charges needed than to lay an IED—improvised explosive device—against a Snatch Land Rover. That provides the golden opportunity, if there is adequate surveillance, to catch and deal with the insurgents.

There should not be a shortage of helicopters, as there are plenty of Bell helicopters—commonly known in the American slang as “Hueys”—which can be
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leased at a 10th of the hourly cost of a Lynx. They can also operate well in the heat of Afghanistan and fly when conditions ground the Lynx.

At present, many of the requirements in the field of defence arise from dealing with insurgents resisting democracy, and the UK simply cannot afford to fight that kind of a war by using the most expensive equipment, which is not always the best for the conditions. We can succeed, however, by using practical, cost-effective means such as the electro-optical surveillance turret within a simple platform. We can build vehicles with a balance between protection, speed and manoeuvrability, although it has to be said that reports about the Panther Command and Liaison vehicle have not been all that encouraging. As it seems that many, if not most, future conflicts will have to deal with insurgency, Britain needs a force that is both equipped and trained for insurgency work, which can be achieved at a fraction of the defence budget.

I end my brief contribution by saying that I believe the Secretary of State acted properly and appropriately in announcing an inquiry into the incident involving the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines on 23 March. I trust that the inquiry will have a beneficial long-term effect on counter-insurgency work and that the UK will be better equipped in future to deal with these extremely difficult situations.

4.43 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Before I start my own speech, I would like to comment on what the shadow Secretary of State for Defence said earlier this afternoon, which I can describe only as barmy paranoia. His basic argument was that we should not trade with Russia or Iran because they will invest some of the proceeds in their defence. That is quite silly. Are we not to trade, then, to receive the pretty large portions of the world’s oil and gas that come from those parts of the world? Are our people supposed to go cold instead? In another part of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, he talked about selling arms without restriction because he wanted to boost our defence industries. That aspect of his speech was silly and incoherent. He should revisit the matter for the future.

The debate is about defence in the UK, so it is quite restrictive. However, it is astonishing that we have not had a full debate on Iraq in light of recent events and reports, which have included an escalation in the killing of civilians and troops. Iraqi citizens have less security and protection than ever, as was witnessed when the Parliament was bombed. More than 100,000 Iraqis participated in a demonstration in Najaf to call for the US and UK occupiers to go. The coalition Government are losing Ministers and there is more puppet government by the US than ever. We have also seen reports such as that by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which presented a scathing catalogue of the consequences of the occupation for soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

In the United States, public opinion has moved overwhelmingly against the Iraq engagement. There is a joke in Washington: “What’s the difference between the Iraq war and the Vietnam war?” The answer is, “George W. Bush had an exit strategy for the Vietnam war.” George Bush is going to continue with the
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disaster until his term in office is up, whatever the fruitless cost in extra lives. His actions are taking the lives of British troops, yet that seems to be of little concern, other than for prayer. It is openly said in Washington that the Iraq war is a failed war. The US Congress knows it, the British public know it, and Ministers know it—and say so privately. It is wrong not to act on that knowledge so that the carnage and loss of life that the occupation is generating can be brought to an end.

As the debate is about defence in the UK, I want to focus my speech on the UK defence institutions that have come under pressure from the war and occupation and to talk about the process in this country for dealing with death, torture and murder in British military custody. I will not mention a current case because aspects of it remain sub judice, but I can refer to more general matters.

Such matters were raised in an article in Monday’s edition of The Guardian by the solicitor, Phil Shiner, who wrote:

He wrote that the nation should be “shocked”, but that media outlets chose to ignore the matter. He stated:

The article pointed out that the torture by British troops

It stated that the torture was carried out by

but others. Phil Shiner referred to

He wrote about a

In that context, he wrote that troops had “precisely 1.25 hours training” in prisoner handling, although that was the main job of some of the troops. The article also cited “military operations” with

and stated:

He talks about the need for a public inquiry. The Government need to respond to those issues; otherwise they will be discredited.

That has implications for our defence institutions, such as the Royal Military Police. I have a lot of time for them and I pay tribute to them. They have an incredibly difficult job, but they are understaffed and undermined. They investigate thoroughly and deliver the evidence but are then undermined by the rest of the process. They really should be demoralised, and I suspect that they are, because they are given very little support, even by the Government. They are let down
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by the Army Prosecuting Authority. Their status is too low, and for troops who are prepared to use abusive tactics they are really little more now than a nuisance, when they should be a proper police authority.

The Army Prosecuting Authority was the subject of a parliamentary question that I asked in January. It dropped a case of assault because it was more than six months old, saying that it was time-barred. I found that an incredible decision for any prosecuting authority to make. I cannot imagine that if somebody who commits an assault is not caught for six months they will not be prosecuted. The APA put out a press release referring to the incident in 2004 in al-Amarah, which was, of course, shown on television in February 2006. It involved British soldiers allegedly assaulting Iraqi civilians. The video commentary appeared to encourage what was being done and the footage showed an alleged kick to the body of a deceased Iraqi civilian.

The APA said that following a thorough investigation by the Royal Military Police, nine servicemen, members of the Light Infantry, had been referred to it, but it had decided that they should not be tried by court martial. Its reasons involved tests of evidential sufficiency and what it called “public interest”. It claimed that it was not in the public interest to prosecute, even though it had established the identity of two of the servicemen. It said:

The charges were therefore time-barred. It went on to say:

even though it took place in 2004.

That is a ridiculous position. Is assault and battery a summary offence in the civilian world? It is not; it is a most serious offence, and it would be treated as such under criminal law. Is the APA really saying that in civilian society someone can beat up another person and it they are not caught for six months they are in the clear and cannot be prosecuted? I do not think so. By saying that the APA shows how biased it is and what a poor position it is in on this matter. It claims to be acting in the public interest, but it is really just what is wanted by the ill-informed press who see these military abusers as a special case. This is their definition of public interest; it is not what the armed forces need and it is not what the UK needs to uphold its reputation for justice and human rights. On the public interest, the APA got it wrong in this case and it repeatedly gets it wrong. Where is the analysis and the transparency in such cases, which are in the public interest? The APA claims to be independent, but that alleged independence is a chimera. That is what I believe, and that is what the world will believe. If it was independent of the armed forces, it could be safely abolished, and its role handed over to the Crown Prosecution Service.

The court martial system is not working properly in the Iraq abusers context. It sets up all sorts of mechanisms for delay, and, as we know from the APA’s reinterpretation of the law as regards the six-month time limit, the guilty can get off simply because of the delay. The court martial system is not to be trusted; it is
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time for it to be abolished, and for the criminal court system to apply instead. I conclude by quoting from this week’s Tribune:

The way in which people have been dealt with in UK military custody is a disgrace and a shame on Britain, in human rights terms.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Quite a few Members are still hoping to catch my eye, and the time left in this debate is limited. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind when making their contribution. I call Mr. Mike Hancock.

4.56 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish that some of the Members who spoke earlier had borne that advice in mind, particularly as those of us waiting to speak have been here since the beginning of the debate. Some of them had not been in the Chamber for very long at all, yet they managed to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair. It is a shame that they did not show the rest of us the courtesy that we showed them.

I join the Minister in what he had to say about the fallen soldiers—the personnel whom we have lost in the past sad month, and all the others who have gone, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Members have talked about the Falklands today, and my family and I have sad memories of that conflict. My cousin lies in a grave in the Falklands, and my brother-in-law has never really got over the effects of having the ship on which he served bombed out from under him, so, as a family, we know of the historical consequences of those actions. It is fortuitous that we are talking about the defence of the United Kingdom today, with the Falklands anniversary so close; the events took place just 25 years ago.

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