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5.22 pm

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): Our troops are performing magnificently in Iraq and Afghanistan but I fear that they are being let down. In all Departments and, indeed, organisations, the ambitious have a tendency to talk up success and say that things are on target when they know that that is not true. In recent years, that has been especially marked in and around the Ministry of Defence. It almost signifies a cultural change, and saying that all is going well, when often it is not, has become the default setting. That matters, not only for the safety and performance of our troops but for the success of their mission and thus for the safety of our population at home.

Let me give some examples. A few months ago, a general was leaving Iraq. He reported to Permanent Joint Headquarters that three provinces were ready for provincial Iraqi control. He came home. His successor arrived and the first signal that he sent back to PJHQ was that only two provinces were ready for provincial Iraqi control. I call that short tour-ism—six-month tours. The first two months are spent learning about the position, the middle two are spent dealing with it and the last two are spent getting the story right about how things have got better. So, on a graph of Iraq over five or six years, the line goes down, with a little spike every six months when things are better. That is not often the case.

Earlier in Iraq, the media were told that the high unemployment that they witnessed in Basra did not
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matter and that there was employment. Then riots occurred and the magic spell for security, at least in the south, was broken.

I could give numerous examples of the position in Afghanistan—a place that is closely watched by people in the Arab and Muslim world on satellite television channels. The success of the UK in Helmand is critical to our future security.

I have numerous examples of the gap between the reality on the ground and what we are told. I do not have time to go through them—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have allowed a passing reference to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the debate is about defence in the UK.

Mr. Holloway: The point that I am trying to make, Madam Deputy Speaker, is that the gap between ground truth, as the military call it, and what Ministers and others are told, is deeply dangerous to the security of people in the UK. That culture emanates from headquarters in the UK and Government Departments.

If one speaks to senior officials in the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence, one is told that everything is on track: in reconstruction, for example, in the case of Afghanistan. The ordinary Afghans on whom our success depends, however, have seen none of that. The same officials repeat the mantra that one cannot have reconstruction without security, but are less good at responding to the point that in the provincial capital, which is reasonably secure, the ordinary Afghan people have seen no reconstruction. I could go on.

My point is that well-intentioned Ministers, such as the Minister of State, do not get the messages about where the problems are quickly enough. When they do, they are soothed into believing that measures are in place to mitigate them. Deeply regrettably, Iraq is now a done deal in terms of its effect on the perception of the UK by much of the Muslim world and a substantial minority of our own Muslim population. Afghanistan is a noble cause and a multi-billion—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I said earlier. The debate is about defence in the UK.

Mr. Holloway: I am just trying to point, Madam Deputy Speaker, to what I consider to be a form of sophistry, an endemic spin culture that has infected officials and senior officers to become a default setting—that all is well when things are not.

As I see it, the challenge for this country over the next one, five, 20 or 50 years, is to get ourselves back to the situation we were in on 12 September 2001, when the vast majority of people in the Arab and Muslim worlds were deeply sympathetic to us. Since that time, we have created a “stickiness” with those tens of millions of people, and pushed them more towards the extremists, whom the vast majority previously wanted nothing to do with. It is time that we had a long-term strategy to deal with that problem, which will affect us all.

The good-news-only culture obscures problems and increases the likelihood of a second strategic failure,
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this time in Afghanistan, which will be reflected on Arab television screens. In terms of terrorism, that will not contribute to the defence of the UK. Every day, we are deluding ourselves.

5.28 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I sympathise with you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in your endeavours to restrict contributions to relevance to defence in the UK, just as I sympathise with hon. Members on both sides of the House who have passionate views about defence issues that perhaps go wider than the debate title. Throughout the debate, various degrees of latitude have been afforded to different speakers. In responding to some of the speeches we have heard, I hope that I shall receive a similar degree of consideration.

For once, I hope to talk about some topics that have not been mentioned much. I intend to divide my remarks into the general categories of plots, leaks, morale and methods. Before getting on to that agenda, I shall refer to some of the contributions made.

On the whole, welfare issues have been predominant, particularly in the speeches of the hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell), for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). Like the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), my hon. Friend laid great stress on the inadequacy of resources with which Defence Ministers of any party must contend when fighting their lonely battles against the Treasury in order to enable our armed forces to fight their rather more dangerous battles against the enemy. My heart goes out to Ministers, because I know that they do their best in that respect. That is probably the nicest thing that I will say about them this evening, so they had better make the most of it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) focused challengingly, as always, on major procurement projects and the assumptions that underlie them. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) made an excellent speech featuring a typically robust defence of her local naval base. I think that she is fundamentally right to focus on the strategic implications of reducing our dependence to a single naval base, although we may part company when I point out that the reason it is possible to consider reducing the number of naval bases from three to two is the slashing and burning of front-line units of the Royal Navy. If that reduction takes place, it will become all the harder to reverse cuts that go far beyond what was outlined in the 1998 strategic defence review should circumstances reach such a degree of danger and necessity that even the Treasury sees the need for reversal of those losses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) stoutly defended the role of the Royal Marines base in his constituency, and also spoke of the need to provide support for people with mental health problems after the experience of combat. I believe that such support is particularly important for reservists who, on returning to their civilian occupations from serious war fighting on operations, no longer benefit from the support and environment of their regular units and comrades. That
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must add considerably to the pressure of coming to terms with what they have seen and undergone. My hon. Friend also spoke of the ordeal of families awaiting inquests, and I was reassured by the Minister of State’s reply.

As a seasoned parliamentary operator, the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) was able to get in his remarks about Iraq before disarming the Chair by saying, “But of course the debate is about defence in the UK”, and devoting the rest of his speech to courts martial. As I have said from the Dispatch Box before, it is worth considering a change in the way in which the subject matter of defence debates is allocated. There is a good deal to be said for debates that focus on individual services, in which it is possible to cover not only the whole ground over the year, but everything from welfare to war fighting in the context of a single debate. That would avoid the difficulties encountered by the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) in trying to raise subjects that are outwith the strict terminology of the Order Paper.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, broadened the debate slightly when he said that following his visit to Afghanistan he was concerned about the strategy of the Government—back in the UK, I hasten to add—for the waging of the war there in connection with the poppy crops. He thought there might be a degree of confusion on our side. I agree with that, but there is certainly no degree of confusion on the side of our opponents. In an interview reported in The Daily Telegraph on 9 February, a Taliban commander is quoted as saying:

That shows that the Taliban at least understand the basic principle of counter-insurgency—that its aim should be to divide the insurgents from the mass of the people, while the aim of the insurgents should be to remain united with the mass of the people. I think that somebody somewhere in the Ministry of Defence does not understand that—or, more probably, that somebody somewhere in the Government is not prepared to stand up to our American allies and emphasise this point. It is immoral that we should have troops fighting and dying in pursuit of a strategy that drives our opponents’ cause forward by enabling and encouraging people to sign up to their ranks.

However, I must not wander from the topic of defence in the United Kingdom, so let me briefly refer to a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), a former MOD Minister, made in his outstanding and riveting speech, and which was also mentioned by the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). They referred to the inevitability of unpredictable crises arising and the difficulties involved in persuading Governments that they must find the resources to deal with them and subscribe to the flexible doctrines that will enable our forces to fight effectively in those circumstances. The idea that the chiefs of staff
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and their military advice are being cut out of the policy-making process, as my hon. Friend said, is particularly disturbing.

I shall now turn to my own perspective on this topic. We know only too well the price that has had to be paid for allowing Islamist militants to plot in London throughout the 1990s. It is important that we never again make the mistake of tolerating the activities of the intolerant in our midst in any other context. In that connection, I have no hesitation in saying that it is totally unacceptable for an exiled Russian oligarch such as Boris Berezovsky who has been granted the privilege of residence in this country, to announce that he will abuse that privilege by fomenting revolution by force in his homeland. It is equally unacceptable that somebody such as Alexander Litvinenko can be assassinated, almost certainly by agents of the Russian state, within our borders.

It is worth remembering that in July 2006 the Russian Parliament, the Duma, approved a law permitting the FSB—the Russian state security services—to hunt down and kill terrorists or “enemies of the state” anywhere in the world. That Bill was passed shortly after the abduction and murder of five Russian diplomats in Iraq in 2006, but critics of the Kremlin fear that the Russian security services now enjoy effective immunity should they assassinate Russians who live abroad and who are perceived to be opponents of the state. It is worth remembering that next year the statute of limitations will come into force on the murder in 1978 of Georgi Markov, who was killed in London in similar circumstances, given the technologies of the day, to those of Litvinenko’s murder. Given the huge changes that have taken place and the fact that a suspected assassin has been identified and interviewed, it is not satisfactory that the investigation has progressed at a snail’s pace for so long and that it might soon might run out of time

On leaks, it is particularly worrying that the deputy assistant commissioner in charge of anti-terrorist measures has felt it necessary to speak out as he did. Two former chairmen of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir Paul Lever and Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, have both stated their belief that the situation is serious. The finger of suspicion points to what Sir Paul Lever calls

They believe that there should be a proper investigation and a proper leak inquiry. I am at a loss to know, although I can suspect, why there were no fewer than two separate leak inquiries into the events surrounding the embarrassing leak of the e-mails that disclosed Jo Moore’s wish to “bury bad news”, and why there is no prospect of a—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is now going to relate his remarks to the topic under debate.

Dr. Lewis: I certainly am, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I think it essential that the defence of the United Kingdom depend on communities’ trust in the police and in the police’s ability to conduct anti-terrorist operations in this country without people being put at risk if they assist the authorities by being exposed in the media. I will move on now, but it is a matter of
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extreme concern that we are not fighting and winning the battle against terrorism, which, after all, is at the heart of the defence of the United Kingdom.

As part of the Prime Minister’s legacy, the Government recently published a policy review entitled “Building on progress: Britain in the World”. It does contain one feature relating to the defence of the UK of which I thoroughly approve; I wish only that it had been formulated earlier. We read the following on page 30 of this 32-page document:

I hope that the unit’s work will not be confined to hostile regimes. We hear time and again that we are engaged in a war of ideas, and such a war can be won only by a proper counter-propaganda strategy. We were good at that during the cold war and the second world war, but it is true to say that we have not even begun to fight that type of war properly, some six years after 11 September. This is a very late development, albeit a welcome one.

In the time that remains, I refer finally to methods of maintaining morale in the armed forces. One method is to show a degree of competence in handling the armed forces when they get into difficulties. I find it absolutely astonishing that when the decision was taken to allow Royal Navy personnel to sell their stories to the media, the effect was not considered on morale—on the morale of people whose children had come home in coffins; on the morale of people who had limbs blown off while serving in theatres of war overseas; or on the morale of servicemen and women who might find themselves in extremely dangerous situations and who might have to weigh up the alternatives of fighting to the last bullet or surrendering and selling their stories when eventually they were repatriated.

In terms of the propaganda war to which I referred, did no one consider how it would serve the Iranians’ purpose to be able to say that the people who were selling their stories were exaggerating in order to justify the money that they were being paid? It is no good having leaks and spin doctors. What is needed is a concerted strategy, properly organised by a counterpart to the political warfare executive or the information research department, if one likes, or the London controlling section that managed to carry out deception strategies, if that is what we are trying to do where our enemies are concerned.

Such a strategy has to be organised properly. Splitting the Home Office down the middle makes it hard to see how a cross-Department approach will work. What we actually need is departmental co-ordination and we are not getting that yet. I can only hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that in future the defence of the UK against an ideological terrorist threat will be far more systematically organised than it has been in the past.

5.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): This has been a wide-ranging and considered debate, with a surprising amount of consensus on some issues. Hon. Members recognised
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that we are doing a tremendous amount for our armed forces, but of course there is an argument about how much more we can do. We heard some interesting speeches and what came over clearly was the admiration that this House has for our armed forces and the work that they do in difficult circumstances. Of course, all our thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives and with those who have been injured or seriously wounded.

It is a great privilege and honour to do my job and to work with the armed forces. I hold them in great esteem—even more so after doing this job for a while. Those who have visited Afghanistan and Iraq—as I did a few weeks ago—will have seen the courage, determination and sacrifices involved in that work. That is why our armed forces are the best in the world, and there is certainly consensus about that and the support that we want to give them.

Much of the debate has centred on personnel and welfare issues, so I shall spend most of my time on those issues. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) raised some specific issues to which I shall return, but he also referred to improvements in equipment and accommodation. He especially mentioned the fact that the improved medical treatment in the field hospitals has saved more lives and lessened the effects of injuries, compared with the effects that they would have had a few years ago. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s recognition of that.

I think that I heard the hon. Gentleman right when he said that the Conservative party now thinks that the debate about military hospitals has passed and the issue now is whether we should have specific military wards. That is an important step towards consensus and to making progress on the issue. All the medical opinion in the armed forces is clear that military hospitals are not the way to go. Instead, we will provide the best possible treatment for our wounded servicemen and women by working with large hospital trusts, such as Selly Oak.

We are seeing fantastic results at Selly Oak and I pay tribute to the work of the military and civilian clinicians and nursing staff in saving lives and treating and curing our injured service personnel. We also appreciate the support for families that is provided. It is important that we pay tribute to that work, not least because of some of the publicity it has had. There are treatment issues, and if things go wrong they will be fully investigated and dealt with. However, from my regular visits to Selly Oak, where I talk to the service personnel and their families, the quality of treatment and care is clear and we will continue to improve that.

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