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It is our servicemen and women who have set the conditions to enable this forward momentum, often at great personal cost. The UK has trained more than 13,000 Iraqi soldiers, and I pay tribute to their achievements in what are some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Yes, there have been difficulties along the way, which it would be wrong to understate, but the handover of Dhi Qar, Maysan and Muthanna has shown that Iraqi security forces can cope. More recently, the successful handover of Basra palace has allowed our personnel to place more emphasis on training, governance and border security. In this context, we have been able to take the very welcome decision to plan to reduce our force levels in Iraq to 2,500 by the spring of next year. We believe that this is a measured response to the evolving security situation and the increased capability of the Iraqis.

Although we are seeing progress in the security situation, the political arena remains very difficult, with sectarian and regional interests still too often being put before national interests. Progress in Anbar province and negotiations between General Mohan and Shi’a militia groups in Basra show that the political landscape can change for the better, but that that takes time. We also welcome the enhanced role of the UN in that regard. Ultimately, it is for the Iraqi Government to formulate and deliver policies to help the Iraqi people, but we will do all that we can to assist them.

Mr. Jenkin: At the time of the invasion, British military forces comprised some 30 per cent. of the UN mandated coalition’s combat power in Iraq. The Prime Minister’s announcement envisages that we will now provide perhaps less than 2 per cent. of the coalition’s combat power. Do we still stand shoulder to shoulder with our American ally?

Des Browne: We could not be closer. Knowing the hon. Gentleman’s interest in Iraq, I am sure that he will have pored over every word uttered by General Petraeus when he was here explaining how closely we had worked to achieve what we have achieved in southern Iraq. If that was not good enough for him, he probably pored over every word uttered by Secretary Gates on his visit here only last week, when he confirmed that what we are doing was entirely consistent with what the Americans are doing. We therefore could not be closer to the US, and that is to be expected, although I know that the reduction in British troop numbers is counter-intuitive, especially given that it happened when the numbers of US troops were surging. However, those who understand the diversity of Iraq and the extent of the differences between provinces know that our action was entirely consistent with what the Americans were doing, given the different environment facing our troops. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the people in the US who know best about these matters—and they include General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, who for some months now have been responsible for US policy in Iraq—have given evidence that confirms that.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): In the summer, quite a few people argued that if we drew down our troops from Basra palace and handed it over to Iraqi troops, there could be a danger that the number of attacks on
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British troops at the air base would rise significantly, and that the security problems faced by civilians in Basra could get worse. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that exactly the opposite has happened?

Des Browne: I can, of course, confirm that exactly the opposite has happened—thus far. I make that qualification because I recognise that the situation is very fragile and that it is very important that the negotiations between General Mohan and those others who seek to exercise political power and economic influence in southern Iraq are sustained. We can create the opportunity for such negotiations and discussions to take place, but we cannot be a party to them, as they are for Iraqis to sort out between themselves. As long as progress is being made in that regard, the relationship that I have described will be sustained.

We hear constant predictions that things are about to melt down in Iraq, but it is always possible, at any stage in the transition, that things will go either right or wrong. Many people out there know that it is a 50:50 bet and so always opt for pessimism, on the basis that that gives them a 50 per cent. chance of being right, and being able to say, “I told you so.” Thankfully, however, our judgments are a bit more sophisticated than that. At the points of transition, we do not take any step unless we are assured that we are doing so in the context of preset conditions, measurements and tests that we have agreed with others.

Until now, we have managed to make the progress that we have planned for, and broadly within the planned time scale. At each step, we have told the House and the country what the next stage of the plan would be, but I am not complacent: I know that we face a volatile and fragile set of circumstances, and that many people do not have the best interests of the UK or the Iraqi people at heart. In their briefings to me about what is going on in the operational theatre, many military commanders have told me, “You have to remember, Secretary of State, the enemy get a vote too, and we don’t control that.”

Thus far, therefore, our actions have been correct, but we must not be complacent. In the interests of the Iraqi people, and of our people too, we have to recognise that we must take the same care when it comes to the next stage of the process.

We cannot debate defence without addressing the threat of terrorism, which can emerge from abroad or at home and manifests itself against both armed forces and civilians. Its method is indiscriminate killing. Its aim is to promote an extremist ideology. As a Government, we are committed to tackling that threat at every level—its fundamental values, its spread to the disaffected, its planning, actions and representation. To do so requires hard power, to minimise the actions of terrorists, and soft power to minimise intent and recruitment.

The military play an important role in countering terrorism and British forces are working to that end as I speak, both at home and across the globe. Through capacity building we help other nations bolster their defences and contribute to the international effort.

Dr. Fox: No debate about international terrorism would be complete without considering the question of Iran. Would it ever be an acceptable outcome for the British Government for Iran to become a nuclear weapons state?

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Des Browne: The British Government could not make clearer their position in relation to Iran’s ambition to be a nuclear weapons state. As I have said from the Dispatch Box time and time again, my view is that Iran’s behaviour—its interference in a malign fashion in Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq—suggests that the country poses a strategic threat to the peace of the region in which it wants to play an important role. The irony is that Iran could play a positive role in the region; the country has shared interests with the countries in whose internal politics it seeks to interfere. I am in no doubt that the international community has adopted the right position in relation to Iran, and also that we have to stay together and pursue the arguments with the Iranians. Most importantly, we have to recruit in support of the arguments as many of the regional partners as possible, because they are the people to whom Iran will pay the greatest attention.

I am conscious of the time, and of the fact that a significant number of people want to contribute to the debate, so I shall now sum up. It is the first duty of Government to protect their people and the national interest. The Government have a clear policy framework for delivering that duty. I have endeavoured in my speech to cover some of that broad front, but of necessity I have had to make discriminating judgments and have not been comprehensive. By working with friends, allies and international institutions to reduce threat and prevent conflict, and by ensuring that our forces have the capability to intervene around the world if necessary, we will achieve our objectives.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The Secretary of State has given a comprehensive analysis of the state of play in terms of defence. He is aware of my interest in the deaths at Deepcut army barracks. A memorial was recently dedicated to those who have died in the military, whether on active service or otherwise. It has been brought to my attention that the names of the four recruits who died at Deepcut have not been recorded on the memorial. The Secretary of State may not be able to answer the question now, but he will understand that the parents are eager to know the reasoning behind the exclusion of the names from that memorial.

Des Browne: I speak advisedly, but if the hon. Gentleman had been in the Chamber for the beginning of my speech, he would have heard me refer to that memorial, which was dedicated last Friday. I am sure he will join other Members who approved of my words when I said that it was a timely and appropriate memorial to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. I am aware of the issue that he raises but, entirely appropriately, decisions about the memorial do not lie in the hands of Government and it would be wholly inappropriate if they did—they lie in the hands of trustees. It is of the essence of such a memorial that somebody has to define the descriptive phase for those whose names are entitled to be put on the memorial. The trustees sought to do that—it is a difficult thing—and, almost by definition, it is the case that people will consider that some names are so near the margin of the definition that they would be offended if the names were not included. The trustees of the memorial recognised that.

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I hope that the hon. Gentleman will visit the memorial, because if he does, he will see that it contains not only the names of approximately 16,000 people who have lost their lives, either on duty or to acts of terrorism, but an obelisk, which has been put there for the purpose of commemorating the deaths of those who do not fall within that necessary definition. If that is any comfort to the families whom he properly represents, that is the explanation, as I understand it. The decisions were made entirely in good faith and appropriately, but by definition, people will feel aggrieved because someone whom they consider to be very close to the description of those who are included cannot be included. That is probably an appropriate issue on which to end this speech.

4.35 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): May I fully associate myself and the Conservative party with the praise for the courage, professionalism and sacrifices of our armed forces? I echo the Secretary of State’s condolences to the families of all those who have lost loved ones who were defending our country’s wider security in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I intend to talk about the impact of the comprehensive spending review on our defence policy, on the state of our armed forces and on the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. In 1997, the former Prime Minister said that if the Conservatives were re-elected, he worried that defence spending would fall to 2.6 per cent. of gross domestic product—that was his choice of measurement at the time, not ours—yet we know from this year’s CSR projections that, proportionally, what we spend on defence is likely to fall to as low as 2.018 per cent. by 2010-11.

While our military commitments have increased under this Government, the Army trained requirement has been cut from 108,500 to 102,000, the size of the Army is more than 9,000 below that initial target, one fifth of the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships have been cut since 1997—more potentially face the axe—and the RAF has more than 100 fewer front-line fixed-wing aircraft than in 1997. I say that because the Government’s strategic defence review set out what they believed we needed to protect the country and its overseas interests, yet we are falling well below that and no explanation is ever given as to why the international environment justified those particular changes.

As a share of total Government spending, defence expenditure has fallen from 7.8 per cent. in 1998 to 6.1 per cent. in 2006. That is indicative of where defence comes in the Government’s list of priorities—that despite our being involved in two wars, those in Iraq and in Afghanistan, which have had a huge impact and an inevitable reduction in the life expectancy of much of the equipment involved. Funding from the Treasury reserve for urgent operational requirements does nothing to diminish what is, in effect, a long-term liability, which will need to be met from the core budget at some point. It is against that background that we must examine Ministers’ boasts that they will achieve a 1.5 per cent. annual real-terms spending increase.

The previous settlement that was trumpeted in those terms resulted in three infantry battalions being cut, and the loss of three destroyers and three frigates, so
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we are entitled to ask what the casualties will be this time around. We have heard rumours of further cuts to the surface fleet, to the size of the Army and to the RAF. I hope that today the Secretary of State will categorically rule out further cuts to the surface fleet or the Army establishment.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I have always argued for an increase in defence spending. What figure would the hon. Gentleman put on a future Conservative Government in terms of the amount of the nation’s GDP that should be spent on defence?

Dr. Fox: We would love to have had a widespread debate on this issue in a general election—if only the Government had had the courage to call one. As they say in fashion circles, “This year, Brown is the new yellow.” Who am I to comment on that?

Last week, we had an interesting debate on procurement, which some hon. Members present today attended. The point was made on several occasions about the difficulty of assessing the defence budget in the UK compared to other countries. For example, it is impossible for us to know what the commitment is for the years ahead. We asked specific questions, the answers to which are needed for the House to have a sensible debate. However, when we asked about the carriers, for example, the answer was that disclosure of the detailed estimated annual costings over the five-year period for the procurement would likely prejudice the commercial interest and cannot be provided. On the future rapid effect system, or FRES, the answer was that details would prejudice the commercial interest and cannot be provided.

The House would benefit from knowing the figures and being able to examine what is in the pipeline for front-line procurement. Only when we know the details will we know what we definitely want to commit to and what the necessary expenditure would be. If the Government were to make all those figures available to the House—I intend to ask the Public Accounts Committee to obtain them—we could have a much better debate. It would be foolish for the Opposition to make estimates or commit to figures without having full access to the books. We would want to institute immediately a proper strategic defence review, which we have not had for 11 years now, to see what we believe the future shape of our armed forces should be. As the shadow Chancellor has said, when we see what we need to spend for our defence, we can decide appropriately.

Des Browne: There was a much less complicated answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), if the hon. Gentleman had chosen to give it. He started by referring to percentages of GDP. If that is the best part of his argument—I assume it is, because he started with it—he must have some figure in mind. He and his right hon. and hon. Friends tell us that they were ready for an election some days ago. He must have had some figure in mind then: can he share it with us?

Dr. Fox: When the Government have the courage to face the voters and call an election, we will know what spending years we are talking about and we will set out our plans in the appropriate way. At the moment, we have no idea what budget or public finances we will
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inherit. The reason I started with the GDP figure was that it was not our choice of measurement, but that of Tony Blair, back in 1997. He chose to make that figure the measure of Labour’s success in dealing with armed forces expenditure.

Ministers have been trumpeting the generosity of the settlement. However, as with all the Government’s announcements, it pays to look at the small print. The settlement requires the MOD to find £2.7 billion worth of “cashable efficiency savings” on top of the £2.4 billion served up to the Treasury in the 2004 spending review. Perhaps the Secretary of State, or the Minister for the Armed Forces when he winds up later, can give us some idea where those savings will come from in the current budget.

I also note that the MOD will be required to sell off £1.5 billion worth of assets and “a significant proportion” of its electromagnetic spectrum holdings. Will the Government give us a firm commitment that all the receipts from that fire sale will be retained by the MOD? Will the Minister of State today tell us how much of the receipts will be appropriated in aid for the defence budget and how much will be returned to the Treasury? Those figures are very important in working out how much of the new procurement programmes can be afforded in the years that have been mentioned in the figures.

Chris Bryant: This is not good enough. The hon. Gentleman started his speech by saying that the present contribution of 2.018 per cent. of GDP is not enough and should be more. We are not asking what he thinks the figure should be next year or the year after, but what it should be this year. If he is not prepared to say what the figure should be for this year, it is all party political posturing and he should be ashamed of himself.

Dr. Fox: Let me go back to what the former Prime Minister said before the 1997 election:

in his eyes, a terrible failure. He went on:

However, according to the Government’s own argument, they have fallen below that GDP figure. They have increased their commitments and reduced our manpower. It is for the Government—a Government unafraid to put their record before the electorate—to defend their record in the House of Commons today. When we come to office, we will clearly set out all our proposals—and we will defend them, unlike the Government, who are clearly unwilling to do the same today, having failed by every measure that they themselves set.

Mr. Jenkin: I want to give my hon. Friend maximum support in resisting all the rubbish that is being thrown at him by the Government. The Government are responsible for current expenditure and for current levels of commitment. We have no idea what commitments we will face in two or three years’ time, when a general election comes around. That will be the time to determine how to match those commitments with the necessary resources.

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