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Dr. Fox: The Secretary of State is better placed to answer that than I am, but the experience so far is that we have had a successful handover to civilian authorities in Iraq, and the advice of our commanders has obviously been that they believe that, militarily, it was the appropriate time to do so. The fact that the level of violence has been containable and comparable with, if not lower than, that before the handover is
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testament to the correctness of that decision. It is very difficult to conceive of either the military or public opinion tolerating any increased deployment to Iraq, not least because of the overstretch in our forces, but it is fair for us to know under what circumstances we might redeploy the force that is there on overwatch and in what circumstances. That is reasonable, but the Minister might want to deal with that during his winding-up speech; I am sure that the House would like greater clarity on the issue. The incremental approach must be right, as long as we are getting progress in Iraq and can guarantee sufficient numbers for force protection. It is perfectly reasonable for the House to demand that of the Government.

We briefly mentioned Iran earlier. The whole House will be extremely concerned that it is now becoming clear that factory-grade and other weapons are increasingly going from Iran into both Iraq and Afghanistan. Those weapons include roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades capable of piercing armoured vehicles and killing our troops. Elements of the Iranian regime are therefore involved, and must understand that they are involved, in the attacking and killing of international forces that are upholding UN mandates. We need assurances from the Government that the Iraqi border in Iraq is sufficiently patrolled by coalition and Iraqi forces to minimise the risk of such weapons being used against our forces.

On the Iranian regime’s interference in Afghanistan, it has been reported that officers of the Iranian revolutionary guard are supplying weaponry to Taliban insurgents, reportedly including sophisticated SA-7 Strella anti-aircraft missiles—a serious threat to our helicopters. I would like the Minister of State to deal with that specific issue in his winding-up speech.

The real strategic question is whether Iran should be allowed to become a nuclear weapon state. I suggest to the House that there are three reasons why Iran should not be allowed to do so. The first is the nature of the regime itself. It has already been shown to be involved in destabilising Iraq and it is almost certainly involved in providing weapons to Afghanistan. We have heard the rhetoric from the leadership of the regime and we know what that could mean for the wider region.

Secondly, if Iran is allowed to become a nuclear weapon state, other countries will want to follow. We would be likely to see nuclear proliferation, which might affect Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and other countries in the region, creating a destabilising, expensive and pointless nuclear arms race in one of the world’s most dangerous regions. Thirdly, we know, as the Secretary of State mentioned, that Iran has been more than capable of carrying out terrorism by proxy. What that could mean in terms of terrorist blackmail from a nuclear armed state is something that none of us would want to imagine.

Chris Bryant: I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman in that I do not want Iran to develop a nuclear capacity, which is why I support the European efforts to keep up important negotiations. However, if the United States of America were to propose military strikes on Iran, would he encourage it to do so, or would he actively oppose that?

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Dr. Fox: I understand and sympathise with the importance of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but if we get into the hypothetical debate of ruling things in or out at a time when we are involved in high-level, delicate negotiations with Iran, the only people we are likely to give comfort to are the Iranian regime. It has to be made clear that we do not want Iran to become a nuclear-weapon state. Iran is, indeed, signed up to the non-proliferation treaty, in which it pledges not to become a nuclear weapon state. The international community is taking the correct approach at the present time, and to rule anything out would be to weaken our hand in negotiations. I do not think that we should be any more specific than that.

I visited Iran a few weeks ago, and having been there and discussed the matter with Iranian politicians, I understood just how complex those negotiations can be and how difficult it can be to get across to some Iranian politicians that this is a quarrel not with the United States or the United Kingdom, but with the whole international community. The better that that community is able to speak with one voice—not splinter into what-ifs—the better our chance of getting a properly negotiated settlement in Iran that is to everyone’s benefit.

In the environment we currently face, one thing stands out above all else. In a truly global, interdependent economy, we have a far greater risk of exposure than in the past. Indeed, it has been said that today’s multi-polar world resembles the second half of the 19th century much more than it did at any time during the cold war years. That means we have to get the structures right. Our global economy is using political structures designed for the environment after the second world war, and military structures largely designed for the cold war.

The structure we need to get right the most is NATO; the Secretary of State touched on it in his speech. It has to be made clear to all NATO members that those who benefit from collective security are morally bound to a collective effort. Being part of NATO does not mean becoming involved in the conflicts or type of warfare that we like, and not the ones that we do not. There is a duty on all of those in the alliance to play a fair role, which means we have to bring an end to the fighting-funding link. People in this country already think it wrong that we in the UK play a disproportionate role in the military burden, along with the Americans and Canadians in the south of Afghanistan. The way in which NATO is funded means that we also carry a disproportionate level of the financial burden. The breaking of the fighting-funding link is necessary if NATO is to prosper and survive in what will be a threatening world.

The bottom line is this: the Government issued an extremely competent and widely supported strategic defence review, from which flowed several planning assumptions, yet they have exceeded them in all of the past six years. Our manpower has reduced but our commitments have increased. Defence has fallen as a proportion of GDP and of the Government’s overall expenditure, and the major procurement projects, which are widely supported by hon. Members of all parties—the carriers, the future rapid effect system and the joint strike fighter—are likely, without a change in the budgetary settlement, to mean cuts in other parts of
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the core budget. Our personnel exceed too widely the harmony guidelines and retention is a growing problem. Ten years into office, it is not a happy story for the Government to sell to the British public. It reflects badly on the Labour party and its priorities, but—worse—it badly lets down our armed forces. That is the real shame.

5.15 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): Madam Deputy Speaker, you got your retaliation in first, so I am constrained in the language that I may use in response to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). To say that his speech was not the most encouraging, competent, wise or factual contribution is an understatement. Anyone who is neutral—I doubt whether any neutrals are present; there are not many Liberals, but even fewer neutrals—would be disappointed. I do not wish to be hostile, but if the official Opposition aspire to be the future Government, I fear that we are being short-changed. I must point out that a few delusional characters support the Tory party—they do not do well in court cases. Indeed, I am looking at some delusional characters now.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. George: No, let me first outline what I am going to say.

If the Opposition want to demonstrate that they are capable, they must show that they are different from the Conservative party that I have observed in my 34 years as a Member of Parliament, mostly in opposition. If one cannot get much from the future—from what might happen, according to the Opposition’s proposals—one is forced to revert to the past.

The Opposition’s past is even more dispiriting than their proposals for the future. One gains the impression from listening to the hon. Member for Woodspring that the Conservative party is the SAS of Opposition defence teams, confident in its abilities and its history. One would also believe that the Government were somehow the descendants of a semi-pacifist or pacifist Labour party led by Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Frank Allaun and Ramsay MacDonald, who ended up as a Conservative. Neither of those extremes is true.

The Government have been accused of all sorts of things, such as cutting defence expenditure. If the Opposition want to talk about cuts, they should consider the template under the Thatcher and Major Governments. Most of the increase in Government expenditure went on replacing kit lost during the war against Argentina. The previous Labour Government—Fred Mulley was Secretary of State—promised that we would commit ourselves to a 3 per cent. real increase in defence expenditure. Labour did that—the cut came under Michael Heseltine. If one looks at the chart of defence expenditure and what the Library has produced—I do not want to embroil the Library research department in a political argument—one sees that the statistics are clear. The picture of Tory defence expenditure, following a little spurt after the Falklands war, is: drop, drop, drop, drop, drop until the Defence Committee, then led by a wonderful Conservative Chairman, the late Michael Colvin, argued that Government expenditure was projected to fall to
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2.2 per cent. Therefore, before too many rocks are thrown about any failings, I hope that the shadow Secretary of State will look at the many Defence Committee reports that were published during his party’s period in office.

Charges have been laid against the Government on Defence Medical Services, but just look at what the Defence Committee said about hospitals in “Defence Costs Study No. 15”. It said that the situation was appalling and that the cuts had gone so far that it doubted whether medical services would ever recover. That was a Tory-led Defence Committee.

The Tory-led Defence Committee said in 1996 that defence cuts had gone so far that if they proceeded in the same direction, the defence of the realm would be severely endangered. I advise the shadow Secretary of State to look at my A to Z of Tory procurement foul-ups—the word “foul-up” was suggested when my first word was deemed inadvisable by the Clerks. All I am saying is, yes, we have made mistakes, but, on balance, this is not the Labour party of the early 1980s. This Labour Government have behaved, if not impeccably and perfectly, then in a way that has defended this country’s interests well, and they will continue to do so. The hon. Member for Woodspring does neither himself nor his party any good by imagining that we are a party of extremist troglodytes who have somehow found their way into office and are now doing their best to undermine the security of the state and the welfare of our armed forces.

Dr. Fox: I am interested in these lessons in the history of expenditure, but when did we last find ourselves fighting a war on two fronts while our defence expenditure, including the Treasury reserve element, was falling as a proportion of GDP and Government expenditure?

Mr. George: We fought a war on two fronts against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. We almost lost that, as a consequence of the Conservative party’s leaders in the 1930s, so I will not take any spurious examples of our failing this country, when it was the hon. Gentleman’s party, with names that he— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman can look contemptuously if he wants. He might not remember Stanley Baldwin or Neville Chamberlain, but he can read. They were the Prime Ministers who almost brought our country to the point of destruction. That is why I am not prepared to accept the trivia and, not the distortion, but the misinterpretation of facts that I have heard and am likely to hear over the next two or three years.

Dr. Fox: As a historian, what does the right hon. Gentleman make of the fact that the proportion of GDP that we are spending on defence this year is the lowest since 1930?

Mr. George: The shadow Secretary of State will have noticed that the GDP of this country has grown quite significantly since his party has been in opposition, although I am not going to deliver a eulogy on the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor. Therefore, if we look not simply at the percentage of GDP but at the amount spent on defence, we realise that the figure is favourable. This will give a crumb of comfort to the
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Opposition and cause the Minister to look threateningly at me, as he has previously, but I believe that we should spend more on defence. I really do. Not simply more money—

Mr. Kevan Jones: They do not know how much.

Mr. George: We do not know how much the Opposition are going to spend on defence. They are copying the Labour party. We did not invent identity theft or perfect it. I recall, however, that the Labour party’s strategic defence review idea was not just to ease the transition to sanity in the Labour ranks but to buy a little time to get its defence policies together. David Clark, for example, was one of a number of people in the Opposition team who brought the Labour party back from the brink of fantasy—this was partly how we got re-elected—and showed that we were and are a responsible party.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend says that we do not know how much the main Opposition party will spend on defence. There is a clue, however, in the address by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) to the Conservative party’s annual conference. He promised to restore the three infantry battalions cut by Labour

Therefore, he will fund that expansion from other areas of MOD expenditure. There will be no net increase in expenditure.

Mr. George: I do not need to be revived, but I would like to advise the hon. Member for Woodspring, and I will send him a copy of my book on how the Staffordshire Regiment survived amalgamation—it was amalgamated in the end, but at least it survived a decade longer. It was going to be amalgamated, as were many other regiments, by a range of Ministers, some of whom I have seen popping into the Chamber in the past couple of days.

Mr. Benyon: The right hon. Gentleman has considerable experience in the House, whereas I am a relatively new Member of Parliament. Will he therefore advise me on how to operate, as a Member who feels passionately about defence issues, when former Army colleagues and constituents tell me what is going on? We try to probe the Government on issues, but we are then accused, as one of my hon. Friends was, of talking down our armed services or armed services medical support. In what way are we supposed to hold the Government to account on such important issues?

Mr. George: It would be improper of me to offer advice, but the hon. Gentleman should read a book, sit in on debates and keep his mouth shut until he has had ample time to make a proper contribution. I will willingly coach him as best I can, and tell him when he is ready to launch a speech on the House of Commons. I will ask him to read my book on what his Government tried to do to the Staffordshire Regiment. It is important to talk to people in the military, for whom I have the deepest respect—I would never call
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them congenital whingers, because they are not. They say many things that can be picked up by Members of Parliament and used, as I have done many times over the years. One must not necessarily treat a snippet of information, however, as the end of the line for research. It is incumbent on all of us who have not been doctors—if we enter a profession that has any pretensions to scientific analysis, competence and verification, to take a different approach—to be more serious about it. We should not throw away our lessons and, if someone drops us a titbit of information, rush in with a speech in the House of Commons.

Many members of Her Majesty’s armed forces will recognise the improvement in salaries. The shadow Minister, however, told us how badly a major is paid—using, no doubt, the bottom of a major’s salary scale. I would like to be at the top of a major’s salary scale—Members of Parliament would have a considerable increase in salary if we were—but, in saying that, I in no way disparage the armed forces. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) looks at the armed forces review report, he will see the salary structures. He is a good friend, even though he is a Conservative—many of my good friends are—but a major’s salary at the top of the scale is not bad at all.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has spoken of snippets and titbits of information. He might be interested to know of one such piece of information that I picked up earlier in the year when I visited Basra, and enjoyed meeting members of the Staffords, who were serving there among other units. An “other ranks” told me that the kit in which he was dressed was the best equipment with which he had been issued for 13 years.

Mr. George: I hope that my hon. Friend will say more about that if he decides to speak this evening.

We should consider the shabby kit that our armed forces had in 1991. The world’s worst tank was imposed on them—Challenger 1. I should like to engage in debate with anyone who disputes that, although Challenger 2 is one of the best tanks, if not the best.

The Tories’ record on procurement was a little unsatisfactory. We are now hearing about the Government’s procurement failures: the Eurofighter, the future rapid effect system, Trident, the joint strike fighter and two real aircraft carriers. When the Tories were in office, they tried to sell off one of our three little aircraft carriers to the Australians, and we had to beg them to give it back. Now, we have two serviceable aircraft carriers—which I think is wrong: I think we need three—until the proper ones come along. Ours has been a pretty impressive procurement programme, given the amount of money and what it has purchased.

I have looked at the National Audit Office’s press report, “Major Projects Report 1997”. Sir John Bourn had a bit of trouble recently, but I think he has done a superb job, and that the National Audit Office is one of the most professional audit offices in the world. In the report, which reflected the position on 31 March 1997, he said that

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and spoke of

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