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That is not an impressive figure. At the end of a period of Tory rule, that report was describing the Tories as pretty profligate and incapable of running the defence procurement process successfully. That is why I feel a little unhappy.

We hear endlessly about defence housing. I can think of three Members who are present, on the Conservative Benches alone, who will remember Portillo giving away vital defence housing—for a sum that was subsequently lost in the Tory budget—to the Nomura Corporation masquerading as Mannington Homes. That disaster featured in four Defence Committee reports, all of which were critical.

I shall read the hon. Member for Woodspring’s speech very carefully. I shall consider his criticisms of Labour’s expenditure, medical service provision, housing and equipment, and try to decide whether his speech provides any inspiration or satisfaction—whether it gives any indication that a new Tory Government, if there ever is one, will be any better than the last. On the basis of what I have heard today, I believe that a new Tory Government would not be any better, and indeed could be much worse.

Mr. Kevan Jones: During the last Parliament I served on the Defence Committee under my right hon. Friend’s—

Mr. George: Wise leadership!

Mr. Jones: Under his wise leadership and chairmanship. The Committee produced a report on the Bill that became the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004. Although our report was quite critical of some of what the Ministry of Defence was doing, including cash limiting, we recognised that for the first time ever a Labour Government were introducing lump-sum payments for members of our armed forces. Not once during the process did Conservative Front-Benchers raise any objections.

Mr. George: I am not sure whether to thank my hon. Friend for what he has said, as he is only half proud of what we did. One thing that we did was appoint better advisers than the MOD’s, and we gave the MOD a rough time. However, we recognised that much had happened with compensation and other forms of benefit.

Much has been done, but more remains to be done. We can never be absolutely happy until members of our armed forces who have been injured are properly compensated, regardless of whether they were injured while facing the enemy, in peacetime operations or while serving at home; we owe them a debt of honour. They must be properly compensated not only so that we can be happier about that and our consciences can be clearer, but so that more people will be prepared to join the armed forces.

We must examine how our defence forces are evolving, the equipment we are purchasing, the training we are doing, the alliances of which we are a part, and whether our Government are displaying political wisdom in respect of our allies and potential
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adversaries—we hope that they are. In doing so, we must move beyond the immediate future. I recall Ministers such as Archie Hamilton—a great guy—coming before the Defence Committee, and our saying, “Minister, you are thinking about the fact that the Soviet Union has now collapsed, but is the threat to the UK over? Why are you rushing to cut regiments? Why are you cutting defence expenditure? History teaches us that, regrettably, war is sometimes inevitable.”

Dr. Fox: Correct me if my memory is inaccurate, but did not the Labour Front-Bench team at the time want a bigger cut—a bigger peace dividend—than the Government were offering?

Mr. George: That must have been in the early 1990s. As things proceeded, we realised that the world was a dangerous place. People should go along to the defence academy. I am sure that the Tory Front-Bench team has found out where it is, and that some of them have gone there; perhaps some of them have actually studied there. If they have not, they should, because there is an open-source document there on the considerable threats to this country. From reading that document, we can see that the Ministry of Defence is thinking about what will happen not in the next five or 10 years, but in the next 25 years.

What happened in the 1980s and 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union? There was a belief that everything was now coming right: that the United States was the single world hegemon, that everyone would now bend their knees in respect, that the Soviet Union was gone and Russia was broken-backed, and that the world was about to enter a century of stability. Defence cuts proceeded in accordance with those optimistic scenarios, but now, only 15 years or so later, we are discovering that that is not what has happened.

The US dominance of the world—mostly for good, sometimes not so—might be coming to an end, although I hope it is not. Will the European Union step in and fill the vacuum? We can make assumptions or have wishes about that, but it will not do so. Did we foresee the economic and military rise of China? No, we did not. We should read what has recently come out of this House and the US Congress on the potential dangers from China. I hope that such dangers will not arise—I hope that there will be a Government whom we can deal with—but we cannot be certain; and in defence planning, assumptions must not be made. There is also the threat of emerging nuclear powers. I listened carefully to the comments of the hon. Member for Woodspring on the threat from Iran, and other threats could also be mentioned.

We are spending too little on defence, and our budget should not simply be increased but be increased wisely. I am not saying that it should be increased by as much as 250 or 500 per cent., but we must imagine what might happen in five, 10 or 15 years, and take into account those countries that are trebling or quadrupling their GDPs— [Interruption.] Well, I would like the figure to be at least 2.5 per cent. and, if necessary, higher. I am not an official spokesman, and perhaps that is why. Should the international situation deteriorate, one would, as a result, be able to adjust. As I have mentioned previously, when the Ottomans lost the battle of Lepanto, most of their fleet had been
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sunk. Those who survived sailed home, chopped down hundreds of thousands of trees and, six months later, were back, causing trouble in the Mediterranean. It takes 15 to 20 years to build a new generation of almost anything.

I hope that the gloomy prognosis of Russia becoming autocratic again does not prove right. It would be almost an affront for Russia to say, “You have to accept that we will be providing you with oil and gas, and if you try to take alternative measures, this is being disrespectful.” We have to recognise that, for Russia, it is now score-settling time. I hope that I am wrong, but, even according to a half-gloomy perspective, we will be in for a difficult 10, 15 or 20 years. Even though many people do not like the United States, we have to hang on in with the US. We hope that there will be a Democrat leadership—not a supine one, but an intelligent one—and close links with the European Union. The US should not take all the decisions: if we on this side of the Atlantic want to be taken seriously, we have to do things that we perhaps have not done so far, such as getting proper armed forces in countries that do not really have them.

In the world that lies ahead, I hope that we are not going to drift aimlessly, as we did in the 1930s when we were left almost at the mercy of a country that ruled with an iron fist, and with armed forces that left us for dead. If we are to avoid that, we must be a bit more intelligent about defence, look to the future and spend money wisely on the right equipment, so that, should the worst happen, we and our allies—not just the countries of Europe and north America, but many other countries—will not be bullied by military force or the threat of it, or by the misuse of energy, which can be a far cheaper but equally deadly way of achieving objectives.

5.42 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I begin by echoing the Secretary of State’s words of condolence and by paying tribute to the superb work of the men and women of our armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places around the world.

We had a debate last week on defence procurement, so I will not go over ground that we covered then. However, I welcome the opportunity to have a broader debate on defence policy at a time when overstretch in the armed forces is a subject of discussion not only among politicians and the media, but, in the past few months, among present and former heads of the Army. We are having this debate at a time when, as has already been stated and acknowledged, defence planning assumptions have been exceeded for several years, harmony guidelines have been breached too much, and the state of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan means that a toll is being taken not only on the men and women of our armed services, but on the equipment.

There are particular units in the armed forces that we turn to again and again because of their suitability and excellence in undertaking work such as that in which we are currently involved. I am thinking in particular of the Marines, the Paras and others whom we go back to again and again for such operations. Each of those
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units will, in time, need to rebuild their contingent capabilities, but they will be unable to do so if we keep sending them out quite as regularly as we have done in the past few years.

I welcome the fact that the Defence Secretary began to acknowledge and address some of those issues in his speech this afternoon. He said that he believed that changes were afoot that would ease some of these pressures. I hope that that is right. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and we will watch developments closely to see whether the hopes outlined today come to fruition.

We welcome the Government’s recent announcement that they intend to reduce the number of our troops in Iraq in the early part of next year. That is a very welcome step in the right direction. The British mission in south-east Iraq has been in progress for some time. Originally, we had responsibility for four provinces; three have been handed back, and we are in the process of withdrawing from Basra province at present, but I remain curious about one matter.

I assure the house that I raise this not to score a point but because I am genuinely puzzled, and hope that the Minister for the Armed Forces will be able to offer some clarification when he winds up the debate. As recently as 26 July, the Minister was discussing with the Defence Committee the prospects for reducing the number of our troops in Iraq. He said:

He went on to say that

I repeat that I am not referring to those remarks because I oppose the reduction to 2,500—far from it. As I said, that is a move in the right direction, but I want to understand what has happened in the past couple of months that has caused the Government to make an assessment today that is different from what they were saying as recently as late July. Perhaps they have revised their assessments; if so, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation later on.

I believe that the work in Iraq is progressing towards some sort of endgame and that, increasingly, the focus will move to our ongoing operations in Afghanistan. In my opinion it is widely accepted that we are in for a long haul there, and the public remain somewhat confused about what we are trying to achieve. As a political community composed of all the parties, Parliament must set about trying to explain that more clearly if we are to ensure that the public continue to support and understand—and see the justification for—what we are going to be doing in Afghanistan for some years to come.

Mr. Brazier: Will the hon. Gentleman explain whether he supports the view expressed by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who until very recently was the leader of the Liberal Democrats? He said that he believed that our debt to Iraq had been discharged, and that we should withdraw now. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his party’s position on this matter?

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Nick Harvey: As I said earlier, I believe that we are approaching the end of the work that we took on in Iraq. Three of the four provinces for which we had responsibility have been handed over to Iraqi authorities, and we are told that we will do the same with the fourth in the foreseeable future. After that happens, we should start to make preparations to leave Iraq. We should not scuttle out the minute the fourth province has been handed over but, as we have said in the past, we should initiate a timed and phased withdrawal.

Both the Labour and Conservative parties have said, regularly, that a timetable for withdrawal is quite impossible, but I believe that what the Prime Minister has announced—and what the Government have begun to implement—amounts to an embryonic timetable for withdrawal. The Government are determined to do nothing at a political level ahead of the American elections next autumn that could be seen as a final exit from Iraq, but we will watch with interest to see how far they will continue the process beyond the reduction of 2,500 troops that they have announced already.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brazier: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Nick Harvey: No, I shall press on.

In Afghanistan, we are involved in a task for the long term and it is incumbent on all of us to explain it, even though that is not easy or straightforward to do. We have to accept that in Afghanistan tribal issues, insurgency issues and the dynamics of narcotics are interwoven in a complex way. The enemy we are fighting is often concealed among the people and difficult to identify, so our approach is important. It is vital to make and keep as many locals as possible as friends, and to remember that some of them are inclined to consider oral agreements as contracts of honour. It is part and parcel of the strategy we need to adopt that we remain sympathetic to the environment and the people with whom we are working.

From time to time we have to use force, which is why our highly professional armed forces are in the country, but it is important for us and our allies that force is not used indiscriminately. If the Afghans feel that that is happening, there is a danger that jihadism will increase.

There is a complex relationship between what our armed forces are doing and the work of other Departments, Government agencies and non-governmental organisations involved in international aid and relief. Clearly, security must precede development work but it is important that the latter does not come too far behind, which will sometimes entail risks with which NGOs in particular may not be familiar or comfortable. If there is to be a worthwhile dividend from the effort being made, it is important for development work to follow it closely. As has been said, to make that a reality, we need people from all the countries and organisations involved on the ground to have enough autonomy to take the necessary decisions—sometimes quickly.

At all times, we must remember that the objective is achieving security and stability, which is what the Afghans want. It is against that objective that our
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success should be measured, not simply by the number of Taliban fighters we manage to kill in the process. Building up Afghan capability is vital, and although the process is slow, it is progressing. Progress can be slow but we have to find Afghan solutions and work at an Afghan pace, which is not always the pace we want to work at or with which we are familiar.

We have already discussed NATO and the broad coalition of countries involved in that important work in Afghanistan. The recent NATO Parliamentary Assembly highlighted the concern of member state parliamentarians about the lack of clear strategic objectives. We probably need to refine further those objectives. There is the continuing problem of the use of national caveats and the absence of sufficient financial and human resources to carry out the work we want to fulfil.

I think we shall be in Afghanistan for many years to come, but it is already evident that some members of the coalition are tiring of the conflict; Germany, the Netherlands and Canada are just a few of the countries that have expressed reservations about their continued presence. Given the superb role played by the Canadians and the Dutch, and the impressively high percentage of regular troops they have committed to the work in Afghanistan, it would be deeply worrying were either country to think twice about continuing the operations they have supported so admirably until now.

In a recent report, the Defence Committee highlighted the problem:

The Committee expressed deep concern

and the prospects of success for those operations. It is essential that every possible pressure be put on all our allies to encourage them to recognise the long-term duty and commitment that we have all taken on. I think there is no division between the parties in the House in that regard.

The Taliban insurgency continues to be a serious problem and a great strategic threat in Afghanistan. Over the weekend, there were reports about the extent of the Taliban revival and the increasing presence of other militant groups. Movements on the Pakistan border suggest a growing threat of continued insurgency operations. Different elements make up the insurgencies; they are not a homogenous bloc and should not be seen as one entity. The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said it was right for people to pick up snippets of information from members of the armed forces to use judiciously in debates in the House. Marines in my constituency fought in Afghanistan for six months last winter, and I asked them what they made of the Taliban enemy they were up against. They replied that a remarkable number of their opponents had distinct regional accents, some of which, I am sorry to say, were west midlands accents. We need to remember that we are up against a complicated foe and we should not make simplistic judgments about who they are, what motivates them and what they are trying to achieve.

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