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Inevitably, we have taken heavy casualties but it is right that we carry the fight to the enemy. It is
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important that we are mobile and unpredictable. Sometimes the best form of defence is attack, so that we take on the enemy where we want to engage them and not on ground that might suit them better.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are always the ones taking on the fight, and that only a few countries are willing to take on the hard role in Afghanistan? Does he agree that some of our NATO colleagues should take some of the weight that we have carried for far too long, and has he any ideas about how we can get them more involved so that they take some of that weight from us?

Nick Harvey: I agree; the hon. Gentleman’s point is well made and I referred to the same thing earlier. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said that membership of NATO means taking on the full commitment entailed by combined security and joint defence. These operations cannot be treated in an -la-carte way, as happens among some of our NATO allies, which is a real problem. We will be in Afghanistan for a long time and we must impress on our NATO allies that if the operation is to be sustainable, if it is to prevail and succeed, we must have more help in terms of manpower and finance from other members than we have had to date.

Progress is being made. It is painfully slow, but there has been progress with hospitals, electricity generators, bridges, roads and water supplies. Goodness knows, there is a long way to go, but we should not be pessimistic just because sometimes the casualty figures are a lot higher than we would want.

The success of many of the operations in which we are involved depends entirely on good intelligence, so I should welcome the Government’s assessment of whether we have enough ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—capability. In the House, we have previously referred to air assets—especially helicopters—and they are still not adequate to the task in the long term. The fact that none of them is dedicated solely to the task of casualty evacuation, which has to be slotted into general helicopter tasking, is evidence that we do not have as many helicopters as we want.

A separate, but slightly less obvious, problem is that the lack of helicopter capacity means that there is insufficient resource for some of the training that could improve the effectiveness of what we are doing. The terrain in Helmand is such that helicopters are vital, so unless we can address this issue for the longer term, it will continue to hold back what we are doing and undermine our aims. Helmand is also a punishing environment for equipment and vehicles, particularly for engines, transmissions and suspensions. All those are experiencing a heavy toll from the sort of work that we are undertaking in a hostile environment.

As time goes on, we will need to work up the capability and capacity of the Afghans themselves. One of the prerequisites will be improving the ability of Afghan authorities to make medium-term and long-term plans. That is particularly limited now. Although the Afghan army is developing, Afghan policing is far more of a problem. At its best it is passable, but at its worst it comes down, at times, to militias and tribal
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police of varying loyalty, some of whom are involved in all manner of activities in which one would not normally expect or want the police to be involved. That issue will hold us back if we cannot address it.

The issue of eradicating the poppy crop is serious. The Government have responded to the Defence Committee’s report on Afghanistan, which criticised the poppy policy as confused. The problem, as we can all see, is that the crop is an essential part of the livelihood and income of many Afghans. The point to make about the poppy crop is that the dividend—the crop itself—is obtained within six months of planting. Let us consider the pre-1979 period, before the Soviet invasion. At that time, successful and viable crops such as nutmeg, almonds, currants and sultanas could be found in Afghanistan. We may want to get people back into growing vines, but they will wait five years to get a dividend from planting them, as opposed to the six months’ wait after planting poppies. That is the critical point, so the aid effort and support that we can give will be our only hope of offering an alternative crop to the subsistence farmers.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): As a member of the Defence Committee, may I suggest that we should be looking at the long-term position? That is the point we made in our report: the investment should be put in for that long-term crop, as opposed to the short-term dividend. We must address that issue.

Nick Harvey: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and with the point that the Committee made. That issue is crucial to the long-term success of our operations in Afghanistan.

The key point is that we must retain our commitment. We went into Afghanistan because we had no alternative: it had provided a headquarters for international terrorism. If we were to leave Afghanistan and not to see this operation through, we would be back to square one in very little time, and people there would be involved in all that again.

We need a strategic defence review. The review that the Government carried out in 1998 was good, and it was to some extent updated by the White Paper that followed. However, as I said in last week’s debate, if we are to make a proper assessment of the strategic environment and the sort of requirements that we will have in years to come, now is the time for another such review. It should examine our vision of where we think we fit in the world, what we will try to achieve in terms of both hard and soft power, and how we will develop capabilities to match those future objectives and the potential operations to which they might lead. We need an agile, flexible and deployable force, as stated in the 2004 comprehensive spending review. There is some way to go before we achieve that, and in a fast-changing environment, we must look forward to what we think we will need to do in years to come, particularly as we make difficult choices in our procurement budget.

I warmly welcome the Royal British Legion’s campaign on the broken covenant. It is a sign of the sense of alarm in the military community that such an organisation has felt driven to mount a campaign of that sort. The welfare and well-being of the armed forces should be at the centre of any future planning and of the sort of strategic defence review for which I am calling.

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It is clear that we are no longer in the cold war era, and it is right that our planning assumptions are changing to reflect that. We must look forward, on the basis of the nature of the threats that we think we will face in years to come. As some hon. Members have said, those can change at quite a speed. We could not have anticipated the rise of some of the forces that are emerging in the world, nor the recent posturing on the part of the Russian Federation. In this fast-changing world, it is high time to undertake another long hard assessment, and to make the revisions to our military strategy that would better equip us to fit that new environment.

6.6 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made on 8 October on Iraq, which will see troop numbers reduced to about 2,500 by next spring. The decision was made possible only as a result of the fantastic efforts of British troops who have helped to train 13,000 members of the Iraqi army. I was saddened that instead of welcoming that news, the Opposition took the opportunity for a bit of political knockabout. The public will make a harsh judgment about those who sat in the comfort of those Benches and saw the announcement as a chance to launch a political attack on the Government rather than celebrate the success of Britain’s servicemen and women. Is it any wonder that the recent ICM poll showed that two thirds of those polled believe that the Tories are not fit for government?

Ann Winterton: I was saddened by what the right hon. Gentleman had to say, for the simple reason that I do not think the British public like our services being manipulated for party political reasons. Announcements were made in Iraq about which even the Secretary of State for Defence did not know, so the case that the right hon. Gentleman has made against the Opposition could equally be made against the Government.

Mr. Touhig: The public will judge the Conservatives’ reaction on that day; I have no doubt that a harsh judgment will be made on that party.

The conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has meant that we are asking servicemen and women to do more than ever before, placing greater demands on them and their families. In return, therefore, we have to take on board an even greater duty to support them. I have always held the view that joining the armed forces is not like taking a job at Barclays bank or Tesco. Those who volunteer to serve their country are joining an organisation that may require them to put their life on the line, as has so tragically happened in Iraq and Afghanistan these past few years. In return for their commitment, it is our duty to ensure that they are well motivated, well trained, and equipped and protected to do the job that we ask of them. That is our true covenant with the armed forces.

In return for the service that our forces give, Britain owes them only the very best. I am talking not simply about the best training and equipment, but about the best accommodation and support for them and their families. It is important that families are given support.
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When I served as a defence Minister, my mission statement was simple: we will value our servicemen, servicewomen and their families, our reserves, cadets their employers and their families, our veterans, their widows and their families, and we will do everything in our power to demonstrate that. That idea should run throughout our approach to our support for the armed forces.

I could not speak of the value agenda without mentioning the campaign by veterans who fought in Malaysia to be allowed to wear the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal. I have tabled early-day motion 356 on that and hon. Members on both sides of the House have generously supported it. However, we have to do more. We have a duty to honour the commitment of the 35,000 of our boys who fought in the jungles of Malaysia. They earned that medal and they have the right to wear it. A greater degree of honour falls on them than on the members of the honours and decorations committee who are resisting the legitimate request to wear that medal. I wonder how many of those who serve on that committee served in the jungle. Probably the only jungle they know is the jungle around Whitehall.

The value agenda should run right through the whole of our forces, from cadets to veterans, and even beyond, to our service families. Service families are very important. They really are the rock on which our people rely for support. If the families back home are happy, content and supported, the boys whom we deploy in many theatres of conflict are happy, too. Like everyone else, our servicemen and women cannot give their best in operations if they are worried about things at home. So it should be an absolute priority that servicemen and their families have the support and help they need and deserve.

The absolute cornerstone of that is service accommodation. Armed forces personnel and their families deserve decent accommodation. Those serving must be secure in the knowledge that their families are housed in accommodation on a par with the very best on offer in Britain. While I know that the MOD is committed to improving accommodation, and some £700 million has already been spent on housing and other living accommodation, much more needs to be done.

I occasionally smile to myself when I hear present—and yes, former—senior defence chiefs calling for more to be done to improve service family accommodation. I pressed for that, as a Minister in the MOD between 2005 and 2006, but I do not recall receiving any support from those individuals. Indeed, it was Ministers in the MOD who expressed the greatest concern about service family accommodation, not the senior officers.

I believe that the MOD plans to spend £5 billion in the next decade and that will help, but I have one piece of advice for my successor, who takes a very real interest in this matter. He should watch his back when it comes to determining priorities. He will have to fight his corner for funding for service family accommodation, and he will find his opponents pretty formidable.

There is no quick fix. The legacy of underfunding inherited from the previous Government means that we are tackling shortcomings that will take considerable time to resolve. It is a bit rich for the Conservatives to
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claim the moral high ground on the issue when it was their policy of slashing the defence budget that led to service family housing being in the poor state of repair that it is in now. Indeed, there is no more pathetic sight than the Tories trying to pitch their tent on the moral high ground. When it comes to our armed forces, they had no idea when in government and they have no credibility now. Their record speaks for itself.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): What happened to the repair and maintenance budget in the last financial year? If the right hon. Gentleman does not know, perhaps he might like to check the National Audit Office report on the subject.

Mr. Touhig: I am coming to an NAO report now. MOD officials appeared before the Public Accounts Committee on 28 January 1998 and they were asked whether spending constraints under the previous Government had prevented improvements to housing stock. They said yes. Who asked the question? It was none other than the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the present shadow Home Secretary. Contrast that with the record of this Government on spending and investment in the armed forces. We are reversing the legacy that the Conservatives left. We now have more than 20,000 new or upgraded single-living accommodation spaces and 20,000 more are planned. In this financial year, the accommodation of 900 service families will be upgraded, and there is more to do.

I hope that my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench will take a closer look at an idea that I examined when I was a Minister. Today, many service families aspire to own their own home and we must to do all we can to help them achieve that. We could perhaps give them a grant of, say, £30,000 towards their mortgage. That cost could be offset by savings elsewhere on other benefits. Alternatively, the Department could act as a guarantor for a certain proportion of any mortgage applied for. The Americans do that with their veterans, for example. One of the major advantages of such a scheme is that the lender is protected against loss and a favourable mortgage is obtained by the service family.

The issue of home ownership will become increasingly important in the coming years as we move towards super-garrisons. It also extends choice to the services and meets a legitimate aspiration. The quality of service accommodation, alongside military pay and training, has a massive impact on recruitment and retention, which are the two great challenges facing us.

Recruitment is an ongoing challenge. Our strong economy increases the challenge. I entered the House in 1995 in a by-election, and I remember that almost every door that I knocked on in my campaign was answered. In the last general election, hardly any doors were answered, because the area now has a strong economy and almost full employment. The forces now have to compete for recruits and show that joining is an attractive proposition.

Retention is also an issue with some 20,000-plus people leaving the services each year. The skills that our servicemen and women gain during their time in the forces are desirable to those who run business and
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industry in the private sector. Imagine a married serviceman who has returned from a second or third deployment in the field being greeted by his wife. She will probably say, “Thank God you are back. I worried about you the whole time you were away. Now you have skills that you can sell outside in the private sector. The children are growing up and we are living in awful service accommodation.” How can we retain those people in the forces? We need to do more, and the deployed welfare package does help with retention.

Let us not forget that our forces were given the best public sector pay deal this year. In fact, armed forces salary growth has exceeded growth in the whole economy in all but one of the last five years. Contrast that with the record of the Conservatives who, rather than supporting our service personnel, cut the Army by 36,000 during their last five years in government. With that record, where is their commitment to our armed forces?

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who spoke on behalf of the Opposition, but is no longer in his place, was a little coy when pressed about what they would do on public spending if they were in power. I do not know why he was coy: he should take a lead from his leader, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who said in a webcast interview recently:

There we have it. If the Tories were in power, there would be no more for the armed forces. As so often in the past, the Tories are long on promises, but short on delivery. The party that cut the defence budget by £0.5 billion a year between 1992 and 1997 has not changed at all. If, God forbid, they were one day elected to power, the outlook for the armed forces would be cuts, cuts and more cuts. Contrast that with the record of this Government—increasing pay, improving equipment, updating medical care and accommodation, and constantly seeking to improve the package available to veterans. The Government are committed to delivering for our servicemen and women, and long may that continue.

6.19 pm

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): I will try to rise above the rather carping nature of the debate. I hope that hon. Members will recognise that my motivation is concern for the welfare of our armed services and concern to provide them with the right equipment to do the job to which the nation has committed them. I welcome this debate on defence policy. It is in many ways long overdue, but I nevertheless congratulate the Government on holding it, as the subject is extremely important for the nation and our armed services.

The three armed services have their own particular crosses to bear at present. The RAF is financially bogged down with the Eurofighter, the Royal Navy’s spending is now totally dominated by the two new aircraft carriers, and the Army, under the future Army structure programme, is being reconstructed for the future rapid effect system, FRES. Everything is geared towards providing a high-tech expeditionary rapid reaction force, but no one has asked why that should be so, or has asked what has been omitted in the meantime.

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The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who, I am delighted to say, is back in the Chamber, has said in the past that the UK and its allies might have to face down the Russians again, and that is true, but we are engaged in ongoing operations in difficult counter-insurgency situations. The fact is that those at the top of the military seem to have become obsessed with high-tech, high-priced, overcomplicated new equipment. Let us take the case of the FRES vehicles; they were originally expected to be on stream by about 2010, but we will be lucky if it is 2020. It may even be later than that.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Rubbish.

Ann Winterton: The hon. Gentleman says “rubbish”, but I think that the point was even admitted at the Dispatch Box in debate last week. In the meantime, there is a great hole; we have insufficient numbers of the right vehicles.

Mr. Jones: I wish that the hon. Lady would do her research, and that she understood what she was talking about when making statements such as the one that she just made. I have pressed the Defence Committee hard on the subject that she raises; I am the one who has been pressing for an in-service date. Lord Drayson, the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement, has made it clear to the Committee on numerous occasions that 2012 is the in-service date. Having seen the rapid progress that he is making with that programme, I now have more faith that it will be in service by 2012. To say that may not happen until 2020 is absolute rubbish.

Ann Winterton: The hon. Gentleman expresses his opinion. We will have to wait and see who is right. I hope that we are both in the House in 2012, and that we will recall this conversation on the Floor of the House. In the meantime, the real needs of the present have been overlooked, and the hard-learned lessons of the past appear to have been forgotten. So many people thought that Iraq would be another Northern Ireland, where the use of Snatch Land Rovers was appropriate, but they were completely wrong, and many people have lost their lives or been maimed as a result. I have always given the Government credit for the provision of, and improvements to, equipment such as helmets and body armour, and surveillance equipment and electronic countermeasures that use the latest technology. That is in addition to armoury for the infantry. It is in the provision of larger equipment that things have gone horribly wrong.

I totally agree with the comments made by the Minister for the Armed Forces a week ago concerning the Mastiff vehicle:

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