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The Secretary of State is now back in the Chamber, and I ask him a direct question: did the Army fully support the original purchase of Mastiffs, or was its support given only on the condition that they were purchased outside the Army budget? I should be grateful if he responded, perhaps by letter. If necessary, I will come and see him behind the Speaker’s Chair, so that we can have a chat, but I would like a response to that query.

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Let us look at the Army’s new vehicles. The Panther command and liaison vehicle is a very expensive runabout, not to be used on operations. The inadequately protected Tellar bomb disposal vehicle, the Pinzgauer Vector, is an excellent off-road vehicle, but any engineer knows that a mine blast turns it into a death-trap. The so-called Supacat mobility weapon-mounted installation kit is super for the special forces, but why have 130 of them, when they are a liability for normal patrols and convoys, as an infantryman can take them out with one bullet? Who is to say that the first round of FRES for the utility vehicle will be any better? Given the recent track record, we can have little confidence in getting that right. The vehicles can be transported, one at a time, only by the A400Ms—an aircraft that we might never get. What sort of a rapid reaction force will that be?

The military seem to be obsessed with fast jets, yet history has proved that small and slow is far superior for close air support. For the price of one Eurofighter we could have a squadron of Super Tucanos. They can carry the same ordnance as a Harrier, with its loud bang, but unlike the Harrier, which can be over the battlefield for no more than 20 minutes, Tucanos can loiter overhead for hours on end, ready for use in a ground attack at a moment’s notice. We also tend to go in for expensive and complicated helicopters, which soak up manpower, like all complicated equipment. There appears to be little understanding of how light helicopters can be used effectively for ground attack.

In the book review section of the August edition of Soldier magazine, which I am sure that most people read avidly, there is a tribute to one of the

The reference is to a book entitled “The Saints: The Rhodesian Light Infantry” by Alexandre Binda, which should be required reading for all top brass, so that they can appreciate how the Rhodesians used their limited helicopter resources to devastating effect. There are plenty of helicopters on the market today that can be hired at one fifth of the cost of our own aircraft, so there really is no excuse for helicopter shortages. [Interruption.] I notice that Labour Members are amused by that statement. In all counter-insurgency situations we have complete control of the airspace, so why cannot we have total air surveillance on all key routes?

Mr. Brazier: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way during her interesting and original speech. Does she agree that the issue is not just the cost of some of the platforms? In America, which has a huge civil aviation sector, as do we, they use reserve pilots, some of whom are extremely experienced and who have completed many thousands of flying hours, to pilot often much cheaper aeroplanes. As a result, they can afford much more air power per unit of cost.

Ann Winterton: My hon. Friend, who is experienced in such matters, makes a valid point, and I am sure that everyone in the House, including the Secretary of State, will take notice of it. I thank him for making that point.

I accept and admit that unmanned aerial vehicles are being developed for surveillance purposes, but there is nothing to prevent us from putting in place light
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aircraft right now to give coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That is what the Iraqi air force does, and that is surely the way to stop the use of improvised explosive devices, and to prevent further accidents from happening to our troops.

I would like to raise the issue of money and manpower. We constantly hear about not having enough money and that our forces are overstretched almost to breaking point, so let us take a few lessons from history. I refer again to the Rhodesian forces. They had little money and equipment, due to sanctions, and very small numbers of men, yet they succeeded beyond all expectations. They used what they had wisely, implementing ideas from the bottom up. The only battle that they lost was the public relations battle.

In last week’s debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) said that the Ministry is also losing the public relations battle—something that the Minister who replied did not acknowledge. It is essential for the morale of our forces that as, at times, they fight for their very lives in exceptionally hostile and difficult circumstances, they know that they have the full support of the British people. I know that they have the full support of the House; they certainly have my full support.

British defence policy is caught in a vacuum, created in part by the military taking their eye off the ball while planning the longer term in procurement and reorganisation. In the meantime, we have been ill prepared to fight wars on two fronts—in Iraq and Afghanistan—and we have forgotten the lessons of the past in terms of counter-insurgency. Incidentally, Northern Ireland is not entirely relevant to the situation and no one at the top of the military has personal experience of comparable counter-insurgency, other than Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, who served in the Sultan of Oman’s air force, operating Strikemaster jets in the Dhofar war of the 1970s.

Des Browne indicated assent.

Ann Winterton: The Secretary of State is nodding; he will remember that what happened in Dhofar province reinforces the case for slower aircraft for ground attack. I will not expand—to his relief, I am sure—on that argument in this debate, although I look forward to other opportunities to enlarge on some of the issues that I have raised.

6.31 pm

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) will understand if I do not take up much of what she said. However, notwithstanding the fact that the main defence procurement debate happened last week, as she knows, I cannot but respond to what she said about the Eurofighter Typhoon. It is to the great credit of this Secretary of State and his predecessors—and, indeed, the Labour party in opposition—that they stood solidly behind the development of the Eurofighter, which is a great success story. If the hon. Lady speaks for the Conservative party, she did it no good in seeking to denigrate the plane.

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Ann Winterton: The hon. Gentleman has probably misunderstood; I was not knocking the Eurofighter, but saying that it was perhaps inappropriate as a ground-attack aircraft, and that other aircraft would be better suited to that purpose. It is a question of horses for courses.

Dr. Strang: I will not go down that road, but I trust that we have the hon. Lady’s support for tranche 3.

During debates on defence, Members frequently take the opportunity to pay tribute to the calibre and commitment of our armed forces, and rightly so. Members of the armed forces put themselves at the service of the Government of the day, and through them, of the House of Commons. Surely a Minister has no greater responsibility than that of deciding to deploy our service personnel in an active role outside these islands. When people join the military, they literally undertake to put their lives on the line for the people of this country, so it is right that the House should take an active and ongoing interest in the activities of our military forces, particularly when they are engaged in operations, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which significant numbers of people will inevitably lose their lives or be injured.

I wish to focus most of my remarks on Afghanistan, but the House will be well aware of my strong opposition to the invasion of Iraq. It is more than a year since the head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said that we should

He went on:

I accept that the Labour Front-Bench team did not want to hear that, but there is still certainly a great deal of concern in this country about the invasion of Iraq. Many will take the view that the sooner our military personnel leave that country, the better.

The background to our presence in Afghanistan is, of course, different. There was an al-Qaeda presence in that country and a consensus in this country that British forces should take part in any action to try to deal with the threat from terrorists in Afghanistan. The international security assistance force, or ISAF, in Afghanistan has been authorised by successive UN Security Council resolutions, beginning with resolution 1386, passed in December 2001. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knows better than I, stage 1 of ISAF’s presence was restricted to Kabul. The international community is, of course, supporting efforts to extend security to other parts of the country, and the role of ISAF has expanded to cover the various provinces of Afghanistan.

In April last year, the Defence Committee reported that the ISAF operation was made up of 9,000 personnel, provided by 36 countries, 26 of which are NATO members; that is important because the ISAF mission is now led by NATO. In addition to ISAF, there is Operation Enduring Freedom, the US military campaign that fought with the Northern Alliance to
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remove the Taliban from power, with the US providing air power and the Northern Alliance providing ground forces. The operation continues to work separately from ISAF, but there is collaboration: for example, the air power is jointly controlled.

The House should be grateful to the Defence Committee for the work that it has done on the UK’s deployment to Afghanistan. To its credit, its members visited not only Kabul but Kandahar and Helmand province. In the past 18 months, the Committee has produced two valuable reports. The Government’s response to the most recent one was published just last week. The information available is up to date.

Reading through the two reports and the Government’s responses, one is conscious of the use of two words—they struck me, at least: “security” and “stability”. In my vocabulary, those are certainly not interchangeable. I regard “security” as covering the work done to back up the Afghan military police internal security operations and to try to facilitate some sort of rough rule of law so that people can go about their daily business in peace. I would reserve “stability” for the economic objectives of our involvement in Afghanistan. Those are hugely important, and a welcome and significant investment has been made by the Department for International Development.

The Government’s response last week to the Committee report rightly makes a strong statement about the work of DFID, although that is not in any way to criticise the work of the Ministry of Defence. It simply means that it is right that DFID has got in so strongly and, as the Government said,

I do not think that there is any concern about the support for the economic—and, some would say, the social—development of Afghanistan. I assume that the House is united in the hope that security might be achieved within a reasonable time scale and that the cost in lost life, whether of military personnel or the Afghan population, is kept to an absolute minimum. There is agreement throughout the House on that.

It is right that we should look carefully at what is happening in Afghanistan. Reference has already been made to the position regarding the growth of poppies. The reality is that there are many poppy producers. The Select Committee’s report does not refer much to the producers but rather to the next stages, which are easier to address. I am well aware that it is not the Government’s policy to allow the military to get involved in any of the eradication process. Indeed, the report makes the position clear:

The problem is that we have to accept, as my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) said, that producers will move to alternative systems of production only when, in the long term and the short term, it is profitable for them to do so. These people are working on the land and trying to support themselves and their families. The idea that there is a military
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solution through eradicating the poppy crop, with the involvement of the British Government and our people, is quite wrong. Indeed, the more I study the report and the Government’s response, the more sceptical I become of the entire commitment. If one looks carefully at the original terms of reference given in relation to the Government’s participation in ISAF, even subsequently when we moved into Helmand province, one sees that part of our presence in Afghanistan is an involvement in dealing with the narcotics issue.

This is not said in any spirit of criticism. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that when he tries to justify our presence in Afghanistan to his constituents, he sometimes refers to the drugs link. I have made my position on this clear on previous occasions in the House of Commons. As far as I am concerned, our responsibility in relation to drugs is to deal with consumption. The reality is that there is too much consumption of illegal drugs. It is all very well saying that a certain proportion of drugs is produced in Afghanistan, as if poppies are grown only in Afghanistan, but it is not credible to imply that any significant contribution can be made to the drugs situation in that country by our military presence there. I put that forward as the point of view of someone who naturally wants to see our forces succeed, by and large, throughout the world, as does everyone else in this House, if we agree that they should have been deployed.

Des Browne: I am concerned about two aspects of my right hon. Friend’s remarks. First, as I made perfectly clear when answering an intervention on my speech, I realise that one can grow poppy in places other than Afghanistan. If we do not deal with consumption while at the same time seeking to deal with supply, then for as long as there is a market here in the developed world for heroin, somebody, somewhere, will grow poppy in order to produce it. I well understand that; his point is redundant if he seeks to persuade me of it.

Much more importantly, does not my right hon. Friend realise—I hope that he will develop this point, because there is no discord across the House regarding his argument about where the priority of our military effort should lie—that a significant amount of the insurgency in Afghanistan is paid for by the production of heroin, so there is a direct correlation between that and the violence that is visited on the people of Afghanistan and directed at our troops?

Dr. Strang: Of course I realise that, just as I realise that a high proportion of the crime in this country is related to the drugs situation. Indeed, we can debate whether we want a high price or a low price for drugs in relation to their impact on crime in general. I do not seek to get involved in an argument with my right hon. Friend—I support his efforts across the piece in his Department—but of course I know that these people are being funded by drugs. The report refers to the scale of corruption in the country—the whole situation is riddled with profits from drugs. The producers are just the people on the ground trying to earn an honest livelihood. We all understand that, as the report says, we are trying to go for the Mr. Bigs.

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I do not want to extend my contribution for too long, because I know that many others want to speak, including members of the Select Committee, but I will conclude on the following valid point. I was impressed by the contribution to last week’s defence debate by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). Let me try to be a little bipartisan after my initial, justified reaction to the hon. Member for Congleton. The hon. Gentleman made an excellent speech, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces is aware, because he opened the debate; I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber at the time. I have no disagreement with the commitment of my right hon. Friends the Minister and the Secretary of State to trying to get the best equipment for our people, whether they are in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else.

I was impressed when the hon. Gentleman said:

I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that there is still a fundamental consensus between the Select Committee and the Government on the narcotics work in Afghanistan; I merely question the approach, and I think that we should continue to do so.

6.47 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I welcome this opportunity to discuss defence policy. I want to say a few words about the military covenant between the armed forces of the nation. I will then spend the bulk of my time considering ways in which we could have a greater involvement by the wider nation in the defence of our country.

Last week, there was a widespread welcome for the albeit very limited changes to the armed forces compensation scheme. Yesterday, I received a reply from the Under-Secretary to a letter that I wrote contrasting the cases of Lance Bombardier Parkinson with the RAF clerk who had RSI in the fingers. I entirely accept that, as the Secretary of State said earlier, no direct comparison can be made between the two lump sums because one person is getting a guaranteed income payment and the other is not. However, the fact remains that if that guaranteed income payment for these absolutely frightful injuries were to be capitalised, a comparable civilian case would receive a much larger equivalent sum. After all, the Government of the day set the rules and make the law in this area, so why does our law place a so much higher value on civilian casualties than on military ones—or rather, in this case, on someone who was uniformed at the time but had the injury in a civilian context rather than a military one?

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