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Many previous speakers have talked about Iraq and Afghanistan, and I anticipated that that would be the position. I want to raise some specific issues about which I feel quite strongly, and refer to things that we need to develop. Like a substantial number of Members in my party, I opposed going into Iraq, and I continue to think that I was on the side of the righteous in doing so. At the end of the day, however, I have never spoken publicly against the decision to go into Iraq because it was a democratic decision taken in this
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House, and I was in the minority. I am from that old group that believes that when defeated, people should accept the decision taken. When the troops moved out, it was important that we were seen to support them in that conflict. That does not mean I have not had reservations about what happened, and what is happening.

I want to make one or two points on Iraq. The first, which has been discussed during the past week, was about the commitment made to the Iraqi interpreters, who have been a major support. They have done a great deal of work not just in their interpretation duties, but in saving a great many British lives. I was glad to see the Prime Minister acknowledge that contribution by saying that we would have to support those people and ensure that they get sanctuary in this country. However, the fact is that there were 740 rulings last year on Iraqis who had supported the UK, but asylum was granted to only 30 of them. I hope that when we talk about the new dynamic, we will see interpreters being treated in a different way.

Other hon. Members have spoken about the contribution from other countries, or lack of it, in sending people to the conflict; I suggest that those countries could make a contribution by looking after those who have been so supportive of our armed forces. We should also support them for another good reason: if we enter into any conflicts in future, the way in which we have treated those who supported us in the current conflict will be remembered. I was on BBC Scotland on Sunday, supporting the Government’s position, and I listened to an Iraqi interpreter who is in Syria. He made quite clear his disappointment with what has happened in the past, and he welcomed the Prime Minister’s statement because he may now be able to leave Syria and come to the UK. That applies not just to people like him, of course, but in many cases, to their families too.

I appreciate the fact that troop numbers in Iraq, which stood at 7,200 individuals at the beginning of 2007, had gone down to 5,500 at the start of September. That number has decreased to 4,000, and by next spring it may have gone down to 2,500. It is disingenuous of many Opposition Members not to recognise that that is a major reduction. For anyone who has been supportive of our troops in Iraq, it is a good move, and I welcome what the Prime Minister has done.

Like most Defence Committee members, I have been to Afghanistan. I was there last year, between 2 and 7 July, and we went not only to Afghanistan but to Pakistan. I would like to pick up on an earlier comment about the contribution of the Pakistani army. Some 800 troops of that army have been killed. Sometimes people criticise the Pakistani armed forces, when they are on the front line in many cases, and are losing troops hand over fist. They resent the criticisms, which are often made by people who should know better. When we met General Musharraf in Pakistan, he went to great lengths to explain how it is trying to support the UK and American forces and the United Nations in Afghanistan. We went to Camp Bastion and met a number of people down there. We were mortar-bombed one night, and someone had to wake me up—I am a deep sleeper. That was first-hand experience.

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Several hon. Members have mentioned talking to members of the armed forces and finding out from them how things are. I am a reformed smoker, which means that you can go out of the way, into back doorways, to have a cigarette, and that is where you really meet the troops. They tell you what they really think of you when they are away from their officers—smokers tend to get into direct contact with them. In all my experience of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and the Defence Committee, equipment is not an issue that has been raised with me. It is important to say that. Wages, and the conditions in married quarters, have been brought up, but conditions and equipment in conflicts have not been mentioned to me.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but has he come across complaints from armed forces personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan or both—or, indeed, in other theatres—about footwear and the desert boots that are currently being used and tend to fall apart?

Mr. Hamilton: No, those comments have not been made by any soldier to me. I represent Midlothian and I see the Highlanders who are based in my constituency, and they have not said that. They have done two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think that they would have told me if there was a problem. I take it that the hon. Gentleman has been told that, so there are problems with equipment, but those complaints have never been put to me. I welcome the £10 billion for equipment, and I believe that it represents a substantial increase in real terms.

I want to consider the decision in the House some months ago about Trident. Again, I was in a minority on that matter, which is a big issue not only in the UK Parliament but in the Scottish Parliament. Most Scottish Members of Parliament, and Members of the Scottish Parliament, voted against Trident. The First Minister, who is also a Member of this House, has made it clear that he will do anything he can to stop the maintenance of the nuclear facility at Faslane. It is important that hon. Members understand that, because the issue could affect our defence capability. The First Minister argues that he could relate his opposition to EU regulations. A Green party Member of the Scottish Parliament wrote to the First Minister asking for an inquiry into the transfer of nuclear warheads around Scotland. The First Minister replied that he shared the opposition to nuclear weapons and reassured the Green party that he would go even further, take some steps to ensure that nothing was moved in or out of Faslane, and use European legislation to deal with that. It is important that the UK Parliament understands that.

I revert to the point that I made earlier: when we are part of a democratic force, we accept the defeats as well as the victories. We were defeated on Trident in the UK Parliament. If people do not accept defeat, they should go back and try a different angle to win the fight. We cannot have a Scottish debate without having a UK debate. The UK Parliament makes the decision. It would be inappropriate if one part of Scotland—for example, Shetland—said that it wanted to be
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independent and take all the oil without giving any to the rest of Scotland. That would change the dynamic, and the same applies to the position that I have described.

The Royal British Legion and the covenant have been mentioned on several occasions. For anyone who attended the party conferences and found members of the Royal British Legion there, let me distinguish between the Royal British Legion and the Scottish Royal British Legion. They are separate entities. The Royal British Legion in Scotland is not involved in the covenant issues, and it is important that people understand that. The Scottish British Legion has not yet made a decision. The board of trustees has met and may decide to join the campaign at some point. If it does, that is fine. However, veterans in Scotland have been working closely with the Ministry of Defence and the Scottish Executive on the treatment of Scottish personnel who are currently serving in the armed forces and those returning home. They have been discussing not only pay but wider issues such as housing and so on. Housing is, of course, a devolved matter in Scotland. Again, it is important for information purposes to know that, for example, some inquests into deaths must be conducted in Scotland. That is being discussed with the Ministry of Defence, because legislation in Scotland is different from that in England.

Last week, the Defence Committee took evidence in the Scottish Parliament. Mr. Derek Feeley, director of health care policy, the health care officer of the mental health division and a medical adviser were present. It shocked many members of the Committee to find that although there is a fast-track procedure in England and Wales for service personnel and former service personnel, no such distinction is made in Scotland. Personnel from a Scottish regiment based in a Scottish area are treated differently when they get home.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I, too, attended that evidence session in the Scottish Parliament last week. Was my hon. Friend also shocked by the lack of comprehension on the part of the NHS in Scotland that veterans and/or armed services families should be treated differently from the bulk of the population in the provision of medical services?

Mr. Hamilton: I agree. Indeed, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) said during that public evidence session that he was disgusted with the contribution of the three people who spoke on behalf of the Scottish Government. He declared his disgust because they could not answer the questions that were asked and were unaware of their role in relation to the Ministry of Defence. At one point they said that they had four meetings a year with the Ministry of Defence to discuss issues that affect Scottish troops coming home and their families. That is not acceptable.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I have heard that interesting story on several occasions today, and it must be properly addressed. Many members of the Defence Committee are here, so may I ask them whether they had taken up the matter with the NHS in Scotland previously? Is this a new situation or a legacy issue? We have been going to war for many years—
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every year in my lifetime—so the problem is not new. Is there any sign of whether it has got worse or better—or has it simply been ignored for ever?

Mr. Hamilton: The hon. Gentleman is obviously trying to score points against the previous Administration in Scotland. As I understand it, the fast-track system came into operation at the end of last year. It is therefore a relatively new proposal, which has not been adopted in Scotland. We were not shy of pointing that out to the previous Administration. It is important that when our troops come home, whether to Glencorse or somewhere in England or Wales, they are treated exactly the same.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Was not it also disturbing that the representatives in the evidence session had no comprehension that veterans and armed forces families should receive special treatment or be viewed as different from the rest of the population? The fundamental problem was that they did not get it.

Mr. Hamilton: I agree with my hon. Friend. The lack of understanding disturbed me more than anything. In the two years for which I have served on the Defence Committee I have rarely seen genuine anger expressed. The Chairman had his head in his hands at one point, because he did not know how to ask the next question. The session will have been recorded, and I ask hon. Members who are interested, especially Scottish Members, to read the proceedings. Improvements need to be made.

We need to consider health, including mental health, and education. Other members of the Select Committee will remember that the education spokesperson gave evidence last year. When we asked him about the way in which education facilities affected children, he could tell us about England but not Scotland. The problem is that the education system continues to be different in Scotland. The examination system is different. When kids come from German bases to Scotland or England, they are treated differently. If they are being educated in Germany under an English system, they must adapt to the Scottish system if they move to Scotland. In my opinion—and I think in that of other members of the Select Committee—that was not tackled appropriately.

The final issue that I will touch on is housing, which has been talked about on many occasions. We have talked about special treatment and so on, and housing is an issue that I, as someone who grew up in an area with an Army barracks, feel strongly about. My council has always had a policy on housing, and during the 30-odd years in which I have been involved in public life, I have never heard a single complaint about armed forces personnel who have served this country coming out of the Army, the Navy or the Air Force and getting priority on housing lists. That is accepted in my constituency, and it should be accepted in the 32 other local authorities in Scotland. It should be a policy that the Government adopt, and which any future Government will maintain. My final request is to ask whether the Minister would be willing to meet a number of Scottish MPs to discuss the infringements, which affect Scotland disproportionately more than the rest of the United Kingdom.

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7.30 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I am pleased to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, after hearing my colleague on the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton). I hope that you will forgive me for pointing out in this important debate about defence policy that only three members of the Defence Committee are present. However, that represents a 100 per cent. turnout, because I believe that every other member is on an overseas visit to Georgia and Turkey, at a sensitive time for relations with Turkey. That is an important visit and I am sure that each of us here regrets that we are not on it. However, we felt our loyalties torn, because we wanted to take part in this debate.

It must be one of the most curious coincidences since Sir Cecil Rhodes discovered Rhodesia how often these defence debates, of which there are five every year, occur when the Defence Committee has already planned to be abroad. I wonder whether you could use your good offices, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to look into how often that coincidence occurs and whether the business managers of the House could not contrive to ensure that the Committee’s members are more likely than not to be present and available to participate in these debates. I must also apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, those on the Front Benches and the House for being unable to be present for the wind-ups for this debate, since I have had a long-standing commitment elsewhere. For that reason I shall keep my remarks short and to the point.

I regard this debate about defence policy as one of the most important in the defence calendar. It is the one in which we can legitimately raise and discuss the very fundamentals of what our defence is about. It is usual when called to speak after a considerable number of speakers in such a debate to praise the quality of it. There have been some good speeches, but there have also been some exchanges that, I am pleased to reflect, very few members of Her Majesty’s armed forces will have been bothered to witness on their television screens.

I raised with the Secretary of State the question of the increases in the defence budget as compared with other countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) raised from the Dispatch Box the share of GDP that we spend on defence. We know in all parts of the House that the strain on the armed forces and on the defence budget is a real topic and that it is more acute than it has been for some considerable time. We know that the Government are wrestling with the dilemma and that an incoming alternative Government would have to wrestle with it, too. We also know that no ludicrous commitments will be made in the Chamber this evening about any particular level of spending. That is what Governments do in comprehensive spending reviews and spending statements; it is something that Oppositions do not do, for obvious reasons, not least because promises made by Oppositions are rarely believed by the voters.

The crucial question that we must ask ourselves is whether the House will face up to its responsibilities and honour the military covenant, which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) raised, which means honouring the obligations towards our servicemen—those who are serving, those who are
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training and those who are injured—the families who are the bereaved and the veterans who have fought for their country and now left the armed forces. Are we going to equip our armed forces for what we constantly ask them to do or are we going to carry on operating on a shoestring?

The story of the Territorial Army, which my hon. Friend raised, is a case in point. We are talking about very small sums of money, and it is the same in terms of housing. Relatively small sums of money would make a huge difference to the quality of life of many servicemen and their families. However, the defence chiefs are confronted constantly with a choice: do they cut the capabilities that they are trying to deploy into the field for those other programmes or do they try to protect the size of their declining manpower and their delayed equipment budgets? Those are the constant dilemmas that must be faced in the Ministry of Defence, because we are trying to do too much with too little.

Mr. David Hamilton: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would accept, however, that substantial amounts of money are being spent on housing. In my constituency, £44 million has been spent on housing in the Glencorse barracks, where satellite television has been installed and where each house is now worth about £300,000. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the families absolutely love the improvements, which ensures that the personnel who fight on our behalf are well aware that they are being looked after back home.

Mr. Jenkin: I stand to be corrected, but I am informed that at the present rate of refurbishment and improvement of the defence estate and the married quarters estate, which is now in the private sector, but which depends upon the subventions from the public purse for its improvement, it will take 30 years for the housing stock to be brought up to standard. That is not acceptable. If the time were half that figure, it would not be acceptable. We need to honour our obligations to those who would give so much for their country. The hon. Gentleman most sincerely does in his case, but we need to do so as a House, as politicians of all parties.

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The hon. Gentleman is trying to make a serious contribution, but he has said a couple of things that do not gel with that. If he is suggesting that the housing situation could be sorted out with a small amount of money, that is not true. There is already the plan to spend £5 billion over 10 years on our service accommodation. A lot of money has already been spent and a large building programme is in place.

The other point that caused me to rise was the hon. Gentleman’s argument that it was in some way illegitimate for the Government, when they are criticised about the amount of money that they spend on defence, to ask whether the Opposition plan to increase that amount. If we are not to ask that question, all the rest is surely just political knockabout, which, as he rightly says, will turn our armed forces off as soon as they switch on to this debate.

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Mr. Jenkin: I accept that the amounts required to bring all the housing stock up to scratch over a long period will be substantial. My point is that spending relatively small amounts of money on the accommodation of individual servicemen can make a big difference to their lives.

I wish to address in all seriousness the other point that the Minister raised, by asking him to address the defence planning assumptions. The Defence Committee is conducting an inquiry into commitments and resources. I understand that there has not been an inquiry into defence commitments and resources since the mid-1980s—again, I stand to be corrected if I am wrong—because it is an extremely difficult task for the Defence Committee to undertake. We do not have a Rand Corporation in this country or the same scale of think tanks that the United States does. We rely very much on the Ministry of Defence to provide us with the sort of information that we need to make a judgment on the matter.

One of the inquiries that we have made of the Ministry of Defence is: knowing historically exactly what the commitments have been over the past 10 years, what would the size of the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force need to have been in manpower terms to satisfy the harmony guidelines? I suppose I should not be that surprised that the MOD finds it difficult to answer that question. Will the Minister of State, perhaps not tonight but within the next few days, ask his civil servants to apply their minds to that?

As the Secretary of State confirmed in his speech, the 1998 defence review proposed that we should be able to sustain, in addition to our ongoing commitments in Northern Ireland, Cyprus and so on, one major deployment and one minor deployment long-term commitment at any one time. For the past five years we have sustained two major deployments, which have thrown the harmony guidelines right out of kilter. I submit to the House that to satisfy the harmony guidelines for the Army alone, at the present level of commitment, the Army would have to increase not by 5,000 for the infantry, as the Chief of the General Staff proposed, but probably by about 30,000. We all know that soldiers like to be busy and challenged, and most do not need or want the full gap between tours. That figure, however, indicates how far short we are from matching our manpower and capabilities to our present commitments.

Extraordinarily, we heard from the Secretary of State another bit of wishful thinking that somehow the draw down from Iraq and Northern Ireland will at last create some slack in the system. Ever since the strategic defence review took place, the Government have looked forward two or three years to the time when the harmony guidelines would be met and equilibrium restored. Surely by now we have learned that we cannot opt out of all the global strategic challenges around the word, and that there simply are not enough countries alongside France and the United States—and possibly Russia and India—that can deploy and sustain an expeditionary capability at the scale to deal with the modern security challenges that we face. Therefore, the question that the Government face, and that an incoming Conservative Government would also have to face, is whether to bulk up our armed forces to meet the modern security challenges or to opt out of those global security challenges, on which our security and that of our allies depend.

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