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We must ensure that competition for resources is based not on defending or trying to seize access to the
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world’s resources by force, but on encouraging stability and democracy in less developed states, and in states that are unstable and have no democratic rule of law. So defence policy, foreign policy and international development policy become increasingly intertwined, and our modern armed forces must be equipped with the training and the resources to undertake that increasingly multi-faceted role.

In June I was lucky enough to visit Afghanistan, where I saw that multi-faceted role in action. We are not in Afghanistan as part of an invading force taking over the country, but at the invitation of the Afghan Government to help them bring about democracy and stability, which the people of Afghanistan need so that they can move forward. When our forces go into villages in Helmand province and ask villagers what they want—schools, hospitals or roads—the answer is always security first. They want security for themselves and for their children, and only then do they want health care, transport infrastructure and education.

Democracy and stability in Afghanistan are also in our national interest, to prevent the country from becoming a base for international terrorism that threatens our safety and security. That does not apply just to Afghanistan; we need democracy and stability in all nation states if we are to prevent future armed conflict in a growing world population eager to share in growth and prosperity, but competing for limited resources.

In Afghanistan it is clear that we shall not achieve that objective with firepower alone: to use a well-worn phrase, shock and awe are not enough. We need to use another well-worn phrase, and win over hearts and minds. The Taliban do not have popular support among the Afghan people, most of whom are afraid of them. The Afghan people need to know that the international forces are in it for the long term, and that we will not abandon them if the going gets rough. The worst of all worlds would be for them to kick the Taliban out with our help, only for us to decide to pull our troops out of Afghanistan because it is too dangerous.

Mark Pritchard: The hon. Lady is making an excellent contribution to the debate. Will she join me in congratulating the Government of Pakistan on their recent efforts on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which have achieved success in taking out much of the Taliban leadership in that area? That success has been a long time coming, but now that it has arrived it is most welcome, so I hope she will endorse the actions of the Pakistani authorities.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I am happy to support his comments. When I was in Afghanistan, the conversations I held with the ambassador made it clear that Afghanistan alone could not solve the problems; the solutions have to be regional.

Winning over hearts and minds is a slow, painstaking process; we need to win people’s trust. Earlier, the Secretary of State laid out our achievements in Afghanistan, not in traditional military terms of enemy killed or ground taken, but in terms of the number of children in school, how many of the population have access to basic health care and how far
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we have reduced poppy cultivation. In the north of the country, we have achieved a reduction. Contrary to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), who is no longer in the Chamber, military contributions helped in that process, because peace and stability in the north were achieved first. Farmers feel that poppy cultivation now poses more risks, which they are not prepared to take. They have more choice and feel more comfortable exercising it, because they know that the police and the Government will back them up. Our military presence is delivering for the Afghan police and Government the capability to do that.

We have a long road to travel in the rest of Afghanistan, especially in Helmand, but just because we do not always measure our achievements in military terms does not mean that they are not military achievements. During my visit to Afghanistan, I was struck by the understanding among troops at every level of the complex nature of the operations they were facilitating and the delicate balance that had to be struck: on the one hand, raw soldiering to drive out the Taliban, and the next day setting up a shura, or village community meeting, finding out who the tribal leader is and helping them decide for themselves what they want for their community.

Every soldier, sailor and aircrew member I met understood the politics of the situation; they understood the tribal nature of the population and the need to establish real Afghan ownership of the reconstruction projects under way. I can tell the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) that is not an aspiration—it is happening. Afghan faces do not merely head up projects; local Afghan labour is being used.

Some of the service personnel whom I met who were doing that work were from the joint CIMIC—Civil Military Co-operation—group. Such an undertaking is nothing new. A civilian-military liaison branch of the Army was first set up in 1941, and in 1944 and 1945 teams moved into liberated towns in France and Germany, along with the leading troops, to occupy local government offices and establish authority. In 1997 the joint CIMIC group was established—a specialist unit that manages the interface between military and civilian organisations wherever British forces are deployed on operations.

The majority of personnel in the unit are reservists who hold civilian jobs and have specialist skills for the type of work undertaken. I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) in welcoming that work, and I too hope that more reservists will be used in that way, especially in Afghanistan.

During my visit to Afghanistan, some of the most heart-warming and positive stories that I heard about reconstruction were from CIMIC personnel. The one that sticks most in my mind was from a Royal Navy female reservist officer who works with women in the villages. She speaks Pashtu and Dari, so that she can talk to the women in their language, and she is now on her second six-month tour of duty. She is working on a project with widows, because in Afghan society widows, with no husband to protect or support them, are totally isolated and have no income. The CIMIC officer works with village elders to set up women’s
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centres that provide training in skills such as tailoring or chicken farming. Other projects offer micro-finance, so that women can start their own businesses and bring money into their local village community. As yet, there is no proper adult literacy programme in Helmand, so the officers are also teaching the women to read and write through these women’s centres. The women are organising and are learning from each other. That is a breakthrough, because previously they were isolated in their own compounds.

This officer is not only performing that international development role, but she is very much a serving member of our armed forces, and just a few days before I arrived, she had come under fire from a Taliban attack. We need these CIMIC officers, because it is too dangerous for non-governmental organisation civilians to do this work, but I agree with the Secretary of State that the long-term aim must be for the NGOs to take over, although that will be a long road.

It will be a long, hard slog in Afghanistan—one that is dangerous for international coalition troops—but it is necessary. I asked one of the CIMIC reservists whom I met why he kept volunteering to come back to Helmand. He said:

In Afghanistan at least, the edges around a strict definition of a defence role, an international relations role or an international development role are blurred. I am clear that our defence emphasis in tackling the challenges of globalisation and preventing armed conflict over access to scarce resources, either where they lie or where the instability could make them a target for malign forces seeking to seize them, should be through supporting stability and democracy in those states. Having seen for myself in Afghanistan, I am clear that our armed forces are the best in the world at doing just that.

8.36 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May I start by agreeing with what my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) said in his conclusion? The onus is on us all, especially people in this debate, to keep reinforcing, not only to the general public but to some of our colleagues, the debt of honour that we owe our servicemen and women. For the past six years, I have had the privilege of serving on the Defence Committee and have met servicemen and women all over the world, including in this country, who are doing a tremendous job. I think that the average person no longer recognises what such people do. I have no problem with the idea that we should do the utmost for those people, not only when they serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces but after they leave.

The thing that saddens me is the way in which the matter is being used on a party political basis. That was demonstrated tonight in the contribution from the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)—I am sorry that he is no longer in his place. As my right hon. Friend the
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Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said, it is wrong to take one example and then say that because one person has complained, everything is bad. I take exception to some of the things that hon. Gentleman said about Selly Oak, because I have visited it. I shall return to that matter in a minute.

We are also reaching a point where the media is focusing in on this matter. It should criticise Government when they get things wrong. People in this House know that I criticise the Government when I think that they have got things wrong on the armed forces. One example from last week that stuck with me—this was raised earlier—was the fitting tribute at the national memorial arboretum, which I believe was well attended. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) was invited to that event, but he chose to go to California to visit Arnold Schwarzenegger. I am sure that had one of our Ministers or any Labour politician done that, they would have been rightly pilloried. Such is the debate and tempo that we are in at the moment.

The line has clearly come from the Conservative party that it is the only one that understands defence and that Labour does not, and that it is the only one that can deliver for the armed forces. I must give 10 out of 10 to my former Select Committee Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South, who rightly reminded us of the Conservatives’ record in office on the armed forces.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Woodspring is not present, because he referred to the case of a Private Cooper and implied, wrongly, that that young man had acquired clostridium difficile from dirty hospital wards at Selly Oak. I must put on the record what happened. Had the hon. Gentleman taken the trouble to read last week’s edition of The Mail on Sunday, he would have got the true story, but that would not fit his facts. He tried to imply—“nudge, nudge, wink, wink”—that everything is bad. In fact, the surgeon who operated on Private Cooper said:

which is part of the Selly Oak complex—

If the hon. Gentleman had explained that, it would have put a different complexion on the slight that he was trying to put on the good staff—people I have met on two occasions now—at Selly Oak.

Mark Pritchard: I know that the hon. Gentleman always seeks to give a complete picture in speeches to the House. In that regard, does he agree that pre-screening of elective cases before admission to acute hospitals is the way to proceed? If he does agree, perhaps he could have a word with the Secretary of State for Health so that we might see a reduction in all the superbugs, be it the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, VRSA or MRSA.

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Mr. Jones: That contribution is not worth replying to, because I am dealing with the actual facts and the Conservative Front Bencher was trying to paint a picture that is not actually the case. It is important not to run down and criticise dedicated members of the armed forces and the NHS who are working in difficult circumstances.

I wish to concentrate on two areas. The first is current operations and the second is the welfare of the armed forces and their families. I have visited Iraq now on five occasions. I voted for the invasion of Iraq and I will defend that decision until the day I die. It was not an easy decision for me, or for many hon. Members who voted for the war. I took that decision on the information that was presented to me at the time and if we all had crystal balls, politics would be an easy profession.

I have seen a deterioration in the situation in southern Iraq, but progress has been made and pulling back to the airport is the right decision. However, there are some serious questions to be asked about what we do next. Although I accept that the withdrawal and reduction in numbers is welcome, I am not sure how long we can sit at the airport and to what military purpose.

I suspect that the solution in southern Iraq will not be military: we passed that point quite a long time ago. The solution will be a political one and, as the Prime Minister said the other week—and we should not underestimate this factor—an economic one. Some of the regional players need to play a part in that.

I have visited Afghanistan three times in the past two years, and I agreed totally with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) when she said that it will be a hard slog. It is important not to merge the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is convenient to do so, but it is important to keep them separate. Is the situation in Afghanistan challenging? Yes, it is. Have we made mistakes in the past? Yes, we have, and some of them were political. The impression given when we moved to the south was that it would be an easy operation, but that was never the case. Giving that impression may have been a mistake in terms of the debate.

Progress is being made, and I have seen that on the three occasions that I have visited Kabul. It is also being made in the north, in Mazar-i-Sharif, where reconstruction is taking place. However, if we are signed up to this project for the long term, we—and I mean not just the governing party—must recognise that it will be a long process and that there are no quick wins, although there are some wins, as explained admirably by my hon. Friend. I agree with the comments made earlier that we should not look at Afghanistan without taking into account what is happening in Pakistan.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) said, it is important to recognise that Pakistan’s Government are taking tough steps to try to bear down on the Taliban. Ultimately, the solutions to some of the problems will not be military. It might be unpalatable, but ultimately, in certain areas, we may have to do deals—not with hardcore members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda, but with some tribal leaders in
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southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. People might disagree with that, but ultimately if we are to defeat hardcore Taliban and al-Qaeda members, that is the approach that needs to be taken in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.

As I say, I have visited Iraq and Afghanistan in the past few years. If I am asked, “Do you hear individual complaints about things?” the answer is yes; we always do, as was said earlier, but we have to recognise that the story has moved on. We still read about shortages of body armour and protective vehicles, and we heard comments on those subjects again tonight. However, people who go to Iraq and Afghanistan now will see that the Mastiff vehicle is in theatre, is saving lives and is very popular among members of the Army. Body armour is available in large enough quantities, and it is proving very effective. We should not get stuck in a time warp, as we do in some debates on the subject. Every time that I go to Afghanistan and Iraq, I ask commanding officers and troops about equipment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian said, we hear very few complaints about it. Obviously, we hear complaints about various other things, and we try to take those points on board and feed them back to the Ministry of Defence.

There are plenty of armchair generals telling us how to win in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the people, and certainly the senior generals, to whom I have spoken never have the idea that the Government have not stepped up to the mark when it comes to providing equipment. The press tries to give the impression that this naughty Labour Government are trying to prevent the equipment that generals are asking for from going to Iraq and Afghanistan, but I have never met a senior general in either of those countries who has told a member of the Defence Committee, “The Government are not providing x, y and z.” On the urgent operational requirements that we have met, we have purchased some very good equipment with our £2 billion, and with the £1 billion for force protection. That is important to remember.

It is interesting to see the game that is being played by the Opposition. I have to say that it is what all Oppositions do; we did the same when we were in opposition. The Opposition can call for more money, but they never work out how they would spend it. It was sad that the hon. Member for Woodspring started off on the subject of defence spending by discussing it as a percentage of gross domestic product, but would not say what his figure for defence spending would be. I am like my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South, who was obviously a bad influence on me when I was first elected: I always argue that more money should be spent on defence. However, I would not give the military a blank cheque that we should just forget about.

As for some of the criticisms that senior generals such as General Dannatt make of the defence budget and how we spend it, while they say that we are overstretched, they live in palatial accommodation, and have members of the armed forces serving at their dinner tables or working in their garden. General Dannatt flies around the UK in helicopters while arguing that there is a shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan. I know how much it costs me to travel to Durham every day, but when General Dannatt went
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earlier this year, it cost him over £2,000, because he went by helicopter and private jet. If we are to home in on the constraints of the defence budget, senior generals need to think about how they conduct themselves.

Mark Pritchard: To enlighten us further, will the hon. Gentleman share with the House what he feels is the appropriate level of accommodation for such a senior general? Furthermore, what mode of transport would he have recommended for that trip—a tricycle, boat, barge or what?

Mr. Jones: It is quite easy to travel to Durham. There are at least 10 flights a day to Newcastle and a similar number to Teesside airport; God knows how many rail journeys there are to Newcastle and Durham. It is easy to make a flippant point such as the hon. Gentleman’s, but is it right that, for example, members of the armed forces still act basically as servants in people’s houses? No, it is not. If people are going to criticise this Government for levels of expenditure, they should look at what they are doing themselves. Questions need to be asked about the idea that a general should fly in that way to Durham—to address, as it happens, an organisation run by a private lobbying firm.

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman was making a thoughtful and interesting speech until that point; it is a great shame that he spoilt it by that petty gibe, aimed at somebody who cannot answer back. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is sitting on the Benches of the party that has just thrown away another £6 million on a new communications allowance for MPs?

Mr. Jones: We did not, actually; that was voted for by Members of this House, including some on the hon. Gentleman’s side. Even those who voted against it will no doubt spend it. I am sorry, but we cannot have such one-way criticism. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I respect him, but all I am saying is that if we are considering the defence budget, we should look at everything in it.

I turn to welfare for Her Majesty’s armed forces and their families. Whenever I visit members of the armed forces, I am always impressed not only by the young men and women themselves, but by the amount of responsibility that they carry on their very young shoulders. Sadly, some of them pay the ultimate price of losing their lives or having terrible injuries.

We have heard again tonight about the “terrible” situation at Selly Oak hospital. I should like to put the following on the record, as it is important. An urban myth has built up that somehow the hospital is letting down our armed forces. Given the last two occasions on which I visited, I do not think that anything could be further from the truth. The urban myth drips out of newspaper articles as if it were the truth. In The Sunday Telegraph last Sunday, Tim Collins wrote a good article—but sadly, he used the words:

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