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7 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), who I know has done a tremendous amount of work on Afghanistan, which I
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shall deal with in a moment. He and I have discussed the matter before and I fear that he might not agree with everything that I have to say.

I want to start off by dealing with two defence matters that relate specifically to my constituency, although they both involve enormous amounts of defence expenditure. The first is the AirTanker project, for which a company in my constituency—Cobham Air Refuelling and Auxiliary Mission Equipment—provides all the gizmos that enable those tankers to refuel aircraft in flight. The company, which has, essentially, almost a world monopoly, developed the system in the 1930s and has gone on to produce a piece of equipment that is second to none anywhere in the world.

My concern, and that of my constituents, is that we have been almost at the signature point of the contract, which is allegedly worth about £13 billion over 27 years —it is a private sector partnership—but we are still not there. That is giving some cause for concern. What is the delay in the Ministry of Defence in signing off the contract?

There are international implications, too. The configuration of aircraft—the A330 Airbus, with Rolls-Royce engines and other pieces of equipment—has already been bought by and is flying in the Australian force. The United Arab Emirates has already signed up for that configuration. A similar configuration is flying in the German air force. We are on the verge of reaching a bidding round for that equipment for the United States—not the 15 aircraft that the RAF is talking about, but hundreds. The configuration is in with a good chance, but if the British Government have not even signed it off, will not the United States Government question whether it is as good as we claim it is? The Government have a duty to act quickly to sign off that contract and to get those aircraft flying in the RAF.

The other constituency matter that I want to mention is the defence training review. It is another major public-private partnership, which essentially involves the privatisation of six defence colleges, one of which is in my constituency—the Defence College of Communications and Information Systems. I do not want to reopen the argument about whether it should be privatised, or whether all six defence colleges should be moved to one site at St. Athan in Wales. However, I want to flag up the fact that in the Blandford area of Dorset, where the camp has an economic footprint of nearly £300 million a year according to the regional development agency, we are anxious that we should keep the high-tech presence. If it remains a military establishment, as the Government have made the commitment that it will, it is essential that it should remain the home of the signals. It should be the centre of signals activity, with the signals officer in chief based there, and other signals regiments should be brought on to that site so that it maintains that part of the knowledge economy that is essential to the local Dorset economy.

I said earlier that I wanted to talk about Afghanistan and I want to consider the question of who pays. We all know that the international security assistance force and NATO forces are paid for by the Government and
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by our taxpayers and those of the other countries that are part of that international force. Obviously, a major contribution is made by the United States. However, have we ever asked ourselves who is paying for the other side? Who is financing the Taliban and the insurgents? We are paying them, too. They are getting their money from the heroin on the streets of this country, of other countries of western Europe and of the United States.

Some 90 per cent. of the heroin on our streets comes from Afghanistan. Not only the heroin costs—that goes somewhere in the black economy—but we as taxpayers face the costs to the criminal justice system, the health care system and the benefits system. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) wrote a pamphlet earlier this year based on his experience as a distinguished lawyer and district judge. He estimated that the cost of narcotics to the British taxpayer was about £23 billion a year. What is the cost of the heroin? What is the cost of the poppy crop in Afghanistan? I asked questions of the Department for International Development last year, and I was told that the amount collectively made by Afghan farmers from poppies at the farm gate was $600 million. The poppy crop has expanded since then, and it is probably worth an estimated $1 billion. Compared with the £23 billion cost to the United Kingdom—never mind all the other countries that are receiving this poppy product, heroin—that is a drop in the ocean.

My contention—I was surprised to see it on the front page of The Guardian coming from the mouth of Lord Malloch-Brown—is that we in Europe have a great deal of expertise in buying crops from farmers that we were simply going to destroy. We called it intervention under the common agricultural policy. We then developed a policy of paying farmers to grow nothing at all; we called it set-aside. Is it beyond the wit of man to apply our great expertise from the common agricultural policy to the Afghan poppy crop? If it costs us $1 billion collectively among all our allied nations, that is probably worth it. If it costs us $1 billion this year, next year and the year after, I would have thought that that was a price worth paying.

Frank Cook: Would the hon. Gentleman like to knit into that thesis the fairly commonly voiced view that at least 65 per cent.—probably 85 per cent.—of the Taliban would give up their Taliban support today if it could be guaranteed that they could feed their families and be protected from repercussions from al-Qaeda?

Mr. Walter: The hon. Gentleman helps my point. We would then provide an alternative livelihood to the Afghan poppy farmer that he would not have if we simply destroyed his crop or tried to persuade him with a packet of seeds to grow some alternative crop for which there is no market mechanism.

We have to work constructively first, to ensure that we preserve the livelihood of Afghan farmers and their families and secondly, to create the market mechanisms for the alternative crops that I know they can grow. However, that will take time and patience on our part, as well as money. We need to commit that money, because if we cut off the money supply of the Taliban and the other insurgent groups, we will have gone a long way towards winning the battle in Afghanistan.

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In the last few minutes left, I want to refer to Europe—not to the treaty or the referendum, but to the common foreign and security policy, which is of course mentioned in the treaty, in the sense that it is intergovernmental. I remind the House that when the break-up of Yugoslavia took place some years ago we all lamented the fact that Europe was unable to respond either politically or militarily. We all had different responses as individual nations, recognising different bits of the break-up of Yugoslavia at different times. It was not until we managed to enlist the United States and NATO that we were able to bring a military presence to the area. We lamented what happened because Europe had no mechanism with which to respond. It did not exist at that stage; it now does exist. We have developed the common foreign and security policy over a number of years. One of the organs of that, through the European security and defence policy, is Operation Althea, the peacekeeping force in Bosnia, which has worked reasonably successfully, although there are currently a few concerns.

At that time there was a security and political situation on Europe’s doorstep that was degenerating fast, but to which we had no means of responding. Today, there are at least two other situations on Europe’s doorstep that are developing in a not dissimilar fashion, although one is about break-ups. I refer to the situation on the border between Turkey and Iraq—a situation involving an applicant member for the European Union and a full NATO member being bombarded from the other side by terrorist groups and on so—and to Georgia. Georgia wants to join NATO and eventually the European Union, but has disputed territory in which Russia is playing an unhelpful part.

Now that we have developed the apparatus of CSFP, with battle groups that are ready to be deployed at 15 days’ notice, are those not areas where we could prove once and for all that European nations can work together to respond to situations that develop in our own backyard and that we are not for ever dependent on the United States to come to our rescue? I make a plea to the Minister to ensure through his representatives in Brussels that both the political and security committee and the military committee of the European Union discuss the issue urgently.

7.13 pm

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): I welcome this opportunity to speak in support of the Loyal Address. I will speak of two islands: Cyprus and Sri Lanka, both of which merit our attention and our action.

Earlier in this debate, the Foreign Secretary spoke of the cross-party agreement on the eventual accession of Turkey to the EU. Yesterday I was privileged to spend an evening in the wonderful company of His Eminence the Orthodox Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain. We were both guests of the congregation of St. Panteleimon church, which sits on the edge of my constituency. That congregation does not share the cross-party agreement of the House. My constituents urged me to pose the following few questions to my right hon. Friend. How can we in the EU entertain for accession a country that refuses to recognise the legitimacy of one of the EU’s existing members, Cyprus? EU law required Turkey to open its ports and airports to Cyprus by the end of 2006. It failed to do
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so. More than that, how can we in the EU entertain for accession a country that is currently in military occupation of one of our own members, Cyprus?

There was a perverse incentive for Turkey to increase its settlement in the north of the island. That resulted in the rejection of the Annan plan by the Greek Cypriot community. I urge my right hon. Friend to focus his attention on the need to resolve the partition and occupation of Cyprus. Without a fair settlement of the Cyprus issue that recognises the rights of my constituents and many like them who are refugees and whose homes still stand beyond reach, across the green line and under Turkish occupation, there can be no progress in Turkey’s aspiration to EU membership.

I welcome the wise and worthy remarks of my old boss in Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). I, too, wish to say a few words about the situation in Sri Lanka. It is now almost a year since my friend Anton Balasingham died. He had led the political engagement of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, seeking a peace settlement in Sri Lanka for a quarter of a century. In paying a brief tribute to him, I wish to bring to the House’s attention the appalling deterioration of the situation in Sri Lanka in the year since his death.

From reading reports, I am given to understand that Tamils with a permanent home but no job and also Tamils with a job but no permanent home in Colombo have in the past year been rounded up and summarily transported out of Colombo to the north and east of the country. Such behaviour is entirely unacceptable in a Commonwealth country. I urge my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to be uncompromising in his representations to the Sri Lankan Government on such forced deportations and on the reports that many of those detained and transported have not reached their destinations alive.

Over the past decade, I have been privileged to play a small role in the process of bringing opposing sides into dialogue. In that role, I have spoken with successive presidents and prime ministers, including the current President of Sri Lanka, Mr. Rajapakse, whom I entertained in Northern Ireland when he came to see how the process of dialogue undertaken there might apply to his country. The situation under his presidency has not borne the fruit that I certainly hoped it might after our meeting on that occasion. That is another example of where our Foreign Secretary must engage with the Commonwealth and partner countries in the region to ensure that our demands for human rights observances are met.

In the few minutes left to me, I want to turn from foreign affairs on a small scale to the question of globalisation. Earlier the Foreign Secretary powerfully contrasted the policy of humanitarian intervention that he attributed to his opposite number and the policy of international scepticism that the Leader of the Opposition espoused in a recent speech. Nothing brings us closer to the reason why a policy of scepticism is inappropriate for this and every other country than the issues of globalisation and climate change.

Climate change has made us all aware that we live in a world where the actions of one country integrally affect the lives of those in many others. We have experienced development in this country over the past
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250 years or more, and during that period we have contributed to the CO2 emissions in the atmosphere that are now causing the problem of global warming. We shall be involved in the international negotiations in Bali in December that will seek to establish a post-Kyoto protocol and take the matter further. Those negotiations are essential for this country and for our international relationships.

We must understand that the issues of the environment and human development that have long been held to be separate are, in fact, not separate at all. We must regard the environment and development as one issue. We will not be able to tackle the great causes of development and aid around the world if we do not focus on the environment and its needs, because many of the poorest communities in the world depend on their environment.

Equally, we shall not be able to solve the problems of our environment unless we give due recognition to the need to take seriously the development aspirations of people who have not been able to catch up with the western speed of growth over the past 200 years and whose aspiration is to come up to that level and to that quality of life. We must therefore see the two aspects of our international engagement—human development and the environment—as being essentially one. The Foreign Secretary was absolutely right to speak of a need to see the world from a perspective of humanitarian intervention and not from one of scepticism and isolation. For those reasons, I welcome the Gracious Speech.

7.23 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), who has spoken some wise words on our approach to the world.

On Saturday morning, a group of people gathered on top of a small, windswept hill in the hamlet of Pattiesmuir. A bottle of beer was opened and shared around the group. The remainder of the beer was poured on to a grave in Douglas Bank cemetery. This was their way of remembering a son, a brother and a friend who died serving his country in Kosovo—sharing a drink as if he were still with us. When so many people have died serving their country, it is difficult to think of them as individuals who had rich lives, but we must.

As well as remembering the fallen, we must also look to those who serve, or who have served, our country. That is why I am backing the Royal British Legion’s campaign to honour the covenant. I want to address some of the Scottish aspects of the campaign. The Ministry of Defence’s housing budget in Scotland has dropped by almost £8 million over the past year. Under freedom of information regulations, we have found out that the MOD spent just over £20 million on service families’ accommodation in 2006-07, compared with almost £28 million the year before. Over that period, the number of complaints about accommodation has risen. These include complaints from people such as Karen, who is married to a sailor and who has lived in married quarters for almost 10 years. She said:

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She is not alone; there are many others who complain about the poor accommodation. Will the Minister explain why the spending on MOD housing has fallen in the past year, especially when the Ministry claims to be making significant improvements to the housing?

Colleagues who closely follow the activities of the Defence Committee, of which I am a member, will know that we took evidence last month from Scottish Executive officials about the health services offered to members of the armed forces and their families, and to ex-servicemen. It was one of the most amateurish displays that I have ever seen from Scottish Executive officials. I am disappointed that, yet again, no members of the Scottish National party are here to listen to the debate. This is the second debate this year on matters of importance that are the responsibility of SNP Members and which they have not bothered to attend. It is a shame that they are not here to listen to the complaints.

What concerned me even more was that the national debate on the treatment of the armed forces seemed to have passed the Scottish Executive by. Their officials were unaware of the difficulties faced by service families when registering for a dentist, for example, or of the detrimental effect on the careers of health professionals who volunteer as reservists, or of the lack of engagement with the fast-track process for servicemen in English hospitals. They also seemed unconcerned that they had been unaware of those problems.

I have a theory. When the Scottish Office was responsible for Scottish health, education and other matters before devolution, it took its lead from the UK Departments for Health, Education and so on, which were responsible for working with other Departments across the boundaries to ensure joined-up government. It might not have been a great success, but they were making attempts. Since devolution, however, responsibility for those matters has passed to the Scottish Executive Departments. Although we are assured that there are quarterly meetings with the MOD to discuss matters of defence, the Scottish Executive do not consider them a priority.

Before I joined the Defence Committee, it undertook an inquiry into service children’s education. It found that the Scottish Executive were having similar difficulties engaging with the needs of service families. The Executive seem to think that it is someone else’s problem. I would appreciate it if the Minister could shine a spotlight on this area, to ensure that people in Scotland and Wales do not lose out because of a lack of effective and joined-up partnership working between the different Departments in the UK.

I am pleased that there has been an increase in funding for Combat Stress. There is a great need to expand the support for ex-servicemen who face mental health problems. From the Falklands war, there have been 400 cases in 25 years, but from Iraq there have been 140 in three years. In recent months, there has been a dramatic increase in numbers, as the spotlight
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has been shone on those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Even more people will present to Combat Stress, and this sleeping monster is about to awaken. The awareness of Combat Stress needs to be improved among nurses, doctors and other health professionals, especially those working in primary care.

Two ex-servicemen approached me earlier this year to express their frustration about the lack of support that they had received for what turned out to be post-traumatic stress disorder. They said that their GP had provided little advice or support, and that things had begun to happen only after they had found out about Combat Stress themselves. Awareness of Combat Stress among primary care practitioners must improve. Much of the funding for Combat Stress comes through the war pension, yet the time delays for ex-servicemen who apply for that pension are excessive. Those delays lead to resentment and frustration, and result in people facing delays in accessing the treatment that they need and deserve.

I have been a Member for 18 months, during which I have seen four Ministers in the Ministry of Defence and a new Secretary of State. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who made a great speech earlier, was surprisingly sacked after much hard work and long hours on the Armed Forces Bill. He was replaced by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), who was sacked after suggesting that his boss, the then Prime Minister, should be sacked. The right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) was replaced last year by the current Secretary of State, who was subsequently given the additional post of Secretary of State for Scotland. The right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram) has been succeeded by the Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth). Now the well respected Lord Drayson has been replaced by Baroness Taylor. We thus have three very new Ministers in the MOD and a part-time Secretary of State—and all this at a time when our armed forces are under great strain, the defence procurement process is undergoing considerable change and we are at war in two theatres. I am not going to comment on the quality of those Ministers, as they need time to prove themselves, but I hope that the Prime Minister recognises that the MOD needs a period of stability.

Yesterday, after the parade to the Cenotaph, I met a group of reservists from Dunfermline in the Royal British Legion. I also met many who were in the Territorial Army. They were skilled tradesmen, essential to the armed forces. They told me how the expectations of the TA had changed in the past 10 years. When they first joined, they had a slim chance of serving in theatre; now it is almost guaranteed. That shows how overstretched the armed forces have become.

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