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9.3 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): It is appropriate and right at this time of year to remember the sacrifices made on our behalf by those brave men and women fighting for security and freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by those of previous generations. In two world wars, sacrifices were made that we can hardly begin to imagine today, so that we could enjoy the freedoms we have. Every one of us sitting in this democratic House of Commons has a particular debt to those who chose freedom over tyranny, whatever the cost to themselves.

However much we might want peace, war is sometimes unavoidable if we are to protect what we believe to be right. There will continue to be disagreements about whether or not it was right to go to war in Iraq, but I still believe that the decision was correct. The reduction in violence and attacks on our forces in Basra is surely an optimistic sign that we might be on the slow path to the greater stability and democracy that so many Iraqis want to see, and for which so many brave Iraqi politicians have paid the ultimate price. We should salute their courage.

We need to be clear, too, where things went wrong. Major mistakes and a lack of planning for the post-war period have made the conflict longer and the casualties probably greater than they might have been. That is why my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary called again today for an inquiry into the Iraq war. The main lesson must surely be that we cannot easily apply democracy to a country whose institutions are unable to support it—a country that lacks institutions such as a market economy, a fair rule of law and a concept of human rights—and expect those institutions to develop overnight. Those concepts took a long time to develop in this country, and they will take a long time to develop properly in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is therefore essential that we set realistic expectations for achieving our noble goals.

Afghanistan remains a formidable challenge. We fully accept and support the strategic aims set out by the Government. It is essential that we create a stable Afghanistan and deny the territory to the Taliban and their allies in al-Qaeda, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) pointed out in his speech. There are those who believe that we should not be in Afghanistan at all, or that if we do not interfere, it will put us at less risk from terrorist attacks at home. That is just untrue: 9/11 came before the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. We cannot avoid confrontation with the forces of radical politicised terror groups such as al-Qaeda, because they have already chosen to confront us. Our resolve in tackling the threats that
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they pose to our values, freedoms and way of life can be no different from the resolve shown by previous generations in defeating the tyranny of Nazi Germany or the totalitarian menace of the Soviet Union in the cold war.

I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence will give us information on two specific issues this evening. The first relates to Nimrod and the second to Mastiff. There has been a great deal of anxiety as a result of the fatal Nimrod crash last year and the emergency involving another last week, particularly related to stories about fuel leaks. Can the Secretary of State tell us the latest position, and how we will balance the risk to our aircrews with the unavoidable need for aerial reconnaissance? In particular, what alternatives to reconnaissance are available from our NATO allies and what discussions have taken place? Mastiff has clearly been a great success, with improved safety for our forces on the ground. Another 140 Mastiffs are awaited. Can the Secretary of State tell us the time scale for the delivery? It would be unacceptable if we had a good solution that, yet again, arrived too late.

While we are on the subject of procurement, perhaps the Secretary of State could clarify a point for the House. On 9 October, the Minister for the Armed Forces said on the subject of urgent operational requirements:

However, when one compares the figure given by the Minister with the UOR figure in the MOD annual report and accounts, there is a disparity of about £716 million. Will the Secretary of State explain the difference between those figures? Was the Minister using the figure of the total obligated UOR spending rather than the out-turn? If that was the case, will the Secretary of State explain why there was a good enough reason to obligate the money in the first place but not to spend it? How will his new arrangements with the Treasury operate, and what does he consider will be the effect of the new UOR system on the core MOD budget?

In March of this year, the then Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), announced that the time was right to reassess the future of the international military presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to withdraw the last contingent of British troops from the country. EU Ministers had agreed to reduce EUFOR, which followed the NATO mission that had kept the peace in Bosnia since 1995, to turn its large dispersed force structure into a smaller, centralised one and to cut troop numbers from 6,000 to 2,500.

At the time the Minister dismissed my sceptical response to the announcement. I was concerned, as we all were on the Conservative Benches, that both the foreign policy assumptions underpinning the decision and the military assessment were misguided and overly optimistic. In our view, 2007 was going to be a challenging year for the region and we needed to prepare for it properly, recognising that history has taught us that what happens in one part of that region invariably has ramifications in others.

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The grounds for instability were clear. The leader of the most popular political party in Serbia, the Serbian Radical party, was about to be put on trial at The Hague on charges of genocide and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica was presiding over a fractious coalition that rejected any notion of independence for Kosovo and the UN’s efforts to resolve the province’s status. In Bosnia, separatist forces in the entity of Republika Srpska were obstructing political reforms and calling for secession. Given all those problems, was it not complacent or at least premature of the Government to talk about the normality of the security situation in the region?

Over the past few weeks those simmering tensions have started to surface. Right now we might be on the verge of the biggest crisis in the Balkans since the early 1990s. The negotiations over Kosovo will come to the crunch on 10 December, but the struggle over its future is already spilling out into the region. Serbian secessionists in Bosnia took to the streets last week in the entity of Republika Srpska to oppose the high representative’s proposals to reform Bosnia’s cumbersome decision-making process. The protestors brandished placards of the Russian President, President Putin. Serbia has rushed to support their cause. The senior US official in the office of the high representative told Congress last week that this was a “vital moment” in the history of Bosnia-Herzegovina and that its very survival could be determined in the next few months, if not the next few weeks. The commander of EU forces in Bosnia has sounded a stark warning, announcing that EUFOR was setting aside

and calling on the international community to

in the region.

If history is anything to go by, there is cause for concern. The crisis in the Balkans in the early 1990s cruelly exposed a capabilities-expectations gap between the EU’s rhetoric and its ability to act effectively. Europe’s hour, as it was called, had come, but the EU, unable to keep a peace that did not exist and unwilling to involve itself in conflict, failed to live up to the challenge.

Mr. Walter: My hon. Friend has struck on an important point. Will he tease out from the Secretary of State whether the EU’s battle groups, which were heralded as the answer to such a crisis in Bosnia, could be deployed to meet any crisis that arises? Otherwise, the battle groups are of no possible worth whatever.

Dr. Fox: General Dannatt said that we had no reserves for the unexpected, which is one of the main problems that we could face if a further crisis emerges in the Balkans. When EUFOR took over security responsibilities from NATO in December 2004, roughly 80 per cent. of the military contingent serving in the NATO force were also members of the EU. That made the transition of authority virtually seamless. Essentially, the transfer of power from NATO to the EU simply required the troops on the ground to remove the NATO flag from their sleeves and replace it with that of the EU.

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EUFOR’s current strength of 2,500 troops, of which only 580 come from the core multinational manoeuvre battalion, which has real fighting capability if the security situation deteriorates, is operating in an area roughly twice the size of Wales. What is the plan if Kosovo’s declaration of independence creates further instability in the region? Last week, Olli Rehn, the EU Enlargement Commissioner, played down the risk of regional instability in the western Balkans, saying:

That could be a triumph of hope over experience.

I am afraid that a crisis in the Balkans could be closer than we think. In two weeks’ time, EUFOR’s mandate expires and, because of EU legal requirements, any military mission must have the approval of the United Nations Security Council. Western diplomats have warned that Russia could veto the decision to renew the EU force’s mandate at a time when the Kremlin is unhappy with western policy on Kosovo, on the missile defence system and on other European security issues. What will EUFOR do, when its mandate ends on 21 November, if Russia uses its veto in the UN Security Council to block its renewal? Pack up and go home, or what?

My colleague the shadow Foreign Secretary has already written to the Government to outline our concerns on the matter, and to urge the Government to respond to the seriousness of the situation in the region. We cannot ignore the lessons from the past. The one thing that the region clearly needs as it passes through this difficult stage is united international support and a strong international presence. The international community has invested enormous effort and good will to help the people of the region to recover from the ravages of war, shake off a legacy of nationalism and join Euro-Atlantic structures. Thanks to this, Slovenia has now become a fully fledged member of the European Union and NATO, and Croatia is on track to join both institutions within the coming years. Those are but a few of the achievements of recent times. These hard-won successes are an example for the whole region. The next few months will be testing, but it would be completely irresponsible and unacceptable if we were taken by surprise this time.

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman has made some quite stark points about the legal position in respect of the very delicate issues in the Balkans. His explanation of the legal situation is not exactly the same as the Government’s, however. If it would be helpful for him and for the Liberal Democrats, perhaps we could arrange a meeting at which we could discuss what we understand to be the ambit of UN Security Council resolution 1244, and how it provides an important basis for these arrangements. He talked about there being a crisis within two weeks, and I would not want that to stand without his having a chance to hear that explanation.

Andrew Mackinlay: What about the rest of us?

Dr. Fox: I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his intervention. However, I think that it is clear from the noises off that the House would like an opportunity
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to get all that information at the earliest opportunity. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary might extend his invitation and offer to make a statement to the House on this worsening crisis. We have watched events in years gone by—we are not without our own measure of guilt on this issue, it has to be said—and we must ensure that we do not sit by while another crisis in the conflict develops. However, I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for this offer, and we will certainly take up any invitation to have a briefing on the legal elements of the matter.

While there is general agreement on most aspects of strategy, on which the House takes a relatively bipartisan approach, there is profound disquiet about how the Government have handled the armed forces, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) pointed out in his powerful speech this afternoon. The list of indictments against the Government’s stewardship of our defence policy and armed forces grows ever longer. They began well, with a strategic defence review that had widespread support. From this, the defence planning assumptions gave rise to the defence budget. But the Government then went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, exceeding the planning assumptions without increasing the resources appropriately. The result has been continually worsening overstretch of our armed forces, with the burden being carried ever more by service families.

The Government failed to plan properly for the aftermath of the Iraq war, and our casualty rates have consequently risen. They even knowingly sent our troops into battle in Iraq without the necessary body armour, for party political considerations. They cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004, when we were already involved in two conflicts. Now we have to beg our allies to fill the gap created.

The Government reduced the size of the infantry by three battalions at a time when we were fighting two major operations. Since 1997, our active aircraft carrier fleet has been cut from three to two; our frigate and destroyer fleet has been cut from 35 to 25; our attack submarine fleet will have been cut from 12 to nine—all below the numbers that the Government themselves said that we needed to implement the strategic defence review.

It is not necessary to take my word for it. Lord West, the current Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for security and counter-terrorism and a former First Sea Lord, said:

fool—I paraphrase, Madam Deputy Speaker—

To make matters worse, the Government recently abolished the Defence Export Services Organisation. That was to the delight of those who oppose the arms trade, which, as my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex and for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said, provides so many British jobs. Who were the happy ones? The Campaign Against Arms Trade. As CAAT news says, “DESO: We won!”. That is a disgrace.

Yet for all that, the first act of the new Prime Minister, while we were still losing troops in two dangerous conflicts, was to appoint a part-time Defence Secretary,
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who spends his time fighting both the Scottish National party and the Taliban. Again, comment from the Government’s own side is most interesting. Lord Gilbert, a former Labour Minister of State for Defence, stated in the other place only a few days ago:

That is what a senior Labour figure said.

It looks like the Government are increasingly dysfunctional and incoherent. The Prime Minister went to Iraq to announce troop reductions, which the Secretary of State knew nothing about until the last minute. Lord Drayson was so angry about being kept in the dark about DESO and the lack of support he gained in his conflict with the Treasury that he decided to quit and take up motor racing. Now it appears that the Secretary of State has lost his fight to stop the Treasury raiding the MOD core budget to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps it is therefore inevitable that people now believe that the Government have broken the military covenant. The think-tank Demos is hardly the sort of hysterical critic that was talked about earlier yet it said:

The Gracious Speech will do nothing to dispel the widespread belief that defence is a second-order issue for this Prime Minister. There was reference in that speech to the UN, the G8 and the EU as part of our security architecture, but it did not even mention either the United States or NATO. The Prime Minister can tell all the newspapers he likes how much he loves America, but we will judge him on what he does. He has never had much interest in the military. As Lord Guthrie said:

Asked if he thought vital defence spending was approved by Tony Blair but blocked by his Chancellor, he replied that “that is exactly right”. Perhaps that is the clearest indictment possible. Our forces deserve so much better.

9.24 pm

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