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The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne):
As many right hon. and hon. Members have reminded usand we bear being reminded of ityesterday was Remembrance Sunday. It is a day when the whole nation commemorates the sacrifices made by the armed forces across the generations. Until recently, the focus of our thoughts was very much on the veterans of the first and second world wars, but today, while we continue to remember them, we must also commemorate those who
have died more recentlyparticularly in Iraq and in Afghanistan. In that regard, I would like to take the opportunity to mention Lance Corporal Jake Alderton, who sadly died in Afghanistan last Friday. The thoughts and prayers of all hon. Members will be with his family, friends and colleagues, who will greatly miss him. He was a brave man who died in the service of our country in the pursuit of stability and peace for the people of Afghanistan. That bears to be remembered every day, not just on Remembrance day.
The debate has covered some of the important issues that this nation and the international community face. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government in the context of the Queens Speech. I shall endeavour to address many of the points raised. Given that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made an extensive speech, taking many interventions and covering the widest possible range of foreign affairs issues, I am sure that the House will understand if my inclination is to concentrate on defence issues, although not exclusively, because I cannot resist the temptation of reminding the House of the statement made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who I am sad to see is not in his place on the Front Bench.
In response to an intervention by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), the right hon. Gentleman said that the Conservative party policy on the EU treaty would not be veering in any direction, but I detected a significant veer today, and I am not the only one. Last week, when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked the Leader of the Opposition a similar question on how his party would respond if the treaty were in force, he wisely refused to answer. Today, however, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks gave part of the answer when he said that the matter would not rest there.
In a helpful intervention by the right hon. Member for Rushclifferight hon. and learned Member, I should say; I have been corrected, which shows that it is not just on the Labour Benches that people are obsessed by status, something that we have already covered in the debate. The right hon. and learned Gentleman helpfully set out the alternatives if matters are not allowed to rest where they are. He rightly advised that there were only certain possibilities or choices. A Tory GovernmentGod forbid that we should have onewould have to repudiate the treaty, hold a referendum or renegotiate. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks refused to respond to that selection of choices and left us with the phrase that matters would not rest there. That is not a policy; it is a stance. We will have to wait for the policy, but we may well find that from now on a significant part of the debate concentrates on asking which of those alternatives to the position hitherto adopted by the Conservatives will be chosen.
Mr. Hands: Surely the Secretary of State must realise that all his complaints and protestations are caused by him and his Governments inability to offer the referendum that we deserve to have on the current treaty. If he fulfilled his manifesto pledge, none of these questions would arise.
We know the hon. Gentlemans position because he helpfully signed an early-day motion that explains it. He is not for a referendum either; he is just
for rejecting the treaty. He does not want to wait for a decision by anybody, never mind Parliament. However, he will not divert our attention from todays significant announcement by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, in which he indicated exactly where the Conservative party is going. We will pursue it down that line and will not rest until it explains not just its stance, but its policy. The speeches by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Gentleman bear reading in sequence because that will remind any reader of the substantial degree of agreement on foreign policy and defence that there is across the House.
We were privileged to hear a short but valuable contribution from my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who shared with us his experience of involvement in conflict resolution in Sri Lanka at the request of the president of that country. Having served under my right hon. Friend when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I can say that the President of Sri Lanka made a wise choice. I am sure that my right hon. Friend has a valuable contribution to make to Sri Lanka as well.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will understand when I say that he is part of a great tradition in which Members have contributed to conflict resolution across the world, often in difficult and demanding circumstances. It does the House credit that its Members are prepared to take the risks associated with such work. It would be invidious of me to single out others, some of whom are present, because I would doubtless offend those whom I had not identified.
Several Members mentioned the first-class contribution of our armed forces and the need for it to be given appropriate recognition. They included the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby), not to mention the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie).
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex raised an issue that was taken up later by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey): the increasing need for proper reporting of the contribution made by our troops in the theatres of operation in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and dissemination of that information to a wider public. I think that the hon. Gentleman used his comments as a vehicle for a criticism of the Ministry of Defence, which was somewhat inconsistent with earlier remarks in which he commended and congratulated civil service members of the MOD; but I share his frustration at the medias lack of preparedness to tell the true story of the contribution that our forces have made, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. To a degree I understand it, but I say advisedly that there are Members who have sought opportunities to criticise such contributions in a way designed to attract party political advantage, which has undermined our collective ambition to be able to tell the story more straightforwardly and honestly.
I have noticed recently that the position has improved. The hon. Gentleman suggested that we should extend more opportunities to the media to
spend time with our armed forces, but not a day goes by without members of the media being embedded with them in one or both operational theatres. Invariably, they come back andprivatelyspeak glowingly of what they have seen. It is a pity that other information that they have gleaned, and other stories that they are clearly able to tell, are not given the same prominence as some of what they choose to report. They should not think that the forces with whom they are embedded, and who welcome and protect them, do not notice the selectiveness of their accounts.
Mr. Soames: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for approaching a serious matter in a serious way, but will he acknowledge that one of the Governments mistakes was removing the single-service PR machine which built up its own strong relationships with the press and was extremely good at dealing with them? The press paid more attention to a single-service PR in uniform than to a civilian on operations. Will he consider again whether it is possible to reinstate those people? When he worries about leaks in the Ministry of Defence, he should bear in mind the fact that it is fine if there is a single-service PR machine because then people know perfectly well where the leaks are coming from and can deal with them.
Des Browne: I am prepared to look at any suggestion that may be made as to how to improve the way the message is put across to the public. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and perhaps others put too much strain on one part of the quite extensive machinery that exists in all the services individually in relation to handling the media. The decision was to remove the individual supports for the individual chiefs. I am not sure that it has had the effect that he says it has, but I am prepared to look at that again.
The reason that I spend so much time on that matter is that it seems there is a serious point to be made about the nature and balance of the reporting of what our troops do when they are abroad. It is hard to resist the temptation to say that certain organs of the media have an agenda and that that agenda does not allow them to tell the whole story of what is being achieved, lest it reflects to the credit of others who are involved in policy decisions. That is as may be, although I have noticed recently, in particular over the past few days, that increasingly there is a balance in the reporting and that some of the stories that the hon. Gentleman and I wish were told more accurately are now starting to get out.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con):
I agree entirely with what the Secretary of State has said about that matter, but I draw to his attention something else that has arisen. I was talking to a brigade commander yesterday. He tells me that he is doing what I know the Secretary of State wants and what the Army commanders want, which is to go out to try to build a connection with local communities. He arranged a press conference to publicise with others the fantastic initiative by Oxfordshire county council, but apparently the suits told them it could not be done. Things are being decided, I suspect in the Secretary of States name; there is a fear that a local initiative will not be taken without ministerial approval. Can he delegate some of his authority to the
people on the ground, because otherwise damage is being done to the things that he and I believe should be done?
Des Browne: I will look at that individual incident, if the hon. Gentleman can provide me with the detail after this debate. I do not think that we should take up much more time on the issue, but there are quite a lot of things that people say are my responsibility in terms of decisions. They generally tend to be the things that do not work properly. People use the excuse of Ministers. However, we may, as we go through some of the other issues that have been raised, have an opportunity to share with the public through the official record some of the positive things that have been achieved and some of the improvements that have taken place.
Mr. Benyon: Before the Secretary of State leaves the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), will he inform the House when and how he was consulted by the Prime Minister on the decision to axe the Defence Export Services Organisation?
As I am talking about service personnel, I want at this point to refer to the support provided by the Government to service personnel and their families. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have been overtly critical, or have implied criticism, of it. What has been achieved recently bears repeating. This year, for example, our forces have received the best pay award in the public servicesa headline figure of 3.3 per cent., with the most junior receiving over 9 per cent. I say to hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benchesand I see that it is all hon. Gentlemen there at the momentthat that 9 per cent. is important because it was designed to redress not just the imbalance that existed at the point of the award, but an imbalance that has existed for some considerable time. It is not only this Government's responsibility that an award was needed last year. Opposition Members should be honest about what they did, or did not do, during the time they had responsibility for the armed forces.
For those who are deployed, we have improved the operational welfare package, with more free phone calls, better internet access and plans to put in more terminals and wi-fi access. I am pleased today to be able to confirm that, with the Royal Mail, we will now be able to provide an all-year-round freepost scheme for those in Iraq and Afghanistan. That has been called for by a number of people and I am delighted that the Royal Mail has been able to join us in helping to provide that service.
Further, the new operational allowance has been raised to £2,328 tax-free for a six-month operational tour in Iraq or Afghanistan, and these personnel will also benefit from a tax-free rebate of £140 on their council tax. We hope next year to develop that to include all those on operations. We have achieved a lot in support of our troops in recent months but we can do more. That is why last week I announced that, in spring 2008, we will publish for the first time a cross-Government strategy for supporting our service personnel, their families and veterans. This will cover all areas of support including accommodation, medical care, welfare support and education and will be published as a command paper. It will build on our success and recent achievements and will outline areas where we think we can do more, for example in accommodation.
Last year, we spent £700 million, a figure that has increased to £870 million during the last financial year. At this point, I want to deal with an issue raised by the hon. Member for Dunfermline andI forget the rest of his constituency. I apologise to him.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that there had been a cut in the investment and accommodation in Scotland. He knows and, with respect, should have been in a position to explain to the House that that is not a proper presentation of the figures. The reason that the two figures appeared to show a reduction in investment was that a substantial project at Glencorse barracks was completed the year before. To present the figures in the way in which the media didthe media at least have had the good grace to suggest that they should apologiseand to replay them in the House was inappropriate.
In any event, over the next decade we plan to invest £5 billion in accommodation, but clearly we need to work harder to ensure that all our personnel have access to good quality accommodation. As the Chief of Defence Staff said yesterday, it will be a question of time rather than resource to address the decades of under-investment in accommodation that we inherited and have been seeking to address for the last 10 years.
Michael Connarty: I certainly commend the Secretary of State for the investment in accommodation, but I was waiting for him to mention special arrangements for parcels for the upcoming Christmas period. He mentioned the post, but could he give some details of free parcel delivery up to Christmas for people abroad?
Des Browne: I was using the generic word post to include parcels. I am sorry if I have inadvertently misled anyone by not explaining what the component elements of post are. It is intended that we will have the same arrangement this year as in previous years over the Christmas period. The difference now is that it will not stop after Christmas, but will continue all year round.
The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East and others raised issues to do with the level of commitment and the tour intervals to which our forces are currently subject. I admit that they are very busy. As the Chief of the Defence Staff said only yesterdayI think that most Members will agree
we cannot sustain our current level of operational commitment indefinitely. Thats quite clear.
what is also clear is that we are now starting to reduce that level of operational commitment.
I dealt with this issue in some detail in the last defence policy debate because I agree that it is important. Suffice it to say that our planning assumptions and force structure have been successful and we have generated the capabilities that we need, but we also need to keep the force structure under review to ensure that we do not burn out the core of our military, and particularly the Army. I understand that, and we are doing just that.
In a debate of this nature it is entirely appropriate that Members raise the important issue of defence expenditure, and Members in all parts of the House have done so. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex stressed that we must spend more on defence. He is not alone in holding that view, and we are doing that. The recent comprehensive spending review settlement gave the MOD an average annual real-terms growth of 1.5 per cent., continuing the longest period of sustained growth in defence spending since the 1980s and representing an additional £7.7 billion for defence spending over the next three years. Of course, that is not all that is spent on defence; that sum is in addition to the MODs core budget. Over and above that, the net additional cost of operations comes out of the reserves and, to date, that has been an additional £6.6 billion.
Des Browne: I will take the hon. Gentlemans intervention in a moment, but before I do so I wish to contrast those figures with the Conservatives record. Over the last five years under them, defence spending was cut by £500 million a year. I welcome debate on this issue, but it must be debaterather than just a constant assertion from the Opposition Benches that more needs to be spent, without any conviction that they would be prepared to spend more. I ask the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) to clarify just how much his party would spend on defence. I cannot get an answer from him. Perhaps his party colleague, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex, will be able to do so; the next time we debate this matter he might intervene on his Front-Bench colleague and ask him precisely how much he will spend on defence.
The situation is unclear, and I am rapidly coming to the view that the Opposition are deliberately confusing the issue. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) said on the BBC Newsnight programme on 6 September 2007 that his party had made it crystal clear that if they were to take office tomorrow they would spend more on defence. He said that in terms. The problem is that the leader of his party, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), had already said in April 2007 on Webcameronthe comments are still there for people to see
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