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2.54 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I welcome this debate, and I shall start, as others have, by paying tribute to the work of our armed forces, to the servicemen and women and the civilians who are currently on operations around the world, to those who have been injured and to those who lost their lives serving their country. Many of us from all parts of the House attended the city salute last night. We saw many of those who have served coming home, including the injured and their families. It was both humbling and uplifting to witness that spectacle, and we thank everyone for the service that they have put in for their country in different parts of the world.

Since we last debated defence in the world, we have seen some progress, but we also continue to face many of the same old realities. Iraq remains at the centre of our attention, despite hopes that, by now, we might have been well on the way towards a process of withdrawal. Afghanistan still looks like an intractable conflict in which progress is understandably slow and the battle for hearts and minds is almost as tough as the fighting. We are also going to contribute forces to Kosovo, an area that richly deserves our support but which also risks stretching our forces even more.

Dr. Fox: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech. Will he clarify whether it is Liberal Democrat policy to withdraw our troops from Iraq?

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Nick Harvey: It has never been the policy of our party that we should withdraw them overnight, but it remains our view that they should be withdrawn as fast as is safely possible, commensurate with our commitments to others. I will say more about that in a few minutes.

Over the past year, increasing concern has been voiced in various quarters about the state of our defence and about the capabilities available to our armed forces in our national defence. The concerns come not only from the Floor of the House, where they might be expected, but from senior defence officials, defence chiefs, coroners, analysts and service personnel. Neither British parliamentarians nor the British public can expect to have a huge say in what happens in some of these international arenas, most notably in Iraq, but we would expect the British Government to have a tight grip on what is happening. In that sense, it is notable that, during the course of the Conservative party conference last autumn, the Government told us that there would be a draw-down in troop numbers in the region, and that we would reach a basic state of overwatch. However, we have yet to see any significant progress towards such a phased withdrawal. We have to ask why the Prime Minister seemed to be in such a rush to announce those troop withdrawals last autumn if, as the Government now say, the situation in southern Iraq was always so unpredictable.

Mr. Ellwood: Further to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has just asked, would the hon. Gentleman, as things stand today, keep the troop numbers as they are, increase them or reduce them?

Nick Harvey: I have made it perfectly clear that, as things stand today, we would not start to withdraw the troops overnight. Since we first articulated the need for Britain to commence a process of withdrawal 18 months ago, we have said that the process would take about six months to perform safely and that, in any case, before we commenced such a process, we would go through negotiations with the Iraqi authorities and with our allies, principally the Americans. Nothing has really changed in the way we view that, and my colleagues and I still believe that it should be our objective to commence a process of withdrawal and to get the troops out of Iraq as fast as can safely be considered. I stress, however, that no one has ever suggested that that could take place overnight.

Last autumn, we were considering the spectre of the election that never was. Others might point the finger at us and say that we used the situation as a political football—I deny that—but the fact is that the Government were doing that. I cannot see that there is any certainty about even a clear end goal for our hard-pressed resources, let alone any exit strategy. The Government continue to listen very closely to our US allies, but I do not think that being there for our allies is, in the long term, a justification for continuing the critical overstretch suffered by our troops or for undermining the other operations in which we are engaged.

It was said that we had trained Iraqi forces successfully, but we have delayed our drawdown and continue to be on so-called overwatch duties. As we know, Sunni elements recently surged forward, but in the middle east debate of 1 May the Minister for the Middle East said:

We had more of that from the Secretary of State today and it was very welcome, but I and other hon. Members are concerned that there has been a significant change in British troops’ overwatch activities. Before the end of last year, we were primarily responsible for security in Basra, whereas we are now there in a support role.

I was worried by a newspaper report that a British brigadier had been ejected from meetings between the Iraqi Prime Minister and the Americans, and it is a matter of concern—to this House and to the general public—that we are asking our armed forces to put their lives at risk yet have less and less influence or say over their commitments and activities. When an oral statement was made to the House, various hon. Members shared my disquiet that we were continuing to put our troops at great risk yet had less say over it.

We expected a drawdown of about 1,500 troops, but that has been delayed to help with the current situation. The definition of “overwatch” seems to have broadened considerably from what I at least expected at the outset. Given that what the Government told us last autumn clearly no longer obtains, I hope that Ministers will say what they think our future commitment will be. It is clear that all the hopes and expectations fuelled by the Prime Minister’s announcements of last autumn are now a long way from the Government’s thinking. The public, the armed forces and this House need a much clearer statement of what the Government think our involvement will comprise, both in the foreseeable future and—as it appears will be the case—for many years to come.

In Afghanistan, the battle seems to be going round in a circle. In saying that, I do not intend to criticise our armed forces or Government in any way, but the coalition as a whole seems to lack a clear and overarching strategy. As a matter of fact, from the British point of view there is every indication that the three Departments involved are working together rather better than they did in the past, but the coalition as a whole needs to face up to the lack of an overarching strategy.

I very much regret that Lord Ashdown was unable to take up the special envoy role, but let us hope that the gentleman who has stepped into the role is able to help the Afghan authorities and the coalition as a whole to develop a strategy. The danger is that we could be in a Catch-22 situation. People who have served in Afghanistan tell me that the conflict is in a vicious circle that will be very hard to break: our military objective is to stabilise the country so that reconstruction can take place, but the fact that it is not yet safe enough for that reconstruction is making it more difficult to stabilise the country. I accept that there are no easy solutions. We can win some hearts by erecting bridges and building schools, but minds can be hard to win in a part of the world that has had a very rough 30 years or so. Only if we can get on top of the situation militarily, and stay on top of it, will minds be won over in addition to hearts.

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There is no doubt that this is going to be a very long haul. I am, understandably, being pressed by both other parties about the Liberal Democrats not supporting a long haul in Iraq, but let me make it perfectly clear that we absolutely support the long haul in Afghanistan. We have no choice in the matter, as other Members have said. We went in there for the right reason, which was to prevent the country from being a safe haven for international terrorism, and we have no choice but to see it through and ensure that it does not become so again. It will not be possible for our troops to leave Afghanistan until they can do so absolutely confident that the country has been reconstructed to such an extent that there is no danger of the Taliban re-emerging as the authority and allowing al-Qaeda back.

I echo the words of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) and others—we will not win that battle unless other allies start pulling more weight and other NATO and European countries commit more troops with fewer caveats on their operations and send them into some of the toughest areas where we are most in need of additional feet on the ground. There is no doubt that the shortfalls in troop provision by NATO allies are making this considerably more difficult and much slower, and I fear that the visibly long-term nature of the conflict will begin to erode some of the public support for it in this country. I very much hope not. It is in the interests of everybody in this House to work together to ensure that that is not the case.

We have to start to ask fairly fundamental questions about how our armed forces are configured and about some of the procurement decisions that follow from that. It can still be said that too much of our capability is geared towards state-on-state conflict rather than the ground-level insurgency that is the generation of warfare that we are involved in for the future, although that is not to say that we should ignore or close our minds to the dangers of state-on-state conflict in the medium to long term. It was certainly a premise of the 1988 strategic defence review that we did not face an imminent threat in terms of state-on-state warfare, and that probably remains as true today as it was then. In a fast-changing world, we must take it seriously in the medium to long term, but our armed forces do not seem to be adequately configured for the warfare that we know we will be engaged in for the short to medium term.

Again, there are no easy solutions—no levers that one could quickly flick to change things. However, as I and others have said in the House before, there is now an overwhelming need for another strategic defence review, because the world has changed a great deal in the years since the previous one was carried out. Other countries, notably America, do this far more frequently than we do, and it is overdue. We cannot maintain operations at the current tempo without inflicting real and lasting damage on our capabilities. It cannot be emphasised enough that we need more helicopters. We also need more infantry on the ground and a greater ability to match the tactics of those who are not fighting us in planes or big tanks.

Jim Sheridan: While we are on the subject of helicopters, does the hon. Gentleman agree with me, and with the general public’s perception, rightly or
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wrongly, that helicopters should be used to their full capacity and should not be used by privileged service personnel to visit their girlfriends?

Nick Harvey: I think that there will have been raised eyebrows among the public with regard to certain uses of helicopters recently, but the overwhelming consideration that we all need to face is that more helicopter capacity is urgently needed on the front line, and the Government have to wrestle with some tough decisions to ensure that that need is met.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) acknowledging that there is overstretch rather than simply stretch. The fact that defence planning assumptions have been breached year after year is, in itself, evidence of overstretch. Since the 1998 strategic defence review, one has seen a growing gap between our commitments and our capabilities, both long and short term. The armed forces cannot keep doing more than they have the capability to do—that was the central recommendation of the strategic defence review, and increasingly, in practice, it is being ignored. We have been warned by General Dannatt that our forces are “running hot” and our reserves are not excluded from that strain. Personnel were meant to be at the very core of the 1998 strategic defence review, but a great deal of press attention and prominent military voices highlight the fact that we are still waiting for more improvement to housing, compensation, the way in which inquests are handled, the provision of care and the duty of care. We have even seen coroners weighing into the debate and talking about the failure to provide troops with the protection that they need. We recognise that the Government are taking steps to rectify that, but there is still some way to go to provide what is needed. We look forward to the Government’s introduction of their Command Paper on troop welfare. It was due in the spring. May is still the spring, but June will be summer, so I hope that we will see the paper soon.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Ministry of Defence promised the Defence Committee in May last year that the defence planning assumptions would be reviewed by spring this year? We are still waiting to see that review, and it is important that we should see it.

Nick Harvey: It is important that we should see it, as should the Committee that the right hon. Gentleman chairs. I look forward to seeing it myself. “Spring” has always been quite an elastic term in governmental circles, but it is getting almost as stretched as the armed forces themselves. I hope that all the papers will be at the disposal of the Select Committee for its consideration.

Bob Russell: It is climate change—it is all one big season now.

Nick Harvey: Yes, it might indeed be climate change.

Both recruitment and retention remain essential to our efforts to sustain adequate numbers of boots on the ground, but intake has fallen and outflow has increased. Commonwealth nationals are increasingly being relied upon to fill the gap where British forces are leaving. It is clear that there must be further efforts and
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incentives to put that right. It is notable that many of our allies are succeeding in increasing their troop numbers while the British are struggling to stand their current ground. Iraq and Afghanistan have been costly ventures financially, and although about £10 billion has come out of the urgent operational requirements the Ministry clearly faces a budgetary crisis. It is fair to argue that the marginal costs of those operations are met by urgent operational requirements, but it is not true, as Government spokesmen try to imply, that the total costs are met through the UORs because they are not.

The strain, in human terms and in terms of the life expectancy of some of our equipment, is not to be underestimated. It cannot be denied that a financial situation that was already bad is being made considerably worse. The Government are keen to point out that we have one of the largest defence budgets, pro rata, in the world, but that it is not the whole picture. We know that defence inflation vastly outstrips general inflation and although the Government can quite fairly point to the fact that there are real-terms increases over the next three years, as measured according to the retail prices index, that does not necessarily translate into real terms in the defence sector. The Government face financial difficulty across the board, and no more money will be available during the period that we are considering. Again, that underlines the need to ask some fundamental questions about how to balance our commitments with the resources.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Nick Harvey: I will give way to the Minister. I predict that he will say, as he has previously, that neither we nor the Conservatives have said that we would commit more resources. I readily acknowledge that, but my point is that we know that the available resources are finite, and no party is advocating increasing them, so hard decisions must be made about prioritising and the best use of the resources.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman, unsurprisingly, predicts well. However, why does he raise the issue in that way? Does he suggest that there should be some other sort of inflator for the defence budget over and above the consistent increases in the past 10 years? Would his party or any other commit itself to some other inflator that would lift the defence budget at a faster and higher rate? We are entitled to ask that if he says that the resources are not enough and something must be done.

Nick Harvey: The Minister makes an interesting suggestion. I do not have such an inflator at my fingertips, but if he believes that such a thing could be considered, it would be good for the House to debate it.

The Ministry of Defence is in financial crisis—that is widely understood and commented on. It serves to underline the mismatch between what we are trying to achieve and the available resources. I have already come under fire for my party’s belief that our operations in Iraq should be brought gradually to an end. That cannot be done overnight, but getting one of the major deployments in which we are involved off the balance
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sheet will help. We do not have the right balance between the configuration of our troops and the procurement decisions to back up those troops. I believe that the solution is another fundamental strategic defence review.

If the country, under any political scenario that we can envisage, will not have more resources to commit to defence than we currently have, we must make decisions that get us back into balance. It is not my imagination, that of the Tories or that of the media that the armed forces are overstretched or that the Ministry of Defence is in financial crisis. Anybody who is alert to what is going on can see that both assertions are true. There is therefore a need for a fundamental review and some tough decisions.

The Minister asked whether there was some other inflator. Defence expenditure was 2.4 per cent. of GDP in the last financial year. It has been on a steady downward trend from a high in 1984-85, when the figure was 5.2 per cent. Real-terms increases can be expressed in simple cash terms but, as a proportion of GDP, and in terms of the spending power of the money in the defence budget, expenditure has clearly decreased.

We are waiting for some big procurement decisions. Indeed, the hon. Member for Chorley had an incredible shopping list of items that he awaits with great optimism. If he had written such a list to Santa as a child, he would have been horribly disappointed. However, we are waiting for some crucial decisions. I do not envy Ministers the agonies that they have undergone in recent months when considering what to do, but we fear that more and more projects will be pushed to one side and that there will be salami chopping to make the finances balance. That is not a strategic or sensible way in which to run our nation’s defence.

Mr. Hoyle: Which part of the shopping list would the hon. Gentleman prioritise and which part does he not support?

Bob Russell: Icebreakers.

Nick Harvey: It is fair to say that icebreakers would not be at the top of our shopping list.

We are all keen that the big items should go ahead, but we await some of the decisions with concern. The Navy is understandably keen to receive the go-ahead for aircraft carriers, while the Army is concerned about FRES and will have drawn some encouragement from today’s announcement. There have been press reports that the future Lynx project might be axed. I desperately hope that it will not be, because if by chance that happened, the defence industrial strategy would be more or less dead. Finmeccanica and others around the world would draw the lesson that the strategy was dead and that the MOD was not a partner that anybody would want to link up with.

The Government undoubtedly have some difficult decisions to make. We await the announcements with interest and concern. I hope that we can improve our procurement processes, which have not necessarily been admirable over the decades. For the procurements in question, fundamentally changing how things are done is not feasible at this stage.

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