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I put it to the House that that is clearly fantasy. Since that statement was published, our numbers in Afghanistan have risen and are likely to remain high for the foreseeable future, the draw-down from Iraq has been cancelled, and we have now made the deployment of 2nd Battalion, The Rifles to Kosovo. This is not a phase of reduced commitments, and nor is it likely to become one. The Government are totally detached from reality if they think that we are about to enter such a phase in the short, medium or long term.

The MOD’s development, concept and doctrine centre at Shrivenham has made it clear that global instability is likely to get worse, not better, over the next generation. It forecasts a relative decline in US power, continued weapons proliferation, pressures caused by big demographic changes and population growth, more famine, the effects of climate change, and increasing competition for limited resources such as fresh water, food and energy. Much of that will be concentrated in the most unstable parts of the world. Who is going to deal with these problems if we are stepping back from our role on the world stage?

Future Governments will have to decide what they want the armed forces to be capable of. Will a reformed United Nations step in to fulfil the role? Dream on! And there is certainly no sign of other European nations doing so. Only on Monday, the former German ambassador to the United Kingdom told the Financial Times:

If not Europe, then who? India, perhaps? Or do we want to see China or Russia doing more? I do not think so. The fact is that there are only three major democracies in this world that are prepared to project military power on the world stage. We are one of them, and if we abdicate our role, we will become yet more dependent on the United States, while having less influence over what it does.

The debates that we have in this House on Britain’s defence in the world are likely to become less and less relevant to what is happening in the world, unless we in the House are prepared to commit the resources that our armed forces need to do the job that they do so heroically on our behalf.

5.34 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have six minutes in which to complete my remarks. I am pleased to have this opportunity to contribute to the debate. Defence in the world is one of those topics that could cover anything, and I regard it as including Rosyth, which is in my constituency and which I hope will be the base for the final construction of the aircraft carriers. However, the title of the debate clearly does not include the Scottish National party as, yet again, none of its members are present this afternoon. I do not make that point purely for party political reasons, but one of the important
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responsibilities that that party now has is for veterans in Scotland, and it has been found sadly lacking in that regard.

I want to speak first about Iraq. The situation there has become, if not humiliating, then certainly embarrassing. The various U-turns over recent months have included the Prime Minister’s change of mind about reducing troop numbers there to 2,500. In addition, 26 Mahdi army prisoners were released, only for them to take part in the uprising that took place a few months later. Finally, the Defence Secretary boasted about the training of Iraqi forces, but then had to rely on the Americans to prop us up over the course of that uprising. The Government’s policy is in tatters, and our troops in Iraq deserve better.

I hope that the Minister winding up the debate will tell us what is going to happen next. Will there be another great prediction of when our troops will be withdrawn? My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said that they should be withdrawn over a phased period, and I support that, but I want to hear what the Government have to say.

I turn now to Afghanistan, where the poppy crop is an indicator of our success or failure. In itself, it is not the problem but a symptom: it flourishes when there is a lack of security. I am reminded of the film “Groundhog Day”, as we have gone over the same arguments again and again about creating alternative livelihoods and putting in place the necessary security. I hope that the Minister will tell us what barriers prevent that from happening. I was a member of the Defence Committee, but it was never spelled out to me exactly what needs to be done to break the vicious cycle that has led to an increase in the size of the Helmand poppy crop.

We have not heard much about Pakistan today, although that country has been a great concern over the past few months. What has the Minister to say about the relationship with Pakistan? Is it now playing an even more important role in making sure that extremists do not cross the border with Afghanistan as freely as they have in the past? Has the change of leadership in Pakistan led to greater co-operation with Afghanistan?

Two important developments in disarmament are coming up. First, there are due to be talks on nuclear proliferation in 2010, and I hope that the Prime Minister will make them a top priority. He included them in the security statement that he made only a couple of months ago, but almost as an afterthought. I hope that the talks rise higher in the Government’s list of priorities and that, instead of playing about with numbers, they make it clear that their aim is to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether. That would be a bold ambition, but it is one that needs to be delivered. The Prime Minister should take the lead in the talks, so that other countries realise that Britain regards getting rid of nuclear weapons as a top priority.

The second development in disarmament is that a special conference on cluster munitions will be held at the end of this month, when many countries will come together to talk about possibly ending their use. I do not know whether the Government still hold on to the false differentiation between smart and dumb cluster bombs. I hope that we can get rid of all such differentiations, and realise that cluster bombs of all type should be banned.

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Finally, it would be remiss of me if I did not mention aircraft carriers, as people in Rosyth are very concerned that no decision has yet been taken about the main contracts. The Defence Secretary announced the final go-ahead before last summer’s recess but I am not sure what the point was as, although some minor contracts have been awarded, there has been little progress since.

5.39 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): It is often alleged that this Government have no strategy and are hopeless, adrift and directionless, but there was a time when they did have a strategy, so that criticism is a little unfair. The strategy was very clear—order the carriers, leave Iraq, call a general election—but unfortunately it was sunk without trace by a well-aimed torpedo from my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is partly why the Government find themselves in the difficulties that they face.

As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, today is the 63rd anniversary of Victory in Europe day. At that time, back in 1945, there were some similarities with and many considerable differences from the situation that we face today. Among the similarities was the fact that the country was pretty exhausted and pretty well drained of the resources that were needed to sustain strong military forces. However, one reason why the country was able to take comfort was the fact that it still just about had the remains of an imperial network of bases, so if its interests around the world were threatened it would be able to deploy forces from those bases. As it turned out, with decolonisation that situation did not last very long, but as it also turned out, the main threat that the United Kingdom faced for many years after the victory in 1945 was close at hand—the threat on the continent of Europe. From 1949 onwards, the focus was therefore very much on forces based nearby in friendly countries on the continent of Europe as part of the NATO alliance.

What has happened since the end of the cold war was well encapsulated in the 1998 strategic defence review. Although there is a great deal of consensus that we need once again to review the balance between the commitments and the resources that our armed forces must respectively fulfil and have available, the situation that we faced at the time of the strategic defence review has not changed in one important respect—that if we are to apply military power around the world, and as we no longer have the network of imperial bases that we still had back in 1945, we must be able to project power on to the land from the sea. That was the basis of the concept of the strategic defence review being centred on the provision of two aircraft carriers. There need to be at least two because no ship, however powerful and well designed, can remain continuously at sea.

I want, if I may, to press the Minister to give an answer as a follow-on to the admirably clear answer that he gave me on the question of when the orders might reasonably be expected to be placed. He said:

If that is so, and if the new in-service dates for the carriers—the date for the first one was originally supposed
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to be 2012; now it is 2014—are to be adhered to, and if we have to allow time for the sea trials, which will take at least a year and possibly longer, as in the case of the Type 45 destroyers, as well as time for working up before the ship really joins the fleet, then we are perilously near to the very last opportunity for ordering the carriers if those dates are not to slide off again.

While we are on the subject of the Royal Navy, may I give the Minister an opportunity to put my mind at rest about something disturbing that I read in The Sunday Times? It may be that the MOD has issued a response to it, but if so, I have not seen it. The article was written by Marie Woolf and headed “Pirates can claim UK asylum”. It said:

I tabled questions on that subject to the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office, and in neither case has the reply explicitly made it clear whether that is the position or not. I would like reassurance that if the Royal Navy encounters any murderous brigands on the high seas, it will take the sort of action that the people of this country and seafarers worldwide are entitled to expect.

Let me move on to some of the contributions made in the debate. The Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State focused on Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo, as we might expect, and on future threats. The Secretary of State was mainly concerned about ballistic missile defence and my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) was concerned about the possibility of a re-emergence of Russian offensive activities. We have to be somewhat chagrined to see the handover that took place in Russia recently; it is not quite what we had in mind when we thought that Russia was going down the democratic path.

We need to be well aware of what threats might be, as well as present threats. That leads me to the remarks of the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), some of which I strongly agreed with. In particular, I thought that it was good of him to place it clearly on the record that, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, the Liberal Democrats—I use his words—“absolutely support” the long haul in that country. I was a little uncertain where he stood on the question of withdrawal from Iraq, because he seemed to be saying that we should do it as fast as can be considered safe. I am not sure whether he is referring to safety for the troops in the process of withdrawal, in which case we could get down to the task immediately, or safety for those who would be left behind, in which case there is little difference between him and the other parties in the House. We would all like to see the troops withdrawn, in the knowledge that the time has come when the people left behind—the Iraqis—will be safe.

The hon. Gentleman also said that we do not face an imminent threat of state-on-state warfare. He referred to what he called the warfare of this generation, meaning the counter-insurgency campaigns in which
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we are currently engaged. I have only two minutes left, and I would like to say a little about that thesis, because it is not the first time that I have heard it. I have heard it increasingly from senior people in the Army, and they take the view that because the Army is fighting two significant counter-insurgency campaigns with inadequate resources, we will have to denude the armed forces of their long-term ability to fight in state-versus-state conflicts in order to win the wars in which we are currently engaged.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) put his finger on it when he said that it is a matter of the defence budget. He then said—he is able to say this with the freedom of the Back Benches—that he would like to see the defence budget doubled. I am sure that I would like to see it doubled, too, and I am sure of one other thing: if my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor intends to announce an increase in the defence budget that would be brought in by a Conservative Government, he will do it at an equally lethal moment to that of his last announcement about inheritance tax, and that will not be two years out from a general election.

Our being two years away from power is no excuse for the Government, who are currently in power. There is one thing that they are not doing—adequately resourcing the commitments in which they are engaged. We have heard that time after time, from speaker after speaker, at least on the Opposition Benches. When we get into government, the Conservative party will either put full resources into commitments or not undertake them. It cannot be done both ways. The way the Government are doing it is by fighting current wars on a peacetime defence budget, and that is imperilling the long-term future of our armed forces.

5.50 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I do not have much time to reply to the debate, and I am sure that I will not be able to answer all the questions that have been asked.

Our armed forces are valued and respected throughout the world. They are widely recognised as being among the most capable, the best trained and, despite what is often alleged, the best equipped in the world. As today’s debate showed, many hon. Members have a deep understanding and appreciation of our military. During the time that I have had the privilege of holding my position, there has been a growing understanding and appreciation among the wider public of the demanding and dangerous operations that the military carry out on behalf of the nation.

In Basra, significant developments have taken place. The Iraqi operation in the city has made progress in dealing with the militias and improving security and the rule of law. At the centre of those operations is the Iraqi army 14th Division—the force with which we have been so involved recently. We can take pride in the fact that our assistance, support and training have helped to bring them to the level of capability that they have reached. We must concentrate on completing our training of the 14th Division and provide effective security for the economic regeneration of the port of Umm Qasr and Basra airport, both of which have huge potential.

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In Afghanistan, I was fortunate enough to make an overnight visit to our troops in Musa Qaleh in February, only seven weeks after the town had been taken from the Taliban. Two things were striking. First, it is not only generals and brigadiers who talk about the comprehensive approach; it is understood and practised down through the ranks. The evening operational briefing was not dominated by plans for military effect; it was a case of military people talking in detail about stability, security and development, which they delivered on a daily basis. That is why progress has occurred in places such as Sangin and Musa Qaleh. Secondly, those on the front line, living in the most austere conditions, displayed the highest morale. They are using their skills, training and equipment for hard soldiering and they take a genuine pride in what they do.

We are involved in many other areas, including Sierra Leone, Kosovo, the Falkland Islands, Colombia and the Caribbean. We are a force for good wherever we are helping, whether with post-conflict stabilisation, conflict prevention, human rights training or drug interdiction. As the Secretary of State said in opening the debate, all that activity is aimed at shaping the international environment to protect our country, defend our interests and promote our values.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) asked me several questions specifically about Kosovo. He asked about the length of the liability. The request is for a month, as reported to the House. Nobody has tried to hide the fact that the time can be extended, and we have the responsibility until the end of July and the start of August to continue that provision. We are not volunteering for it, and we have shared it with other nations. The Germans recently fulfilled a commitment there and the Italians have done so in the past. It is a relatively short-term commitment—I hope only a month, but it can be extended till the start of August.

However, I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman said—and I quote him—that if we have this commitment to NATO, we must honour it, but then said, effectively, that when we knew that the commitment was going to be called upon, we should surely have found ways and means of getting out of it. I am awfully glad that he is not an ally of mine and that I do not have to be in a trench alongside him, if that is how he honours commitments of the sort he referred to, at least when he started his sentence.

Equally astonishing was the hon. Gentleman’s comment about southern Afghanistan. He said that if we had to fight to the last man, it would be to the last Briton, American and Canadian. The Danes, from a small country with a small commitment, have lost 14 people in Afghanistan and the Dutch are the lead nation in Oruzgan, along with the Canadians. The hon. Gentleman is the most extraordinary coalition-builder, going round making such comments. It is a good job that he does not work for the diplomatic service. However, we are making progress in both our main theatres of operation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) mentioned the Territorial Army. He spends an awful lot of time with the TA and I know that he is intimately involved with it. We have started the reserve review. It is not a finance-led review, but it will be difficult to square the need to provide deployable skills and get the most out of our reserves with the need to make an attractive offer to people who, at the end of the day, are volunteers.
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I know that my hon. Friend will understand fully the tensions involved in trying to strike that balance.

My hon. Friend welcomed the £24 million that we recently invested in Headley Court. It is a world-class treatment centre already, but the infrastructure needs further development, so the investment is needed. He also asked about accommodation. The Department has invested significantly in accommodation in recent years. We plan to spend more than £8 billion in the next decade, of which more than £3 billion will go on improving and upgrading accommodation. Nearly 13,000 service family accommodation properties have been upgraded to the top standard of condition since 2001, with 600 more properties to be upgraded this financial year and 800 each year thereafter.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) raised, among other issues, both the fact that the Scottish Parliament has just assumed responsibility for veterans and the recent contribution that it has made. He should not be so churlish about that; indeed, we should welcome the contribution. There is a well known phrase, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned to me when he heard about the contribution, that is appropriate in this context: every little helps. We ought to welcome that contribution in that spirit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) continued to raise his concerns about the establishment of the super-garrison, the future of Beacon barracks and the other armed forces commitments in the Stafford area. We are committed to the establishment of super- garrisons and convinced that the west midlands is a good location for one. If we can get there as soon as we can, we will do precisely that. I am certain that Stafford will play an important part in the development of any super-garrison. I will remain closely involved with the Borona project and will try to keep my hon. Friend as engaged as I can.

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