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There should have been no shortage of helicopters for our troops. Off-the-shelf medium helicopters could have been readily purchased but, as always, the crunch point is crew availability, because it comes down to hours per machine usage. If two or three crews are available, our aircraft can operate round the clock if necessary, whereas flying hours are severely limited
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when only one crew is available. That point was made forcefully by my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who also made an excellent point about volunteer reservists. It will not have escaped the notice of the House that the United States uses a tremendous number of pilot reservists in Afghanistan, and I cannot understand why we cannot train more in this country and think out of the box in order to help to provide the cover that is so desperately needed there.

Afghanistan has been a tremendous proving ground for equipment—it finds every weakness—but hard-won experience there has resulted in very different, but impressively more effective armed forces. It has, thankfully, changed the concept of the future rapid effect system in the nick of time, but I trust that the Secretary of State will not allow slippage back to the mistaken concept of blast absorption for mine and improvised explosive device protection to the now established and proven concept of blast deflection.

What has been proved to be highly successful in Iraq and in Afghanistan is the training of their respective national armies. The British Army mentoring teams have a tremendous track record of leadership on the ground, giving direction and training locals in the use of mutually compatible equipment. However, these newly established armies lack air power. That emphasises the need to use less sophisticated air craft in order that air power can be established in a similar way to the progress that has been established on the ground. Unless this simple “ownership” of defence expertise is acquired by these fledgling forces, the UK military will find itself overseas for ever, giving constant back-up and acting in a supporting role.

In Afghanistan, one of the greatest fears is that reconstruction work may fail in its aims and that, after their military success, UK forces may be dragged into a long, impossible, deteriorating holding situation. There is the problem of a weak central Government holding back provincial government advancement and success, with far too many UK and European Union organisations initiating, and supposedly supervising, aid. The idea put forward earlier that the armed services might play an enhanced role in reconstruction should appropriate funds be diverted to them has considerable merit. After all, the Kajaki dam project could never have been achieved without the military and, although schools and health care are vitally important, infrastructure is essential for the creation of wealth in order to support welfare projects. Otherwise, Afghanistan, like other difficult areas of the world, will become dependent on aid. That would in turn create a breeding ground for corruption and insurgency. We run the danger of going back full circle to where we started, and by allowing instability to develop further in hot spots, we fail the interests and defence of the United Kingdom and its people.

5.29 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I would like to put on record my tribute to the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne). He was professional, courteous and honourable in all my dealings with him, and I am sorry to see him go. At the same time, I congratulate the new
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Secretary of State and I welcome the two new Ministers to the Front Bench. I would like to put on record my salute to the courage and bravery of all those in our armed forces who lost their lives over the recess period in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I pay tribute to the Royal Irish Regiment, which is returning to Shropshire, as the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) reminded us, the Royal Military Police, who returned home some months ago, other constituents who serve in the Territorial Army, and reserves in other services and regular units.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) said, one of the best speeches that we have heard on defence in this place came from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) today. I was going to set out my thoughts on the global context, although I think that I will run out of time. One cannot have a debate about UK defence without looking at the global context, defence alliances, which the hon. Gentleman touched on, or defence equipment.

On the question of defence equipment, one of the greatest foreign policy challenges before us is that of failed states, rogue states or states that are infiltrated by terrorist organisations and radical groups. One country is causing particular concern: I heard a foreign policy expert speak recently on Iran. I hope that Iran and President Ahmadinejad will review their position with regard to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the international community, and that they will allow monitors back in to examine the so-called civilian nuclear programme and the so-called civilian space programme so that the current impasse with that country can be dealt with diplomatically rather than in any other way.

On how that situation may be dealt with, there are only two options if the diplomatic and peaceful route does not proceed as we all want it to. First, we have conventional intervention, which is quite unthinkable, whether it is possible or not—and who would be involved? Secondly, there is nuclear intervention, and of course, no one endorses or wants to see that. However, we have a difficulty from the point of view of geopolitical strategy and that of stability. We do not have the needed flexibility in our current defence equipment. Our military commanders do not currently have certain options available to them and in the future they might need to consider other means to deal with a threat.

If we are unable to use the conventional or nuclear option, what other options are there if diplomacy fails? During the debate on Trident last year, I mentioned hypersonic mass technology. As the hon. Gentleman said, we need to look again at defence equipment and at whether it matches the threats faced by our country and the NATO alliance. I hope that the Government will work closely with the American Administration and the great state of Alabama, which are developing conventional intercontinental ballistic missiles. These missiles are non-nuclear, but they have a far bigger and more powerful punch than any conventional missiles at the moment. Tomahawk missiles and cruise missiles would not be effective enough to deal with the threats in some parts of the world today, which is why we need to ensure that Britain is in the vanguard of developing such weapons. They are not fully developed at the moment, but they could come on-stream in two or three years. They can strike at any target within two hours, launched either from a submarine or a land site. I hope that the Government
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will consider such technology, and that the new Ministers will take a fresh look at whether we have the weapons to deal with current threats. They would cost fewer lives and less money than sending in a conventional army, or the use of nuclear weapons, which is completely unacceptable in my view.

Given the time, I will allow those on the Front Bench to conclude.

5.34 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Before Front Benchers are given that opportunity, let me try to make the four points that I wanted to raise. The first concerns the reshuffle. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on the merits of the outgoing Secretary of State. I regret his passing and I do not believe that the Prime Minister has done the Department a favour. The Government will hit the electoral buffers in 18 months and the entire Department is engaged in the process of getting a new Secretary of State up to speed. By all accounts from those whom I know who ran across him, the outgoing Secretary of State was respected and liked in the Department. The new Secretary of State is as talented as the previous one, and we now know that the previous Secretary of State shares the Prime Minister’s warm appreciation, which his successor has on record. That brings me to the rest of the reshuffle.

We now have 25 per cent. more Ministers. That means another ministerial salary and salaries for more ministerial staff. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), shakes his head. Is someone among the Ministers not taking a salary? That would be interesting. However, the increase in Ministers requires the involvement of many civil servants in administration. We all enjoy seeing our old friends and colleagues get on and succeed in Government jobs and, in that sense, it is nice to see the hon. Gentleman taking up his new responsibilities. He has a long involvement in defence dating back to before his election to the House. I think that I first ran across him in 1993 in the Swan Hunter shipyard.

I believe that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) mentioned the possibility of huge savings in the naval budget, and it struck me that we were in interesting times. I had an exchange with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) about what happened to the budget in 1988. I envisage a particular role for the hon. Member for North Durham as a trusty of the new regime to ensure that defence is not squeezed in what will undoubtedly prove to be a fierce battle between Departments about priorities in the coming disaster that is overtaking Government finances because of the economic situation and the Government’s management of it until now. That battle must be won. If the world experiences the economic conditions that everybody now expects, enormous instability is a likely consequence some years down the line. The crash of 1929 was followed by our being engulfed in the second world war and one can perceive the link between the events. Despite all the pressures on the Government’s finances, now is not the time not to invest in the United Kingdom’s security.

On Afghanistan, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) was slightly unfair on Brigadier Carleton-Smith. I have known him for a long
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time—since university—and I believe that he knew exactly what he was doing when he spoke to the press. I do not think that the press should be blamed for the interpretation placed on his remarks. My hon. Friend was correct to say that they lay precisely within the bounds of military orthodoxy but that there had been a change of emphasis, accompanied by the reported remarks of Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles from Afghanistan. It is important to review what is happening in Afghanistan and I believe that there has been an outbreak of public good sense from those two fantastic servants of the United Kingdom in their respective roles.

Dr. Lewis rose—

Mr. Blunt: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall not give way because I have one more minute in which I want to make one more point, which concerns the Gurkhas.

Everyone in the United Kingdom feels warmly towards and has a soft spot for the Gurkhas because of their contribution to this country. Many will have welcomed their court victory the other day, but I just offer a note of caution on that. That victory may turn out to be pyrrhic. We need to remember that the Gurkhas’ contribution was based on their terms of service with the United Kingdom. They therefore produced soldiers for the United Kingdom who were adapted to a specific, rather more limited role than English or other British infantrymen would be used for, in the regiments of the Brigade of Gurkhas. Gurkhas of course came cheaply, too. Their conditions of service meant that they did not carry the same pension or other liabilities of other British servicemen.

I see that the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) is still in his place. In the 1991 defence review, the Staffordshire Regiment and the Cheshire Regiment were going to be amalgamated, in order to keep a Gurkha battalion in the line of battle of the British Army.

Gurkhas will now be remunerated on exactly the same basis as other line infantrymen. They will come with an overhead to sustain an organisation in Nepal, in order to keep them in place, as well as an additional overhead to the United Kingdom in the costs involved in their families having the right come here. I fear that the victory that the Gurkhas have won may be pyrrhic, when we look at all the costs and the alternatives.

5.41 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): As is usual on these occasions, we have had an extremely well- informed debate, with some very interesting contributions. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) that it is disappointing that the House has not had more opportunity to hear some learned contributions. It is also disappointing that the press do not take more interest in reporting what we discuss here, but we all know that they are much more interested in the trivialities of what goes on here than in much of the substance.

Like my hon. Friends, I pay tribute to the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne). He initially arrived with no knowledge of defence and with the impediment of being a human rights lawyer, but he learnt hugely in the
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post. We all found him most congenial to deal with and we are disappointed that he has gone. He learnt in the post, and he made many friends in the Ministry of Defence and among our armed forces, as he became more knowledgeable and understanding. However, the Prime Minister imposed upon him the impossible task of performing the Secretary of State’s duties part time, having given him the duties of the Secretary of State for Scotland, too.

The hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) also served the House well, as well as veterans’ interests. He did a good job in that area and the Government can claim to have achieved some success, not least in the creation of a veterans’ badge, as the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) said, which we have all had the opportunity to give to our constituents.

I welcome the new Ministers, although I am perhaps not as charitable as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) pointed out, there are now four Ministers on the Front Bench. That is a 33 per cent. increase, and I am sure that the armed forces would welcome a 33 per cent. increase from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, although that is unlikely at present.

The reason why there are now four Ministers is that the Government have realised that they have been outdone by us. We have four spokesmen and they have had to match the formidable firepower from the Conservative Benches. The Government are going to need every bit of firepower that they have between now and the next general election, when we come storming back to victory.

As has been pointed out, apart from the Minister for the Armed Forces, the rest of the ministerial team are rookies, leaving him, a 12-month server, as the longest-serving Minister. There are challenges that those on the Front Bench will have to contend with, not least the Secretary of State, who will have to do some explaining, given what he told the House in December 1997:

We all look forward to seeing how he will justify the slashing of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet, from the 32 frigates and destroyers in the SDR to the present 22. Apart from the huge increase in our commitments, what has changed to justify that reduction in the Royal Navy?

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and I are old friends and sparring partners on the Defence Committee, and I look forward to his doing something for me. He very kindly gave me an Afghan hat when he came back from Afghanistan, which I have worn, although not publicly. When I came back from Tunisia earlier this year I gave him a red fez, on condition that he was to wear it at the next meeting of his constituency Labour party. I look forward to seeing a photograph of him so clothed.

The hon. Gentleman has now signed up to the unenviable task of answering the innumerable criticisms of the Defence Committee, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). He is going to have to explain them to
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the House and to the public or, alternatively—as has been suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate—fight jolly hard within the Department for the things that he fought for when he was a member of the Committee. The hon. Gentleman enjoys a reputation for having subjected MOD witnesses to severe dressings down, and they will no doubt be thrilled to have him as their Minister now. I can hear the orders for the Château Lafite being given in officers’ messes across the land, and I am sure that he will get just as warm a welcome in the sergeants’ messes. He needs to start eating some humble pie before he tucks in in the officers’ mess.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), having ratted, cannot expect us all to be as charitable to him as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East was. It is entirely true that our researchers are not even working overtime, because there is such a deep seam of his past quotes to mine. I shall content myself with producing only one of them. A few years ago, he said:

I think that the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) almost agreed with that latter point.

We have had a good debate today. In the time available to me, I cannot go through all the contributions that have been made, but I shall single out one or two.

It is good to see that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) has been unleashed from her Trappist vows and is now giving vent to freedom of expression, which, as a Whip, she would not have tolerated. She said that the Conservatives were not supportive of the United Kingdom defence industry, but that is not true. We are extremely supportive of it, and I refer her to my speech on defence procurement in the House on 19 June.

The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) referred to the budget black hole, and he was absolutely right. That is going to be a problem with which Ministers will have to contend. They are going to have to explain how £500 billion can be found for the banks, when a couple of billion pounds cannot be found for the hard-pressed defence forces of this country. The public certainly want to know the answer to that question.

There is much mention to be made of the contribution of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). What he said was absolutely right. He participated in the strategic defence review negotiations, and the House will undoubtedly have enjoyed his mini-review today. We shall want to study it in more detail.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire, who does a marvellous job commanding the Defence Select Committee, referred to the report on recruitment and retention, and I want to refer briefly to it as well, if I have time. He also said that we need a strong defence industry and strong defence exports. I entirely agree with him about that.

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